this photo shows protesters in Berlin, protesting against China's policies in Xinjiang
Beijing's repression in Xinjiang has sparked protests overseas, like this one in Berlin (Credit: / C.Suthorn / cc-by-sa-4.0 /

Xinjiang Update: Beijing’s Evolving Internment Policy

Adrian Zenz finds deliberative process and strategic objectives in internal documents and speeches

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Harvard-trained economist Jin Keyu dodged a question about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, claiming to “have so little information” that commenting would be “irresponsible.” But a recent presentation at the Fairbank Center by Dr. Adrian Zenz suggests that ignorance is no longer an excuse for failure to acknowledge repression in Xinjiang. While researchers certainly lack full transparency, Zenz’s presentation highlighted a number of important primary sources which have emerged since his last visit to the Fairbank Center in Autumn 2018. These documents—some of which were publicly available (e.g., family planning budgets and police recruitment advertisements) and some of which were leaked (including the Xinjiang PapersChina CablesKarakax List, and the more-recent Xinjiang Police Files)—have created a relative wealth of primary source data available to Xinjiang researchers. 

Among the new documents are the first descriptions of the deliberative process and strategic objectives of China’s policy approach in Xinjiang. Until 2020, when many of these documents leaked, researchers had to reconstruct the analysis of Chinese policymakers by working backwards from implementation decisions and other policy outputs. Especially in light of these documents—many of which take the form of speeches from key leaders like Chen Quanguo (then Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) and Zhao Kezhi (then Minister of Public Security)—Zenz argues that the time has come for researchers to take a step back and think more conceptually about the process that led Chinese authorities to pursue a policy of hardline repression in Xinjiang. 

To that end, Zenz has applied the policy experimentation framework to this growing body of documentary evidence, offering a convincing account of Chinese policymaking vis-à-vis Xinjiang. Specifically, Zenz argues that the “de-extremification” regulations promulgated by Xinjiang authorities in 2017—which paved the way for the internment of between one and two million Muslims—do not reflect the beginning of a policy cycle, but instead an intermediate implementation stage. This contention is supported by recent leaks, which reveal that General Secretary Xi Jinping approved of a change in Xinjiang-related policy as early as 2014. 

Zenz’s account is also supported by what the available documents do not tell us. After the most recent round of leaks, Zenz noticed a pattern: no documents regarding internal Party-State policy deliberations date to the period between 2015 and 2016. Zenz hypothesizes that this gap is attributable not to simple coincidence, but instead the fact that between 2015 and 2016 no major policy documents were generated in the first place. Instead, Zenz argues, the Party Center likely spent this time considering alternative policy solutions and cultivating consensus, before ultimately settling on the mass internment model and appointing Chen Quanguo to oversee its implementation. 

This narrative is consistent with Zenz’s interpretation of the policy experimentation model, which he dubs “policy experimentation in the shadow of hierarchy.” Zenz argues that in a Leninist political system like China’s, conducting a policy experiment, especially in a region as sensitive as Xinjiang, requires patronage relationships reaching the highest levels of the Party-State. No policy statements would have been generated before consensus—or at least strong factional support—could be achieved among China’s top leaders, which could explain the two-year hiatus. However, once support coalesced—as reflected in Zhao Kezhi’s speech explicitly noting Secretary General Xi Jinping’s approval of the internment program—implementation of the policy experiment could move ahead.  

Zenz’s application of the policy experimentation framework not only explains the dearth of relevant policy documents produced between 2015 and 2016, but also offers a convincing account of changes made to Xinjiang’s mass internment policy since its initial implementation in 2017. Promulgation of the “de-extremification” policy initiated the implementation stage of a five-year policy experiment. During this first year, Xinjiang authorities emphasized “stabilization,” which they sought to achieve through mass internment policies. In 2018, the second year of the implementation plan, authorities emphasized “consolidation.” It was at this stage that local authorities were most energetic in their internment efforts, and detention centers at their most crowded. By 2019, the authorities had moved on to a third stage of policy implementation, which Zenz terms “normalization,” looking ahead to future enforcement efforts and making revisions to the policy framework. By 2021, the architects of the experiment could assert that their goal of “comprehensive stability” had been achieved. 

The contents of Zhao Kezhi’s 2018 speech support the experimental character of mass internment in Xinjiang by addressing discrete implementation challenges (overcrowded camps) and proposed solutions (bigger camps), and conveying Xi Jinping’s commitment that the central government would cover the high operating costs of the revised policy. A series of speeches delivered by Chen Quanguo between 2017 and 2018 further supports Zenz’s characterization of mass internment as policy experiment. 

Chen remarks on the shortcomings of past Party-State responses to unrest in Xinjiang (most notably the 2009 Urumqi riots), illustrating that contemporary experiment was informed by the perceived failures of past approaches. The palpable paranoia in Chen’s 2017/2018 remarks also explains the radical expansion of internment camps between the 2017 “stabilization” and 2018 “consolidation” phases. This perception of the existential threat posed by Uyghurs to public security—which Zenz argues informed the choice to pursue and then double-down on mass internment in the first place—is also reflected in local government documents comparing extremism to a “virus,” and official exhortations to “round up those who should be rounded up” or “put the untrustworthy in a trustworthy place.” Before the policy cycle that began around 2013, dissident Uyghurs were formally imprisoned on criminal charges. Implementation of the mass internment experiment, however, required the shift to “preventative re-education” reflected in Chen and Zhao’s remarks. 

Finally, the policy experimentation framework has provided Zenz with a basis to make informed predictions about the future of Chinese policy in Xinjiang. According to the policy experimentation theory, Chen Quango was not the mastermind of the Party-State’s repression of Uyghur identity, but merely was brought in to implement a policy experiment that was designed and approved between 2013 and 2016. The recent appointment of Ma Xingrui as Xinjiang Party Secretary in 2021 thus illustrates a sea change in the policy experimentation process. The former Shenzhen Party Secretary and Governor of Guangdong (a stark contrast to Chen’s background as Tibet Party Secretary) has busied himself with implementing a securitization policy that has an explicitly economic flavor, including by making trade-related visits to Xinjiang’s Central Asian neighbors. While many aspects of the Chen era’s hardline repression remain, including family separationsarbitrary imprisonment, and coercive birth control, Ma Xingrui’s emphasis on forced labor suggests that after the perceived success of policy experimentation culminating in mass internment, Beijing has now shifted to a more sustainable long-term strategy of oppression and control.