December 10, 2018
Reports on the current situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region describe a climate of expansive surveillance and control, the mass detention of at least 1 million Uyghurs and Kazakhs in re-education camps and an effective information vacuum. In August 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed grave concern over “numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.”
The international community has been justifiably concerned about Uyghurs and Kazakhs who have been severely targeted because of their ethnic identity, culture and religious practice. In November 2018, 15 western ambassadors in Beijing undertook the unprecedented move of writing to Chen Quanguo, the Party Secretary in Xinjiang, to request a meeting to discuss the current situation there. As Chen is the party secretary leading policy design and implementation in Xinjiang, the 15 western ambassadors have good reason to seek him out.
While the latter appears to be a promising development, it is questionable how forthcoming Chen would be at such a meeting. To best understand what is unfolding in Xinjiang and the motivation driving Chen and the Chinese Communist Party’s policies, observers should look to Tibet, where Chen previously served as the party secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region. Chen’s policy goals and projects in Tibet offer insights into the roots of what is being called the ‘Xinjiang model’ of repression, in particular the emphasis on cultural assimilation and the construction of an extensive architecture of surveillance and control.