Unlike many of his contemporaries, Chen Quanguo has maintained a low profile in the course of his ascent within the ranks of the Communist Party of China. However, in July 2020, he was thrust into global consciousness when the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned him in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
As the CCP chief of Xinjiang, he is believed to be the architect of what the United States, European Union and United Nations call a network of internment camps built to forcibly detain ethnic Muslim Uygur people as a means to wipe out their cultural identity through a system of systematic indoctrination and incarceration. However, Chen is no stranger to the title of “ethnic policy innovator” as in his previous role of party chief of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), he presided over a similar system of control, ensuring that pro-freedom elements of the Tibetan minorities toe the party line.
Chen has become the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s de-facto strongman to be deployed in areas facing ethnic tensions, as his policy of aggressive securitisation and arbitrary detention has resulted in human rights atrocities, as reported by Human Rights Watch. This article will analyse Chen’s career and leadership over both Xingjiang and Tibet, developing an understanding of the rationale behind his policies and his role in the human rights abuses currently unfolding in both regions.
Tibet: a testbed?
Born to a poor rural family in Henan, Chen has been described as a consummate worker, rising up in the CCP rank and file with remarkable speed. After a four-year career in the military, he came into politics as a party boss of a small prefecture in Henan, moving on to become governor of Hebei in 2009. Despite having an inconspicuous start to his political career, his ascension to CCP chief of Tibet in 2011 first demonstrated his strongman skills, followed by a similar path in Xinjiang. Adrian Zenz notes that Tibet served as a testbed for his “strongman style of leadership”. To curb the perceived threats from separatist ideologies, Chen’s guiding principle involved the deployment of securitization as a question of national security.
Chen built an expansive security architecture, which enabled sophisticated surveillance, control and coercion. In TAR, the policy entailed a mass expansion of the police force with between 2011 and 2016: The TAR advertising 12,313 policing-related positions—more than four times as many positions as the preceding five years. By hiring locals in newly created “convenience” police stations, street-corner bulwarks for community-based policing, he developed a system known as grid-style social management, where locals kept tabs on their community members, allowing the central government to maintain constant surveillance on the populace.
This architecture has relied heavily on the use of torture and collective punishment to deter the native populace from engaging in non-violent forms of expression. A 2015 special report by the International Campaign for Tibet documented 29 cases of torture and recorded at least three known cases of torture under Chen’s tenure in the TAR. The use of collective punishment measures was also expanded, for example during Chen’s tenure in the TAR; self-immolation was criminalised to the extent that not only the individuals who intended to self-immolate were punished but also the individuals suspected of influencing or assisting that individual were subjected to the same scrutiny. In doing so, Chen effectively pushed for a decline in such acts, discouraging monks from undertaking them as it risked their family’s liberty. These draconian policies within the TAR were widely successful in subverting cultural expression and opposition by creating an Orwellian nightmare, whereby the local populace was systemically detained or forced into submission through fear. Subsequently, Chen’s performance in Tibet was widely praised by Chinese media and in 2016, he became the Communist Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Xinjiang: A human rights disaster:
When appointed to the position, Xinjiang had already been Beijing’s top domestic security concern, driven by a fear of Islamic extremism and threats to the stability of the region’s strategic position in Xi Jinping’s One belt One Road initiative. Posited as the strong leader needed to pacify these concerns, Chen’s militaristic rhetoric in his public statements has characterised him as the most aggressive leader of the region in the last few decades. This has led some commenters to view his policies as akin to a second cultural revolution, wherein stringent restrictions on religious practices, such as the forbidding of beards, wearing veils and distribution of religious content have subverted many of the cultural norms of the native populace. This was coupled with the destruction of cultural and religious sites. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has said that PRC claims that there were more than 24,000 mosques in Xinjiang and it is committed to protecting and respecting religious beliefs is not supported by its expansive data findings. The think tank reported extensive destruction of cultural and religious sites, with it estimated that fewer than 15,000 mosques remain standing.
Following the framework he had deployed in TAR, Chen widely expanded the police force bringing in the conventional style of policing. However, unlike past approaches, in following an individualised approach to repression, the strategy became more collective. This approach came to prominence in 2017-2018 where there was a dramatic extension of detention and re-education facilities which had not been observed in any other region—described by the Chinese as “vocational education centres”. The camps have emphasised ideological and political re-education aimed at curtailing religious practice and bringing it under the party’s discipline. Chen said that they should “teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison,”. This evokes secrecy around the camps with it nigh impossible to calculate the number of people who have been placed within them. However, reports suggest that between 1 to 3 million people—including Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz minorities—have been detained in a network of nearly 1,200 recently constructed camps. Darren Byler, an anthropologist studying the Uyghurs has commented that the authorities in the region are conducting a mass experiment in social engineering, with the populace bound in place by surveillance equipment, checkpoints, re-education activities, re-education camp systems and prison sentences. Byler places Chen and Xi at the centre of this change, stating that “It is my sense that Chen, with the support of the Xi administration, made the decision to move from simply a police state security approach to amass human re-engineering approach in managing the Uyghur population”. Chen, therefore, has presided over a clear attempt to induce mass ideological and political re-education of the Uhygur populace at a level not seen in any other region so far.
This policy has come to characterise Chen’s time in power, as he has consistently employed technology and securitisation to control and subvert both TAR and Xinjiang, earning him the title of ‘Ethnic Policy Innovator’. Chen’s impact on both the Tibet and Xinjiang is notable in his deployment of widespread securitisation and active attempts to erase elements of their tangible cultural heritage in an attempt to fit into Xi’s desire for culturally united china bereft of the diversity.
This is the third of a three-part series on China and its ethnic policies. To read Zachary’s second piece on Tibet, please click here