Chinese and foreign Muslims pray together in the overflow area outside the Niujie Mosque in Beijing, China. (Photographer: Adam Dean/Bloomberg News)

The Architect of China's Muslim Camps Is a Rising Star Under Xi

(Bloomberg) -- If one individual sums up the values gap between a rising China and the West, it may well be Chen Quanguo.

The most senior Communist Party official in the far western region of Xinjiang is the architect behind a crackdown against Muslim minority Uighurs. The United Nations says the campaign has placed as many as 1 million of them -- roughly a tenth of the territory’s population -- in “re-education camps.”

The Architect of China's Muslim Camps Is a Rising Star Under Xi

The European Union has condemned the mass detentions and U.S. lawmakers have called for sanctions on Chen and other top Chinese officials, threatening to exacerbate tensions already roiled by an escalating trade war. Senator Marco Rubio described the reports out of Xinjiang as “like a horrible movie.”

But in China, Chen has been a rising star. His actions in Xinjiang, along with demonstrations of loyalty to President Xi Jinping, won him a promotion last year to the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo -- making him one of China’s 25 most powerful officials. In 2023, the 62-year-old Chen may be considered for a spot on its supreme Standing Committee, which has seven members.

Chen’s ascendance is bigger than one man. It’s fueling concern among Western governments about whether Xinjiang is being used to test a new model of authoritarian rule that could transform the way the country is governed, and potentially be exported around the region. It risks a new front to growing U.S.-China tensions that already span trade, cyber-security, and a battle for influence across much of Asia-Pacific as Xi seeks to make his nation a global superpower by 2050.

Any U.S. move to sanction Chen would stoke fears in China of a foreign plot to undercut its sovereignty in a region it has struggled to control, a sensitive subject for a party persistently worried about independence movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet. More than any of China’s top leaders currently in power, Chen has been at the forefront of China’s efforts to subdue those restive regions.

The Architect of China's Muslim Camps Is a Rising Star Under Xi

“What we have is a clash of values,” said James Leibold, a senior lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “The policies that have been enacted under his watch in Xinjiang are the leading edge of a far more heavy-handed coercive form of Chinese governance that some in the West are starting to realize could have big consequences for China’s position in the world, as well as China’s relationship with the liberal West.”

Self-Made Man

Within the Communist Party, Chen amounts to a self-made man. Unlike Xi, whose father was a senior revolutionary under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, Chen had no known family connections to help him climb through the ranks. Relatively little has been written about him compared with China’s other top leaders, with only scraps of information appearing on party websites in Hebei, Tibet and Xinjiang.

The Architect of China's Muslim Camps Is a Rising Star Under Xi

Chen grew up in the inland province of Henan around the time of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which saw almost one in eight adults in his prefecture die of starvation, beatings or suicide. He joined the military after turning 18, eventually became a Communist Party member and attended college.

Though Chen graduated when China was opening up to the world, his first job out of college saw him join a rural commune in Henan, beginning a nearly four-decade journey from lowly apparatchik to Politburo member. While rising through the ranks, he served at one point under Li Keqiang, China’s current premier.

‘Darkness to Light’

Chen received his big break in 2011, when he was appointed as the party’s top official in Tibet -- one of the only places in China where foreign diplomats and journalists need permission to travel. It was a prestigious appointment: Hu Jintao had headed the region about a decade before he became president.

At the time Tibet was still reeling from an outbreak of violence against Beijing’s rule. Chen gave speeches celebrating the Communist Party’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet, saying its leadership had taken the region “from darkness to light.”

Chen then rolled out a set of policies that would establish him as Beijing’s point man for quelling ethnic unrest. He told the cadres that social stability was their “first responsibility,” instructed them to live in Tibetan villages and assigned party officials to Buddhist temples. Buddhism in Tibet, Chen said, should be adapted to “socialist civilization.” Temples were ordered to display Chinese flags and images of Communist Party leaders.

The Architect of China's Muslim Camps Is a Rising Star Under Xi

By 2015, Chen stationed some 100,000 cadres in Tibetan villages and more than 1,700 temples had established party organizations, according to state media. Between 2011 and 2016, the Tibetan government advertised for 12,313 police-related positions -- more than four times as many positions as the preceding five years combined, according to research by Leibold and scholar Adrian Zenz.

Meng Jianzhu, head of China’s security apparatus during Chen’s time in Tibet, described it as a “leading example for the whole country” in “stability maintenance.”

Chen also kept a close eye on power shifts in Beijing. In February 2016, he publicly hailed Xi as China’s “core” leader months before his title was made official, and has described Xi as a “wise leader” with a “magnificent plan” for China. Members of Chen’s delegation to China’s national legislative sessions that year wore lapel pins emblazoned with Xi’s portrait -- the type of adulation common during Mao’s reign of personality.

The Architect of China's Muslim Camps Is a Rising Star Under Xi

As Chen clamped down on dissent in Tibet, Xi had a problem in Xinjiang -- a region with some 10 million Turkic-speaking Uighurs where Beijing has long struggled to enforce its rule. They have chafed under Chinese authority, seen by a rise in terrorist attacks and ethnic violence beginning in 2009.

Xinjiang also sits at the center of Xi’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, which has promised more than $100 billion to reconstruct ancient trading routes from China to Eurasia. Xi needed it under firm control, and in August 2016 he put Chen in charge of the region to implement a policy to “strike first” against domestic terrorism and unrest.

Chen immediately set about replicating the system that brought him success in Tibet. He sent Communist Party officials to Uighur villages, created a network of checkpoints and facial-recognition cameras, and shuttered mosques in an effort to “Sinify” Islam in the region. According to one Chinese-language profile, Chen drilled Xinjiang’s security forces using a technique perfected in Tibet: timing police to the second on responding to emergency calls.

The Architect of China's Muslim Camps Is a Rising Star Under Xi

Most controversially, Chen set up the mass re-education camps that have sparked outcry in the U.S. and Europe, as well as barbs from U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. A fax to Xinjiang’s publicity department asking about the camps wasn’t immediately answered.

Chen is the only person ever to have served as both party boss of both Xinjiang and Tibet, according to domestic media reports. His dual strategy of tough security measures and reeducation are designed to “take the ethnicity out of the people and lock them down,” said James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

In Xinjiang Chen “came in and he was highly positioned in the party and was given a mandate to do what he wanted to do and tons of funding to do it,” Millward said. “He clearly has Xi’s support to a remarkable degree.”

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Peter Martin in Beijing at pmartin138@bloomberg.net

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from Editorial Board