Determinants of Chinese National Security

(An excerpt from my MSc Dissertation on minority and security policies in the People’s Republic of China. For the whole paper, please email asking permission).

Chinese National Security

Before tackling questions of ethnicity, nationalism, and minority policies, we need understand Chinese national security and the role that minorities, especially the Uyghurs, play in the creation of official national security policy.

National Security

National security can be defined as efforts by the government to protect interests that are vital to its continued existence (Kirshner, 2006). China sees its existence primarily through a lens of internal threats (Segal, 2006). Indeed, “domestic stability is always paramount, and external threats are usually perceived in the context of aggravating domestic instability” (Shambaugh, 2005). For all its control, the Communist Party does not feel secure in power. Large scale minority protests, the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests, the dissolution of the USSR, and constant rhetoric from the West, particularly the United States, about the eventual evolution of China into a multi-party democracy and the end of Communist rule all fuel the CCP’s concerns about its longevity. National security, then, is seen primarily as a way to maintain CCP power. For example, China’s increasing involvement in foreign countries to secure industrial resources is largely driven by the CCP’s perception that its legitimacy relies on further economic growth; a stalled economy is a stalled Communist mandate (Parello-Plesner and Duchatel, 2015). The issue of Taiwan separately highlights the Party’s focus on territory. While Taiwan has forced the CCP to deal with regional actors and the United States, the Party is primarily concerned that if Taiwan is allowed to formally break away, it may incentivize other groups to seek foreign help in their own bids for independence (Sheng, 2000).

With a focus on internal stability as the wellspring of national security, the Chinese Communist Party focuses intently on managing its country’s ethnic minorities. However, studies of Chinese national security and CCP treatment of minorities have been divorced from one another. In a book entitled China’s Search for Security, less than thirty pages are dedicated to Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and minorities (Nathan and Scobell, 2012). In an overview of “China’s Race Problem,” the treatment of minorities is seen as an impediment to China presenting itself as a model to the world, a correct view but still a far cry from presenting it as the central national security matter that it is (Tuttle, 2015). We can make the proper connection between minority policy and national security by looking at two major national security problems: territorial integrity and industrialization.

Territorial Integrity

Preserving territorial integrity is one of China’s “core interests,” meaning that the CCP considers it essential to understanding Chinese foreign and security policies (Gupta, 2012). Of course, every country would consider territorial control, preventing rebellion, and hostile foreigners a core interest, which makes the CCP’s articulation of this point noteworthy. The policy largely stems from the “Century of Humiliation,” the period of American, European, and Japanese imperialism from 1839 to 1949 that left China carved up and without effective borders (Scott, 2008). In addition to staking out “spheres of influence” in China, the imperial powers, especially the Japanese, used the idea of national self-determination to promote the independence of ethnic groups, which further weakened the Chinese state (He, 2005). When the communists finally consolidated power after the Civil War (1927 to 1949), the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan. Only the presence of American warships in the Taiwan Strait prevented the Communists from “liberating” the island (Wachman, 2007). A history of imperial domination and machinations informs the CCP’s obsession with territorial integrity beyond that of other states. China’s history has shown that borders are not inviolable, and the Communists distrust current Western claims of non-interference in Chinese politics. The CCP is able to point to Western support for government-in-exile, awards for democracy activists, activist non-government organizations, and a steady stream of anti-Communist propaganda as continued Western meddling in Chinese affairs (Krishnan, 2010; Lubman, 2015; Global Times, 2016).

