Chen Quanguo: Leader of Xinjiang crackdown under US scrutiny

Xinjiang's Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo, seen here in March 2019, has been hit by US sanctions as Washington steps up pressure over treatment of the Uighur community (AFP Photo/GREG BAKER) (AFP/File)
·3 min read

Beijing (AFP) - The Chinese Communist Party official hit with US sanctions over the mass detention of Muslims in the troubled western region of Xinjiang is a soldier-turned-politician known as a security enforcer.

Rights groups and experts estimate that more than one million ethnic Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking minorities have been rounded up into a network of internment camps since Chen Quanguo was appointed party chief in Xinjiang in 2016.

A year after his Xinjiang assignment, he was rewarded with a prestigious promotion to the top of the CCP pyramid: a seat on the 25-member Politburo.

Chen is no stranger to taming ethnic tensions, having previously overseen a clampdown in Tibet following protests and a spate of self-immolations by Buddhist monks in the Himalayan region.

"Within the party, Chen has gained a reputation as an 'ethnic policy innovator' who can make sure that minorities who earlier clamoured for independence in western China will now toe the party line," Adrian Zenz, a German researcher specialising in Xinjiang, told AFP.

The 64-year-old is among three officials who will now be refused US visas and see any US-based assets frozen after Washington took its first major action against the crackdown in Xinjiang.

China reacted furiously on Friday, saying it would hit US institutions and individuals who "behave badly" on Xinjiang-related issues with unspecified "reciprocal measures".

- 'Combat fortresses' -

Chinese officials deny the sprawling facilities that mark Xinjiang are "concentration camps", describing them instead as "vocational education centres" where "students" learn Mandarin and job skills in an effort to steer them away from religious extremism following deadly attacks and riots.

But Chen himself once said the centres should "teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison", according to official documents seen by AFP.

According to separate documents leaked to the New York Times, Chen also urged officials to "round up everyone who should be rounded up" after President Xi Jinping called for "absolutely no mercy" against extremism following an attack in 2014.

Chen has used militaristic language in public statements, calling in a speech last week for local Communist Party organisations to build themselves up into "strong combat fortresses."

"In terms of extrajudicial and arbitrary detention, Chen is the most aggressive (Xinjiang leader) in the recent 40 years," said Shawn Zhang, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, who used satellite imagery to find dozens of internment camps.

Xinjiang imposes stringent restrictions on religious practices, forbidding beards, the wearing of veils and the distribution of unauthorised religious content.

Members of the Uighur diaspora say their relatives have been arrested for seemingly innocuous acts such as sending Ramadan greetings to friends or downloading popular music.

Outside the camps, ubiquitous ID checks and tight security are a part of daily life.

In his first 12 months in charge of Xinjiang Chen "advertised the same number of security positions per capita that he put out in Tibet in five years," said Zenz.

Born into a poor family in rural Henan province, Chen joined the Chinese army at 18. After a four-year stint in the military, he joined an auto-parts factory.

He entered politics in 1981, as party boss of a small prefecture in Henan, rising to Tibet party chief 30 years later.

Tibet, Zenz said, was a test bed for his "strongman style of leadership".