For Chen Quanguo, it was just a normal day at the office in China’s Xinjiang region on December 3.
His agenda included chairing a study session on patriotism, a regular event for Beijing’s point man in suppressing what China calls a separatist and terrorist insurgency in the region bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“[We] must continue an extensive campaign on legal education and anti-extremism, to guide cadres and people of all ethnic groups to further strengthen their patriotic awareness,” says the official statement of his comments at the meeting.
to punish Chinese officials and companies involved in what they call human rights abuses on a massive scale in Xinjiang.
If Chen, 63, cares about the attention he gets in Washington, he doesn’t show it. As the Communist Party chief for Xinjiang, he has faced criticism all year for being the architect of what the US, European Union, and United Nations call a network of internment camps built to forcibly detain ethnic Muslim Uygur people in an attempt to wipe out their identity through systematic indoctrination.
What isn’t in doubt is that Xinjiang exploded into violence in 2009 in street clashes between Uygurs and Han Chinese that killed hundreds of people. In the following years, the conflict spilled over Xinjiang’s borders to other parts of China, including Beijing and the city of Kunming.
The Kunming attack in southwest China in March 2014 particularly shocked the country, when 33 people were stabbed and killed at a railway station by a gang that the police later said were Uygur militants. Scores more were injured. In April that year, after President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang, the region’s capital Urumqi was rocked by more violence that killed 40 people and left more than 100 injured.
As Beijing became increasingly alarmed by what it called a terrorist insurgency – and which it has since compared to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US – Xi called a crisis meeting in Beijing in 2014 to demand a doubling of efforts to fight terrorism. This was Beijing cracking down hard, and in 2016 Chen was the man called in as the party’s hammer.
Man in a hurry
Chen sits on the party’s 25-member Politburo, making him the most senior Chinese official on a US sanctions list, which now awaits approval by the Senate and President Donald Trump. It also means facts about him, such as his health and other personal details, are closely guarded. Before his role in Xinjiang attracted Washington’s attention, he was the party chief in Tibet, another region with a history of violence and uprisings against Beijing’s rule. In other words, he knows the playbook.
“It is likely that Chen Quanguo has shaped the implementation of all policies in Xinjiang,” said Barry Sautman, an expert on China’s ethnic policies at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. As soon as Chen took over, Xinjiang saw a large expansion of the police force and the mass hiring of what the authorities called “assistant police” and “security guards”.
“These measures were brought in by Chen and they echoed what he did in Tibet when he was the party chief there,” Sautman said.
According to Adrian Zenz, a Germany-based independent researcher on Xinjiang, the detention camps existed before Chen but he drove their rapid expansion and how they are used.
“Chen Quanguo introduced pre-emptive internment for re-education for wide shares of the general minority population,” said Zenz, who was among the first to reveal the scale of the camps based on leaked government documents.
“Just like Chen recruited massive numbers of new policemen soon upon assuming his new position, he also quickly scaled up the re-education campaign. Whatever he does, he does with extreme and unprecedented speed, urgency, resources, and scope,” Zenz said.
Chen was also quick to hitch his wagon to the president. In February 2016 when he was the party chief of Tibet, he was among the first to speak of Xi as the “core” of the party leadership, a term that elevated Xi’s status among party leaders. A month later, Tibetan delegates attending the National People’s Congress in Beijing showed up sporting lapel badges with Xi’s picture, a clear echo of the Mao Zedong era.
One now-retired official said the badges raised eyebrows among senior leaders including Yu Zhengsheng, the chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Yu took Chen aside and told him the gesture was inappropriate. “Chen only replied it was a spontaneous act by the delegates… but the fact is he was rewarded [for it],” said the official, who didn’t wish to be named.
If Chen’s reward was Xinjiang, it’s a massive handful in more ways than one. China’s largest region is about the same size as the US state of Alaska. The landlocked area is home to more than 10 million Uygur and other ethnic groups, or about half the total population, and Islam is a major religion. It has borders with eight countries, including India, Mongolia, and former Soviet republics, and is characterised by deserts and grasslands.
