'The architecture of repression' report
Unpacking Xinjiang's governance
Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, James Leibold and Daria Impiombato
This project maps and analyses the governance mechanisms employed by the Chinese party-state in Xinjiang from 2014 to 2021 within the context of the region’s ongoing human rights crisis. To that end, the authors have located and scrutinised thousands of Chinese-language sources, including leaked police records and government budget documents never before published. This archive of sources is made publicly available for the use of others.
For policymakers, this report will provide an evidence base to inform policy responses including possible sanctions. For the general public and anyone whose interests are linked to Xinjiang and China more broadly, this project can inform risk analysis and ethical considerations.
Finally, a detailed understanding of Xinjiang’s governance structures and processes and their relationship to wider national policies can contribute to a more concrete understanding of the Chinese party-state and its volatility.
The 2014 Counterterrorism Campaign and the 2017 Re-education Campaign in Xinjiang represent a top-down response to the perceived radicalisation of Uyghur society and a systematic effort to transform Xinjiang and its indigenous inhabitants.
The return of mass campaigns
The crackdown against the Uyghurs has a striking resemblance to Mao-era political campaigns. ASPI can reveal that, in addition to mass internment and coercive labour assignments, Xinjiang residents are also compelled to participate in acts of political theatre, such as mass show trials, public denunciation sessions, loyalty pledges, sermon-like ‘propaganda lectures’, and chants for Xi Jinping’s good health. In doing so, they’re mobilised to attack shadowy enemies hiding among the people: the so-called ‘three evil forces’ and ‘two-faced people’.
Despite widespread recognition that mass political campaigns are ‘costly and burdensome’, in the words of Xi Jinping, the party-state has again resorted to them in Xinjiang. This report analyses the party-state’s reflexive compulsion for campaigns, and campaign-style governance, which is an intrinsic feature of the Chinese political system that’s often overlooked in the current English-language literature.
Hegemony at the grassroots
ASPI researchers have gained rare and in-depth insights into Xinjiang’s local governance after analysing thousands of pages of leaked police files. We focus on the case of one Uyghur family in Ürümqi. Like at least 1.8 million other Uyghurs, Anayit Abliz, then 18, was caught using a file-sharing app in 2017. He was interned in a re-education camp and eventually ‘sentenced’ by his Neighbourhood Committee—a nominally service-oriented voluntary organisation responsible for local party control.
While he was detained, officials from the Neighbourhood Committee visited his family members six times in a single week, scrutinizing the family’s behaviours and observing whether they were emotionally stable.
Draconian control measures are typical of mass political campaigns, including those in Xinjiang.
During the crackdown against the Uyghurs, authorities implemented five key policies (including the ‘Trinity’ mechanism, which is first reported by ASPI here) that led to the unprecedented penetration of the party-state system into the daily lives of Xinjiang residents.
Those policies gave Xinjiang’s neighbourhood and village officials exceptional power to police residents’ movements and emotions, resulting in the disturbing situation in which a Uyghur teenager’s social media posts about finding life hopeless were deemed a threat to stability and triggered police action.
Xinjiang’s community-based control mechanisms are part of a national push to enhance grassroots governance, which seeks to mobilise the masses to help stamp out dissent and instability and to increase the party’s domination in the lowest reaches of society.
The party’s knife handle
Many Uyghurs become suspects after being flagged by the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which is a ‘system of systems’ where officials communicate and millions of investigations are assigned for local follow-up.
ASPI can reveal that the IJOP is managed by Xinjiang’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC) through a powerful new organ called the Counterterrorism and Stability Maintenance Command, which is a product of the Re-education Campaign. One source states that a local branch of the command monitors the re-education camps remotely.
The PLAC is a party organ that oversees China’s law-and-order system, which is responsible for Xinjiang’s mass detention system. The PLAC’s influence tends to grow during times of mass campaigns, and the budget and responsibilities of the Xinjiang PLAC have expanded significantly in recent years— despite efforts by Xi Jinping to abate its status nationally. Two other factors may have contributed to the PLAC’s predominance in Xinjiang: its control over powerful surveillance technologies employed during the two campaigns, and a 2010 governance model in Ürümqi called ‘the big PLAC’, which was masterminded by Zhu Hailun, who is considered by some to be the architect of the re-education camp system.
Weaponising the law
Law enforcement in Xinjiang is hasty, harsh and frequently arbitrary. Senior officials have promulgated new laws and regulations that contradict existing ones in order to accomplish the goals and targets of the campaigns; on the ground, local officers openly boast about acting outside normal legal processes, and their voices are sometimes amplified by state media. ASPI has found evidence that some neighbourhood officials in Ürümqi threatened to detain whole families in an attempt to forcefully evict them from the area.
