New Xinjiang Military Appointment Underscores Fragility of Central Asia Security

By Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Freelance Reporter
Andrew Thornebrooke is a freelance reporter covering China-related issues with a focus on defense and security. He holds a MA in military history from Norwich University and authors the newsletter Quixote Hyperdrive.
August 17, 2021 Updated: August 17, 2021

News Analysis

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) appointment of a new top military commander for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) could result in further unrest along the nation’s westernmost border, according to experts.

The CCP appointed Lieutenant General Wang Haijiang as the new military commander for Xinjiang, which borders the volatile regions of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Importantly, Wang’s appointment comes at a time of heightened tension and instability as the CCP attempts to navigate its relationship with a resurgent Taliban-led Afghanistan.

Dru Gladney, professor and chair of Anthropology at Pomona College, expressed concern that the appointment of Wang to Xinjiang could spell trouble for the Muslim minority in the region given his previous experience assisting Party official Chen Quanguo in the suppression of Tibet.

Chen, the current Party chief in Xinjiang, previously served as the CCP’s regional head in Tibet. He was the architect of numerous repressive policies, including the infamous “double-linked household” management system in Tibet and the so-called Uyghur “re-education” camps, Gladney said.

The CCP has detained more than one million Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, where they are subjected to torture, forced labor, and political indoctrination. Chen was sanctioned by the United States last year for human rights abuses in the region, the highest-ranking member of the CCP to be penalized thus far.

xinjiang china
Security guards stand at the gates of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Huocheng County in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, on Sept. 3, 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

A History of Repression

Gladney, who spent the last four decades researching China’s Muslim minority communities, and who has extensively traveled Xinjiang and Central Asia before being blacklisted by the CCP as a pro-Uyghur scholar in the early 2000’s, believes that Wang’s appointment will ensure a continuation of Chen’s harsh anti-Uyghur measures and a further hardening of China’s western border.

“Chen Quanguo was successful from a Chinese [CCP] viewpoint in really consolidating power and authority,” Gladney said. “It was very restive in Tibet until he arrived in 2011. In 2016, when he came to Xinjiang, he brought a lot of these similar ideas.”

“Bringing in Wang Haijiang I think really reflects China’s concern about the restive regions around Xinjiang,” Gladney said. “Particularly Afghanistan now, with the withdrawal of the United States. It’s something that they’ve telegraphed, and China has always been worried about that border.”

The westernmost areas of Xinjiang share vast and desolate border areas with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Though the mountainous terrain makes it quite easy for the CCP to control major entryways to the country, the difficult topography means that there is always some porousness and a risk of infiltration by insurgents, particularly jihadis seeking to liberate the Uyghur homeland from the CCP. Further, the presence of Russian military elements in Tajikistan and radical Taliban elements in northeastern Afghanistan add a constant source of potential friction with China’s neighbors.

Frank Lehberger, senior research fellow at the India-based security-focused Usanas Foundation, also told The Epoch Times that Wang’s history in Tibet would likely inform the CCP’s strategy in Xinjiang, particularly regarding the mountainous border with Afghanistan.

“In the military domain, Wang learned some valuable lessons in his capacity as deputy-commander of the Tibet Military District,” Lehberger said. “He was stationed on the contested Chinese border with India and Bhutan between 2016 and 2019. The lessons he learned then will now surely be applied in the XUAR at the Sino-Afghan border.”

Lehberger noted that Wang published several papers from his time in the Tibet Autonomous Region on the subject of training and fighting in mountainous regions and the types of defense structures to be used in such combat. Further, he said that Wang was commended for successfully coordinating the construction of high-altitude roads in border settlements in Doklam, a remote stretch of the Himalayas claimed by both China and Bhutan, which allowed the CCP to field troops in the area through the winter for the first time.

For effectively establishing the CCP’s permanent presence in the region, Wang was promoted to lieutenant general and made a delegate to the 13th National People’s Congress in 2017, the regime’s rubber-stamp legislature.

Lehberger also highlighted that Wang was something of a rarity among the CCP elite due to the fact that he had combat experience going back to China’s 1979 war with Vietnam.

Epoch Times Photo
This photo taken on Jan. 4, 2021 shows Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers taking part in military training at Pamir Mountains in Kashgar, northwestern China’s Xinjiang region. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite Wang’s military expertise, however, Gladney and Lehberger highlighted that long-running human rights abuses in Xinjiang could ultimately undermine the CCP’s security efforts, as anti-Muslim policies and the rise of a near-total surveillance state in the region continue to drive Uyghurs and other minority groups away from acceptance of state authority and towards an embrace of radicalism.

Lehberger spoke to how the CCP has fostered increased antipathy from its Muslim population in recent years.