Like many senior officials in China, the record of Chen’s four-decade rise through the ranks is the party’s sanitised version, though sources say he also got to where he is through the tried and tested means of a workaholic. He’s known to show up at the office on holidays and doesn’t hesitate to call in subordinates. He’s described as a “harsh and demanding boss”, said another source, who also declined to be named.
Still, he ticks all the boxes for the type of official that President Xi wants to groom. During a speech in 2013, Xi said he needed leaders who had come up from the rank and file and had the guts to make hard decisions.
These traits were emphasised in a directive issued on December 4. “[We] must be warriors that dare to struggle and are good at struggles,” reads the statement from the Central Organisation Department, which assigns ministerial-level cadres and above. The stress on “struggle” also echoes the Mao era.
Chen was born into a working-class family in Henan province, a central region dependent on agriculture and coal mining. In 1977, he got a firm foot on the rung of the ladder out of obscurity when he passed the college entrance exam. It was the first such exam since the death of Mao, who had banned them during the Cultural Revolution, and the competition was fierce.
Before college, he served four years in the military in an artillery division and did a stint in a car factory. After graduation, he started his climb up the political ladder and began to get noticed. At the age of 33, he became the youngest county party chief in Henan. After that, Chen didn’t seem to put a foot wrong. From the mid-1990s he was promoted every other year for almost a decade. As is often the case, he was helped by personal ties to the powerful.
according to official public résumés of the pair. “Jia wielded significant influence in the province and so the two had plenty of common issues to discuss,” said a source close to the provincial government who declined to be named to discuss the matter. Jia, 67, is now on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature.
When in Henan, Chen got along well with colleagues and didn’t particularly stand out, the source said. Chen’s wife was an official with the banking regulator of the local government and his daughter spent some time at school in Britain.
Another development around this time is said to have helped Chen’s rise. He became deputy governor of Henan in 1998, skipping the normal stop as a city party boss. Henan is full of coal mines and accidents were common in those days and the city party chiefs were always blamed, the source said. “So Chen dodged that and the career stumbles that could have come with it.”
Instead of taking flak for mine accidents, Chen spent his final days in Henan regularly swimming laps in the pool at the party committee compound in the afternoons. “We heard he was training himself up for Tibet,” the source said.
Just months after his appointment in 2011, the region advertised positions for another 2,500 police.
At public events, Chen fits the bill for a party cadre with a sweep of jet-black hair, somewhat drawn features, and a tendency to deliver long speeches interspersed with tongue-twisting party jargon. But even by the standards of China’s sober-suited bureaucrats, he’s difficult to pin down.
Despite a 40-year career, a search through his official speeches failed to throw up any ambitious slogan, joke or personal anecdote attributable to him.
Zakir took one question on the internment camps, calling them free “boarding schools”. Chen leaned over and whispered in Zakir’s ear once in a while, but did not take any questions himself.
“I express my sincere gratitude to Chinese and foreign reporters for their interest in Xinjiang,” was his closing comment.
“when they are not needed”. Just this week, he said
from the “deradicalisation” program and found jobs. He didn’t make clear if that meant they had returned home, nor did he give any numbers.
That shift may also reflect Xinjiang’s declining economic performance. Economic growth was flat from 2016 to 2017 but then slipped to 6.1 percent in 2018 from 7.6 percent the previous year. That was slower than the national average, something not seen in the past decade.
Could this be the stumble that halts Chen’s seeming unstoppable rise? Deng Yuwen, a former deputy editor of the Study Times newspaper affiliated with the party’s academy, doesn’t think so.
“Chen acts according to Beijing’s instructions,” Deng said. “There will not be any backlash on Chen’s career.”
Zenz, the Xinjiang researcher, agrees. “He will continue to govern the region with a strong arm and an underlying attitude of achieving Beijing’s wider goals of stability maintenance,” Zenz said.
If that’s the case, Chen’s next possible step up is to the seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee, and he has age on his side for that move. No reports yet of him preparing for a new job with afternoon laps in a Xinjiang swimming pool.