Many Uyghurs have been detained for cultural or religious expressions, but police records reveal that low-level officials have also interned Xinjiang residents for appearing to be ‘dissatisfied with society’ or lacking a fixed address or stable income.
In one case, Uyghur man Ekrem Imin was detained because his ‘neighbourhood police officer was trying to fill quotas’. As reported by Ürümqi police, he then contracted hepatitis B (which went untreated) as well as syphilis inside Xinjiang’s biggest detention facility. This raises further questions about the conditions inside Xinjiang’s re-education facilities.
Efforts to weaponise the law in Xinjiang mirror wider legal reforms under Xi Jinping, where previous ideals about procedural accountability and judicial independence have been cast aside and the law is now openly used to tighten the party’s grip over society and eliminate social opposition.
The frontline commanders
County party secretaries are the most senior officials at the local level in China, and their role is crucial to the regime’s survival, according to Xi Jinping. In Xinjiang, they oversee the day-to-day operations of the two campaigns. Researchers at ASPI have compiled a dataset of Xinjiang’s county party secretaries over the past seven years and found that the vast majority of these ‘frontline commanders’ are Han.
At the time of writing (September 2021), not a single county party secretary in Xinjiang is Uyghur, which speaks to the erasure of once-promised ethnic self-rule, and to deeply entrenched racism at the heart of the Han-dominated party-state system.
This section profiles three of the most celebrated county party secretaries in Xinjiang. Yao Ning, a darling of the Chinese media for his elite academic background at Tsinghua and Harvard universities.
Claiming absolute loyalty to the party-state from a young age, Yao now sits at the top of a chain of command over nine newly built or expanded detention facilities in Maralbeshi County. He has struggled with mounting pressure and the death of a close colleague due to exhaustion, but finds solace in quotes by both Mao and Xi.
Yang Fasen, who pioneered new governance tools during the campaigns, was recently promoted to vice governor of Xinjiang. His innovative propaganda templates—that the authorities dubbed the ‘Bay County Experience’—were copied by other counties in Xinjiang during the Counterterrorism Campaign. During a 2015 speech in front of Xi Jinping in Beijing, Yang claimed that subjecting undereducated Uyghur youth to labour reform (a practice that became commonplace later in the Re-education Campaign) can improve social stability.
Both Yao Ning and Yang Fasen are from the majority ethnic group in China, the Han. The third profile is of Obulqasim Mettursun, a Uyghur official, who like most Uyghurs serve in a deputy position under a Han overseer. He went viral after penning an open letter pleading with fellow Uyghurs to ‘wake up’ and actively participate in the party-state’s stability maintenance efforts. He represents an ideologically captured and dependent class of Uyghur officials committed to serving the party in largely ceremonial roles.
‘There is no department that doesn’t have something to do with stability’
During Xinjiang’s two campaigns, few offices or officials can escape the political responsibility of ‘stability maintenance’ work. At times, repressive policies have been carried out by the most innocent-sounding, obscure government agencies, such as the Forestry Bureau, which looked after Kashgar City’s re-education camp accounts for a year.
The authors highlight the astounding number of offices involved in key aspects of the Chinese party-state’s crackdown in Xinjiang: propaganda, re-education, at-home surveillance and indoctrination, forced labour and population control. Extra emphasis has been placed on propaganda as it has been the least reported aspect of the two campaigns, albeit highly important.
In Xinjiang, re-education work not only occurs in so-called ‘vocational education and training centres’, but is also front and centre in everyday life, as the party-state seeks to alter how people act and speak. Through more than seven years of intense propaganda work, Uyghurs and other indigenous groups now find themselves being assigned fictional Han relatives, and being taught how to dress and maintain their homes; their courtyards are ‘modernised’ and ‘beautified’ while their ancient tombs and mosques are destroyed.
Xinjiang’s bureaucratic inner workings reflect a wider pattern of authoritarian rule in China. In fact, some governance techniques used in Xinjiang during the two campaigns were conceived elsewhere, and Xinjiang’s ‘stability maintenance’ tools are increasingly replicated by other Chinese provinces and regions including Hong Kong.
Further research should be conducted on campaign-style governance in China in general, and its policy implications. Further studies on the cycle of collective trauma through China’s recurring campaigns may also be timely, taking into consideration that many senior Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping and Zhu Hailun, claimed that their past experiences of being ‘re-educated’ through hard labour during the Cultural Revolution have been transformative.