Appointment hints at focus on conciliation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 April, 2010, 12:00am

The reshuffle of the top leadership in Xinjiang has come both as a surprise and no surprise. The removal of Wang Lequan, known as the 'Emperor of Xinjiang' for his iron-fisted rule and for his fiery rhetoric, has been well expected following the deadly ethnic violence last July, which left nearly 200 dead, and the hypodermic needle attack scares in September.

The choice of his successor, Zhang Chunxian, is surprising because of his liberal-minded outlook and populist style.

Of course, that has raised high expectations that the mainland leaders intend to put a softer side on policies towards ethnic minorities, mostly Muslim Uygurs. While that may be true, any hope that the central government may, for instance, allow more autonomy or religious freedom may prove premature.

Wang, 66, had worked in Xinjiang as a leading official for nearly 20 years and was the top Communist Party boss for 15 years. Some overseas media have described him as an ally of President Hu Jintao , but in fact he owed his political career to former president Jiang Zemin .

As a Shandong native known for his passion for strong rice liquor, he ran the energy-rich but restive region, which accounts for about one-sixth of the mainland's territory, with an iron fist.

But his tenure became untenable after thousands of Han Chinese took to the streets and openly demanded that he resign following the deadly violence last year. The central government has put the blame for the violence squarely on separatists headed by the exiled Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer.

But the fact that both the Uygurs and the Han Chinese had risen in anger sparked calls for not only a change of the leadership in Xinjiang but also a rethink on policies towards minorities.

Zhang's appointment seems to confirm that the mainland leadership has chosen the more conciliatory approach of the two long-standing schools of opinion on governing ethnic minorities.

Saturday's announcement came on the heels of a party Politburo meeting on Friday to study how to promote faster economic development and long-term political stability in Xinjiang, and weeks before an important working conference to be held in Beijing to hammer out detailed measures to pump more money and resources to boost the economy in the region.

The central government apparently intends to use Zhang's elevation to introduce a new chapter in the development of Xinjiang.

It may be a sheer coincidence that Zhang's new job came just days before his birthday. He will turn 57 next month. But this birthday present does not signal as bright a future for him as some overseas media have portrayed.

Zhang is a darling of the mainland and overseas media not least because he is one of the few senior mainland officials who are willing to stop and patiently answer whatever questions reporters throw at him during annual sessions of the National People's Congress, politically sensitive or not.

At 49, he became the youngest cabinet minister when he was made the minister of communications in 2002. He is praised for his reformist and liberal-minded policies at the ministry and in Hunan .

As the party secretary of Xinjiang, he is on course to step up and become a Politburo member in 2012 when the present leaders, including Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, retire.

That means he must prove himself at the new job, which is fraught with challenges.

Judging by the recent rhetoric from the central government, it has no intention to relax political or religious controls over Xinjiang, although Zhang may take a more delicate approach to handle those issues in the future. For leaders in Beijing, boosting economic development and improving the living standard of all residents in Xinjiang are still the keys to maintaining social stability.

To a certain degree, they are right in thinking the fundamental cause behind the riots in Xinjiang and Tibet is similar to what has driven riots involving only Han Chinese: that people feel they have been left behind economically and are angry over the widening income gap and widespread social injustices.

At the incoming meeting on Xinjiang, probably next month, the most important measure likely to be announced will involve the richer inland and coastal provinces and municipalities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, financing comprehensive development of designated cities or areas in Xinjiang.

This means each richer province or municipality would be given a designated Xinjiang city for which the richer cousin would provide not only money but also human resources and other technical support for education, medical care, housing and job creation.

The central government has used this scheme to promote economic development in Tibet for years, but that has not prevented Tibetans from engaging in protests, sometimes violent, to seek more religious freedom and autonomy.

Judging by the recent rhetoric from the central government, it has no intention to relax political or religious controls