How to read the Xinjiang papers right


The Chinese Communist Party is devouring its own and cutting itself off from reality.

A set of Chinese Communist Party documents was leaked to The New York Times and published online last weekend. They not only reveal the rationale and implementation of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies in Xinjiang, a nominally autonomous region in northwestern China. They also open a window onto how China functions today, both at the top and closer to the bottom of its party-state hierarchy. And that reveals two things about the C.C.P.: its awesome power and its fundamental weakness.

From excerpts from the documents and the reporting, we learn that Xi Jinping, the party’s chairman and the country’s president, reacted strongly to a trio of terrorist attacks in the spring of 2014. Previously, the party’s policy toward the peoples of Xinjiang — Uighurs and Kazakhs and other mostly Turkic-speaking, Muslim ethnic minorities — had largely been based on the theory that economic development and improved standards of living would defuse any dissent. This idea derives from traditional Marxist thinking: The “superstructure” of ideology, theorists argued, is determined by the economic “base” of class relations. But after the attacks of 2014, Mr. Xi jettisoned this notion, and in a series of speeches concluded that material measures alone had proved insufficient to quell separatist sentiment in Xinjiang.

Henceforth, Mr. Xi announced, it would be necessary to transform the thinking of Xinjiang’s Muslims through psychological means. This initiated what would become a campaign of mass indoctrination against what Mr. Xi and the C.C.P. called the “virus” of “religious extremism.” In practice, the effort meant targeting everyday expressions of Islamic belief (owning a Quran, praying, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, fasting during Ramadan) and even secular aspects of non-Chinese culture (such as Uighur language and music). Mr. Xi also called for expanding surveillance through both hightech systems and low-tech boots on the ground.

In the couple of years that followed the transfer of Chen Quanguo, previously the first party secretary in Tibet, to the same top position in Xinjiang in August 2016, some 350,000 people were arrested and prosecuted and more than one million Uighurs and Kazakhs were interned extralegally to undergo indoctrination. Some of the detainees were then transferred to factories associated with the camps, where they were made to work for low or, in some cases, no wages.

Some of the most fascinating revelations to emerge from the leaked documents concern the reaction of local Han officials tasked with enforcing Mr. Xi’s campaign. Not surprisingly, officials who had lived and worked in Xinjiang for years hesitated when the party center, nearly 2,000 miles away in Beijing, called upon them to lock up thousands of their constituents for alleged thought crimes. For example, we learn in detail how Wang Yongzhi, the party boss of Yarkand, a county of some 800,000 people in southwestern Xinjiang, struggled with this mandate.

Mr. Wang should probably not be considered a hero. He did spend $180 million on camps and other security infrastructure in Yarkand and initially interned 20,000 people. But he ultimately released some 7,000 internees. The C.C.P., in its public denunciation of Mr. Wang, accused him of corruption. Yet according to a leaked party report and his own confession, Mr. Wang said that outsiders poorly understood local conditions. “The policies and measures taken by higher levels were at gaping odds with realities on the ground and could not be implemented in full,” he wrote.

With so much of Yarkand’s labor force locked up, Mr. Wang worried that its economy would decline and that he would miss his economicgrowth targets, harming his chances for career advancement. Mr. Wang also seemed to suspect that prolonged mass internment would not lead

Uighurs to love the C.C.P. (We know from other sources that families have been torn apart and tens of thousands of children sent to state boarding schools and orphanages.)

Mr. Wang wasn’t alone in doubting. The Xinjiang papers mention that Gu Wansheng, the party secretary of neighboring Akto county, was also purged. They do not reveal if local Han-Chinese officials opposed the C.C.P.’s mass-internment policy because of pangs of conscience. But they show that officials resisted on practical grounds — and were punished for it. In fact, astoundingly, the documents mention that more than 12,000 investigations were conducted into the behavior of Xinjiang officials suspected of inadequately pursuing Beijing’s mandate.

With this, the leaked papers underscore the C.C.P.’s vast power: The party can round up hundreds of thousands of people and detain them indefinitely, while silencing other citizens and compelling obedience from officials. But they also suggest its weakness.

Not only have officials been quietly resisting policies imposed from the top — and now, too, have leaked these incriminating documents. But in sidelining and punishing such people, the C.C.P. isn’t just devouring itself: It is also declaring war on expertise and depriving itself of firsthand knowledge about local conditions in Xinjiang. Once again, as during the days of Mao, the party is cutting itself off from reality and choking off the information it needs to govern.