‘Liberal’ policy chief unlikely to mean a softening on Xinjiang from China

Nectar Gan

A senior Chinese leader known for his relatively liberal style of governance has been named the ruling Communist Party’s handler of Xinjiang policy, amid increasing international criticism over the mass detention of Muslim minorities in the far western region.

Wang Yang, a member of the party’s policymaking Politburo Standing Committee, attended a high-level three-day conference in Xinjiang as head of the Central Committee’s Xinjiang Work Coordination Small Group, the state-run news agency Xinhua reported after the meeting ended on Tuesday.

The small group, first formed in 2000, has been instrumental in shaping and implementing Beijing’s Xinjiang policies. It brings together officials from across party and state apparatus to coordinate various policy fronts from security, ethnic and political issues to economic.

Wang’s new role was largely expected since he is chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – China’s top political advisory body. His predecessor, Yu Zhengsheng, also headed the coordination group when he was CPPCC chairman.

Wang Yang (seated, centre) during a visit to the village of Hotan in China’s Xinjiang region on Monday. Photo: Xinhua

However, analysts said the timing of the announcement suggested it was a calculated move by the leadership to assuage growing international concerns over the detention of an estimated one million or more Uygurs and other Muslim minorities in what the Chinese government calls “vocational training centres” in Xinjiang.

Last week, a group of 22 Western countries issued a statement urging China to stop mass detentions in Xinjiang. The joint letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – signed by Britain, Japan, Canada and others – was the first concerted international effort to condemn the practice and represented an embarrassment for Beijing.

Days later, a group of 37 countries – mostly from Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East, but also including Russia and North Korea – submitted a similar letter in defence of China’s policy and expressing opposition to “politicising human rights”.

“Under such an external environment, the Chinese government needs to consciously make a response,” said Chen Daoyin, a political analyst in Shanghai.

“After all, Wang Yang represents the relatively liberal and open-minded element in Chinese officialdom, and his appointment [to the coordination group] is a way to assuage concerns expressed by the international community,” he said.

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Wang earned his reputation as a more open-minded leader during his tenure as the party boss of inland metropolis Chongqing and the southern economic powerhouse of Guangdong.

He was credited with resolving mass protests against corruption in Wukan village in Guangdong in 2011 by listening to villagers’ grievances, sacking corrupt officials and allowing freer elections in the village.

But, despite Wang’s track record, there would not be much room for him to manoeuvre on Xinjiang policies, Chen said.

“Under the current party-state structure, Wang doesn’t have the power to make major changes, although he is the group leader – everyone knows that power rests in the hands of the supreme leader,” he said, referring to President Xi Jinping.

The changeover of another key position in the small group, meanwhile, signals anything but a softening of policy.

The group’s day-to-day affairs are being handled by an office now headed by United Front Work Department Deputy Director Shi Jun, a former vice-minister of public security. Until April last year, that post was held by Shi Dagang, a long-time veteran in Xinjiang who now serves on the ethnic affairs commission of the National People’s Congress, the national legislature.

The announcement of Wang’s position also came much later than that of his predecessor. Yu was named coordinator two months after becoming CPPCC chairman, during his first inspection tour to the region as a Politburo Standing Committee member.

For Wang, the announcement came 18 months after he took the helm of the CPPCC, and only on his third publicised tour to Xinjiang.

According to Xinhua, Wang was in the oasis town of Hotan for the conference to review the party’s long-running programme to channel financial support, technology and talent to Xinjiang from the country’s more developed regions.

Before his latest visit, Wang had already been on two inspection tours of Xinjiang – in March this year and in April 2018 – including to the southern part of the region, which is heavily populated by the ethnic Uygur minority. During those visits he expressed support and approval for regional party leaders’ implementation of Beijing’s edicts and achievement of “significant interim results” in “improving” the situation in Xinjiang.

But during his April visit, Wang also said the region needed to “perfect” its stability maintenance measures. While calling for a continued crackdown on ethnic separatist forces and religious extremism, the CPPCC boss stressed that traditional ethnic culture should be protected and the normal religious needs and customs of believers should be ensured.

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The party has never published an official full list of members of the Xinjiang coordination group, as is the case for the party’s many other leading small groups – a constellation of decision-making bodies that have seen their roles and status strengthened under Xi, who personally heads a number of them.

Despite this obscurity, the names and positions of the group’s leadership can be pieced together from their occasional mentions on government websites and in state media reports.

The group was previously headed by the chairman of the party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, including disgraced security tsar Zhou Yongkang. But the role was taken over by the chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference after Xi came to power in 2012.

Its other members have included senior officials from the party’s United Front Work Department, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the Ministry of Public Security and the paramilitary police, as well as party leaders in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang’s hardline party boss Chen Quanguo – the face of the region’s heavy-handed crackdown – is likely to serve under Wang as a deputy head of the group, although no such announcement has yet been made.

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