Many commentators have speculated on the intent of Chinese foreign policy in the 21st Century. Some, like Robert Kaplan, argue that Chinese irredentism will define their long term goals for decades to come. Others say that China has rather innocuous intentions for its role in Asia. However, the primary concern for Chinese policy makers in the near future will be ensuring domestic harmony is maintained. Increasing instability in Xinjiang, pro-democracy demonstrations, frustration with corruption, access to the internet, and the threat of economic stagnation all loom ominously over China. Such challenges have prompted a balancing act by Chinese leaders to reform its political and economic institutions while simultaneously ensuring that the power of China's Communist Party is retained. The Third Plenum, which occurred last fall, outlined China's reformation strategy. First, leaders have reduced the role of government in certain areas of the economy. Namely, resource allocation is being placed in the hands of the free market. Secondly, the central government has begun to identify and prosecute corrupt officials across all levels of government (which has somewhat ironically reduced their recruitment pool). Yet for all the unprecedented levels of "hands off" policies and officials indicted with corruption charges, a much more sinister element is playing into China's internal security strategy. While officials recognize the need to relieve pressure in some areas, they also intend to couple their PR strategies with more empowered internal security structures. Through a multifaceted approach, PRC leaders are centralizing and normalizing institutional procedures to cope with the threat networks pose to hierarchical structures in an informationalized age.
Shoring up borders
The past year has seen increased activity in a "problem zone" for Chinese leaders: Xinjiang. The province is the epitome of social dissonance. On one hand, you have the hordes of Han Chinese sent in by Communist leaders to pacify the province through demographic superiority. On the other, there exists a proudly defiant Uyghur population which tightly holds onto religious, cultural and political beliefs despite decades of Chinese occupation. Two completely opposite sides to an ever important province for
the Chinese government. Unlike their Tibetian counterparts, Uyghur dissidents have taken it upon themselves to use violence upon China as opposed to "passive" resistance. Thus far, their measures have largely been relegated to knife attacks against train stations. However, a car bomb that exploded in Tiananmen Square last October was attributed to Uyghur terrorists by the Chinese government.
Increasingly, China has become worried about Uyghurs flowing through the Chinese-Pakistani border. Uyghur terrorist organizations such as the Eastern Turkmenistan Islamic Movement are often based in Pakistan, but remain committed to independence from the auspices of China. Much to the frustration of Chinese officials, Pakistan's commitment to the Sino-Pakistani counterterrorism relationship has been similar to its partnership with America. Half-heartedly, Pakistan conducts token raids against terrorist groups identified by Chinese intelligence operations. Oftentimes, Chinese policymakers run into issues with Pakistan alerting groups before raids occur. So despite internal policing in Xinjiang, Uyghur insurgents still flow through borders along Pakistan, necessitating increased focus on pacifying the province.
However, while Pakistan is the primary hub for Uyghur insurgents, the small border shared between China and Afghanistan is also becoming increasingly important to Chinese leaders. The Wakhan Corridor connecting the two nations is largely inhospitable, making border control difficult. Hence, China's stake in Afghanistan's post-2014 future. While America's Asian presence has typically been construed by analysts as a challenge to Chinese interests, a small troop presence left by the United States as laid out by the Bilateral Security Agreement would ultimately benefit stability in Xinjiang. Therein lies China's impetus for participating in negotiations between American and Afghan leaders. Continued US commitment to security in Afghanistan would act as a buffer between Xinjiang-bound insurgents seeking to traverse the Tajikistan-Afghan border in order to reach the Wakhan and China. Given Afghanistan's importance to Chinese security, it would not be surprising if China attempted to partially fill the void if American forces withdrew. Not only because a crumbling Afghan government would lack the capability to secure the Wakhan corridor, but because another power may fill the void in place of China. Both Pakistan and India would facilitate or ignore insurgency groups hostile to Chinese rule in Xinjiang. While measures implemented by China would not include the deployment of combat forces, a growth in intelligence sharing, arms sales, and financial aid could occur. Beijing's primary goal would be to draw Afghanistan into its own sphere of influence, as opposed to either India's or Pakistan's.
Kyrgyzstan also plays an important role in Chinese border control strategy. Most recently, Kyrgyzstan undertook an operation which resulted in the deaths of 11 Uyghur militants. The numerous pipelines traveling through Kyrgyzstan and China, which traverse Xinjiang, underwrites the necessity for cooperation between both nations. Oil and natural gas infrastructure could be targeted by militants if an insurgency was allowed to grow, undermining both nation's economic well being.