“During the last years, the Chinese regime has perfected a repressive apparatus and a catalogue of measures that are tailor-made for ethnic and Muslim minorities in the XUAR,” Lehberger said, “like forcing Muslim men to shave their beards and everyone to eat pork at daytime during the holy month of Ramadan.”

For Gladney, the biggest change in the security practices of the region, and the most profound way that the CCP has alienated the native Uyghurs, relates to how the CCP has implemented an immense array of surveillance technologies in Xinjiang’s population centers.

“What changed in Xinjiang I think was the rise in technology,” Gladney said. “Particularly digital surveillance technologies that Chen Quanguo managed to import, a lot of it from throughout the United States, Silicon Valley, and deploy to a level that nobody had ever imagined.”

Epoch Times Photo
The Jieleixi No.13 village mosque with slogans “Love the [Chinese Communist] Party, Love China,” in Yangisar, south of Kashgar, in China’s western Xinjiang region on June 4, 2019. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)
Gladney explained that CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping adopted an authoritarian approach for suppressing Muslim minorities in China following a 2014 bombing in Xinjiang that coincided with his visit to the region.

Following the incident, the CCP drastically centralized its authority and oversight over the everyday lives of the Uyghurs and others in the region.

“Terrorism made him [Xi] sort of support a radical crackdown,” Gladney said. “That’s when he brought in Chen Quanguo and now Chen Quanguo has brought in Wang Haijiang.”

Gladney believes that it is important, however, to note that Xi is not the only one responsible for the increasing authoritarianism in China, nor for the persecution of the Uyghurs, which numerous countries have now called a genocide. To that end, he noted the popularity of Wang within the highest and innermost circles of the CCP.

“All these decisions are not made alone,” Gladney added. “They’re made by complete support of the Party’s Central Committee, and recently Wang Haijiang had attended the Party Planning Commission Meetings in Beijing.”

Central Asia a ‘Pressure Cooker’

For now, Wang and Xinjiang are likely to be front and center in the CCP’s efforts to expand its influence and secure the Chinese interior. Feats that will be more fraught with peril than before following the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Sam Kessler, a geopolitical advisor for North Star Support Group, outlined the fragility of the CCP’s relationship with the Taliban, and how that fragility could lead to conflict in the region.

“The truce between the CCP and the Taliban is a very tricky one for Beijing,” Kessler said. “There’s indications that they are going to recognize them as a more legitimate state actor but, at the same time, the Taliban still has ties to a lot of jihadist groups.”

Kessler explained that the CCP-Taliban relationship could falter or collapse if their current alignment against the United States shifted, and that such a break could ultimately lead to an even larger crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang or endemic conflict in central Asia. The Chinese regime had recently received assurances from the Taliban that it wouldn’t harbor Islamic extremists that might launch attacks into Xinjiang. If this were to fall through, Beijing would likely double down on its repressive policies in the region.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan’s Taliban, in Tianjin, China on July 28, 2021. (Li Ran/Xinhua via Reuters)

Gladney too, expressed that a reactionary move to Islamic extremism that did not previously exist was being exacerbated by the CCP’s continued rights abuses against the Uyghurs. This is particularly true among the Uyghur diaspora, according to Gladney, who are increasingly looking to radical Islam as a means of liberating the Uyghurs they consider to be trapped in Xinjiang.

“China wants to make the Uyghurs more ‘Sinicized’, as Xi Jinping has said,” Gladney said. “This is probably driving them more strongly away from Chinese rule and building a great amount of resentment and anger, particularly in the diaspora.”

“Most of the violence and resentment was not inspired by radical Islam, or even independence. It was mostly inspired by a desire for greater human rights, greater freedom of expression,” Gladney added. “It drives these Uyghurs, who were not originally motivated by radical Islam or jihad, into the arms of those who are,” Gladney said.

In all, Gladney, Kessler and Lehberger agreed that the rising threat of extremism and unfolding events in Afghanistan meant that the likelihood of catastrophic violence in the region was increasing and, with it, the importance of Wang’s appointment in Xinjiang.

“I think it’s only a matter of time,” Gladney said. “Particularly in the diaspora, there’s many recent calls among the Uyghurs for violence, for independence. There’s been money flowing toward some of the more radical groups in central Asia, Turkey and south Asia.”

“This is like a pressure cooker situation. The more and more they [the CCP] tighten it, the more explosive will be the response.” Gladney added.

“I fear, with the fall of Kabul imminent, that the whole security situation is getting worse and for all involved,” Lehberger said.

“The situation with the U.S. and China, as well as Russia and Pakistan, it seems like it’s going to be very difficult to navigate from a diplomatic perspective without getting any bloodshed,” Kessler said. “It runs the risk of major conflict.”

Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Freelance Reporter
Andrew Thornebrooke is a freelance reporter covering China-related issues with a focus on defense and security. He holds a MA in military history from Norwich University and authors the newsletter Quixote Hyperdrive.