Xinjiang officials must keep up the pressure in the run-up to China’s National Day, says local party chief Chen Quanguo

Simone McCarthy

The Communist Party chief in Xinjiang has told security forces and officials to “maintain high pressure” in the region ahead of the 70th anniversary celebrations for the People’s Republic of China.

In a speech on Monday, Chen Quanguo said they had to “resolutely implement measures to maintain stability” in the region, where Chen has overseen the mass incarceration of an estimated million Uygurs and other Muslims in the name of countering what the government calls “religious extremism”.

“We should … keep the alarm bells ringing and stay constantly vigilant, maintaining high pressure, allowing the region to reap the benefits of stability, and taking effective steps to ensure the overall social situation in Xinjiang continues to be harmonious and stable,” Chen said.

Observers said his comments were a reminder that officials and the security forces had to maintain order in the run-up to the National Day celebrations on October 1 – a milestone event for which the government has meticulously prepared.

“[Chen] seems determined to deter possible unrest or complacency in the lead up to the 70th anniversary celebrations,” said James Leibold, associate professor of politics and Asian studies at La Trobe University in Australia.

Watchtowers on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp in Xinjiang. Photo: AFP

“I question the sustainability of this high-pressure posture, and wonder if his speech is a sign that senior party leaders share this concern, and thus are seeking to rally the troops, and keep the pressure on.”

While security concerns are top priority nationwide, they are of particular importance in Xinjiang, which state media has described as “the main battleground in China’s anti-terror war”.

The crackdown in Xinjiang followed a series of attacks linked to Uygur separatists, including one in Tiananmen Square in 2013 that left five people dead and 38 wounded.

The following year a mass knife attack in the southwestern city of Kunming and a series of explosions in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi each led to more than 30 fatalities.

Chen, who was formerly the party boss in Tibet, has burnished his own leadership credentials in Xinjiang with no major incidents under his watch and observers said his speech was an implicit reminder to maintain surveillance and control at a sensitive time.

“All of this has been wearing the security forces out, the police have been highly stretched and government officials have been stretched,” said Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher based in Germany who has closely monitored the development of the internment camps.

Chinese officials have suggested the use of internment camps may be scaled back. Photo: AFP

Chen’s address could be seen as a “motivational speech to his forces” who may be wearying of long patrols and monitoring activities, said Zenz.

But despite Chen’s call to “maintain high pressure”, a term he has previously evoked to describe the iron grip maintained over the region, Zenz said it did not contradict suggestions that Beijing may scale back the use of internment camps by allowing some detainees to re-enter society or join work programmes, while sending others to prison.

Speaking in March at the National People’s Congress, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang government, said that the number of people in the “vocational training centres” was growing smaller, and they could eventually be phased out when “society no longer needs them”.

A state media report released at the end of June called them an “interim success”.

Instead, the policy focus in the future may be more attuned to Chen’s calls to stabilise the “overall social situation”. Party officials have begun to place more emphasis on poverty alleviation in Xinjiang – a key policy goal of President Xi Jinping.

Chen’s own calendar this week reflected that shift: on Wednesday he delivered another address, focused on reducing poverty in Xinjiang’s poorest counties.

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