Cracking Skulls, Taking Names
In order to quell unrest, China has launched a massive crackdown within Xinjiang. Details are still coming out of the woodwork, which are few and far between due to heavy restrictions China places on media access to the region, but so far it appears as if the Uyghur population has suffered heavily under Chinese policing. Ramadan, for example, has been banned by Chinese politicians in Xinjiang. Students at Kashgar Normal University were forced to eat lunch with their professors and kept in class until they drank 1/4 of a water bottle. Some initiatives have even been framed with positive titles. 'Project Beauty' literally sends out gun-toting 'fashion' police officers to man check points and detain women whose dress is too Islamic. The heavy handedness of China's policies has reinforced its image as a colonizer, as opposed to an inclusive government seeking to cooperate with Uyghur concerns. The resulting negation of Chinese propaganda efforts has led to an ideological defeat for China. Like many repressive strategies, the utilization of security instruments against indigenous populations without broad societal engagement has served to increase tensions.
However, because governments adjacent to Xinjiang have very little sympathy for the Uyghur cause, a large insurgency has been unable to develop. Even Pakistan, which shelters many groups, has showed little interest in truly provoking Chinese leaders by heavily supplying Uyghur militants. This could be one reason why many terrorist attacks only feature knives, militant groups lack sufficient armaments to launch military attacks against well-equipped Chinese paramilitary forces. The risk of losing any weapons is too high compared to the gain, so knives are used instead. The lack of weapons Kyrgyz forces found on Uyghur militants underscores this possibility. Following the end of combat, soldiers found that only one member had a weapon. If this is the case, then aforementioned border control and isolation strategies by China are likely working.
Alternatively, much of the unrest could be spontaneous riots that occur from rapidly forming and horizontally-structured groups angered by restrictive rules regarding religion. In other words, hierarchical terrorist organizations such as the Eastern Turkmenistan Islamic Movement are not responsible for the majority of attacks. However, Nuramet Sumet, the mastermind behind the recent Elixku Township attack, did have connections with ETIM. Therefore, it's very possible that terrorist groups are at the very least fomenting, if not planning, these attacks. So far, I'm more inclined to believe that unrest in Xinjiang is primarily caused by preexisting organizations taking advantage of tensions as opposed to unorganized rioters.
Outside of hostility in Xinjiang, China still has to contend with other forces within its borders. CCTV cameras cover almost every inch of public life in cities. Demonstrations are quickly suppressed, with police officers promptly whisking protesters away to detainment facilities in armored cars. Though state television frequently likes to divert focus on foreign threats such as the United States and Japan, much of it is smokescreen to maintain nationalism. Chinese leaders are cognizant of their nation's history. As Henry Kissinger points out in On China, Chinese history is cyclical. A central authority claims the 'mandate from heaven' and rules for a period of time, but ultimately collapses as internal dissatisfaction with the reigning entity grows. After a period of disunity, a different authority rises to unify the country.
Historically, China's greatest enemy is itself. Chinese citizens expect their government to reflect the exceptional nature of their culture*. If it fails to fulfill that, then the right to govern is subsequently revoked. The creation of a National Security Council, which is focused primarily on internal security, best reflects the ongoing efforts of leaders to centralize and increase the ability of the government to police its population. With economic growth slowing and an increasing housing bubble becoming more apparent, Chinese leaders have steadily increased internal security expenditures in order to deal with potential uprisings, protests, or revolutions which may occur in times of hardship.
The Great Wall of China--Internet Edition
Information is power. As General Mattis once remarked, an individual with education is even more dangerous than a Marine and his rifle (Blasphemy against the Corps?) Like the Pentagon, China has kept a close eye on unfolding instability in the Arab world. While causes of the Arab Spring are certainly not mypotic, widespread dissemination of information played a crucial role in fomenting and organizing unrest. As such, China has taken to tightening the rope around internet access. Internet rumors spread across popular social media sites like Weibo have been met with arrests, for example. Meanwhile, China has begun implementing stricter rules regarding apps in order to curb 'terrorism.' Notice, however, that these policies are not just applied to Xinjiang, but all of China. There is a present concern that volatility could spread across the nation, with social media tools acting as a force multiplier for divergent political thought. So called efforts to diminish "cultural pollution" effectively ban foreign dramas and TV shows--which may carry explicit or implicit political messages which contradict the Communist Party.
The "Great Firewall of China" (aka Golden Shield Project) enables Chinese leaders to manipulate the flow of information within the country. For example, a citizen searching "democracy" would likely run into cute characters telling them that they shouldn't be thinking about such crazy notions or simply a page with no results shown. Of course, bypassing the wall is certainly possible. Internet users can utilize Tor obfsproxy bundles in conjunction with private obfsproxies, though the Golden Shield actively seeks out the TLS fingerprints of Tor's proxy servers in order to shut them down. Alternatives include the use of steganography, packet fragmentation, and various proxy programs. However, regardless of circumvention methods, the government has succeeded in denying access to restricted materials for the majority of its citizens.
Though undergoing reforms to its political and economic policies, internal security mechanisms are being strengthened in order to deal with widespread or isolated incidents of unrest as they pop up. Border control, internal policing capability, and information restriction are all being used as tools to ensure that the state's control is not challenged in the near future.
*Chinese and American culture are quite similar in that both claim to be exceptional. The primary difference is that China tends to internalize its exceptionalism, whereas America actively exports it. Hence, the disparate foreign policies of our two nations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.