Xinjiang is an area of great concern regarding territorial integrity. While Tibetan dreams of independence have largely been stamped out through ruthless repression at home and savvy diplomacy on the international stage, Uyghur aspirations seem to be coalescing around the goal of self-determination (The Economist, 2017). Here, “the secessionist momentum challenges not only China’s territorial integrity, but also the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party” as the government of Xinjiang  (Xinbo, 2012). Concerns of secessionism are driven by how “the Uyghur diaspora successfully utilizes virtual communication along with the traditional means to promote their cause and to strengthen their solidarity. In addition… the increased importance of values such as democracy, human rights and self-determination provide a valuable platform for diaspora groups to promote their demands to the international community” (Kuscu, 2013). The self-proclaimed Uyghur government-in-exile based in the U.S., though separate from the mainstream diaspora community, further heightens the CCP’s worries (BBC, 2004). These groups, which confine their activism to advocacy and fundraising, are mirrored by more violent organizations. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which the U.S. State Department called “the most militant of the ethnic Uyghur separatist groups,” is reportedly behind a number of terror attacks in Xinjiang (Cloud and Johnson, 2004, Reed and Raschke, 2010). While the CCP has focused its diplomatic efforts on a global denunciation of groups such as the ETIM, diaspora and governments-in-exile could pose just as significant a challenge, as Tibetan efforts have shown (Hess, 2009).


Xinjiang is rich in energy resources and well positioned as the gateway to Central Asian trade, which makes maintaining tight control over the region essential to the CCP’s plans for further economic development, plans upon which the Party’s legitimacy rests.

Energy security is vital to Chinese national security. China is currently heavily reliant upon energy imports: in 2014, it imported 57% of its oil and 31.6% of its natural gas (EIA, 2015, Rapoza, 2014). These imports flow primarily through the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca, two critical chokepoints both patrolled by the American navy (Bender, 2015). The CCP worries that, in a conflict, the US could take control of these chokepoints and starve China of needed energy (Figure 2) (Daniels, 2014).

To allay these concerns, the CCP is investing heavily in domestic energy sources, many of which are in Xinjiang. The Province holds 40% of China’s coal and 20% of its oil (Wong, 2014). The central government has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into Xinjiang to develop the region. Yet this growth has not benefitted the local Uyghurs. Many of the workers are ethnic Han brought into Xinjiang by their employers, while almost 80% of Uyghurs live below the poverty line (World Uyghur Council, 2009). “In 2005, Xinjiang’s local government was allotted only Rmb240m ($35m, €24m, £19m) out of the Rmb14.8bn in tax revenue from the petrochemical industries that are based in the region” (Anderlini, 2008). These disparities have fueled resentment that has, at times, boiled over into riots and clashes with police (Radio Free Asia, 2009). Yet the CCP needs these rich energy reserves, and so has risked escalating tensions.

Further cementing Xinjiang’s economic value is its location along vital trade routes. China’s recent One Belt, One Road trade initiative, a massive undertaking to reorient global trade along the ancient Silk Road through Central Asia, positions Xinjiang as the gateway into and out of China (Hu, 2017). Xinjiang would also connect China to Pakistan under the new initiative. China has spent $45 billion on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through Xinjiang; the connection will allow China to reach Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea (Das, 2017). Politically, strengthening relations with Pakistan, along with gaining access to military ports, such as Gwadar, allows China to further encircle India, one of its main regional rivals (Miller, 2017). The entire One Belt, One Road project is expected to cost China or Chinese state-owned enterprises at least $900 billion and reorient global trade and politics (FT, 2017). Therefore, if the Chinese Communist Party is to be successful, it must ensure control of and stability in Xinjiang.

The Uyghurs of Xinjiang are intrinsically linked to both territorial integrity and industrialization, key platforms of Chinese national security. The best way for the CCP to ensure that the Uyghurs do not pose a threat to national security, by either agitating for secession or disrupting economic development, is to make the Uyghur population loyal to the Chinese state. The state has decided that the surest method of guaranteeing that loyalty is to break the Uyghur ethnic identity, the only other identity to which they would be loyal. Breaking the Uyghur identity would ensure “negative” loyalty by removing an idea around which the Uyghurs could rally in opposition to the Chinese state. To understand Chinese policies towards Uyghurs, we need to understand ethnicity and nationality.

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