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Xinjiang Communist Party boss and US sanctions target Chen Quanguo to leave post

Amber Wang in Beijing and Josephine Ma in Hong Kong

Published: 5:02pm, 25 Dec, 2021

Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s party chief. Photo: SCMP

  • State news agency Xinhua reports Chen Quanguo will be moving on to another role and replaced by Guangdong governor Ma Xingruiì

  • Chen has been accused by the West of being behind widespread human rights abuses against Uygurs, but is tipped for further promotion

Xinjiang’s Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo is to leave his post, state news agency Xinhua reported on Saturday.

Chen has been targeted by foreign sanctions over the crackdown targeting the Uygurs and other Muslim minorities in the region that he spearheaded, prompting allegations of widespread human rights abuses from the United States and other Western countries.

Beijing has defended its policies in the region, saying they are designed to combat extremism, and Chen is widely tipped to be transferred to another important position ahead of his elevation at next year’s party congress.

Xinhua said Chen would be appointed to another post, adding that he would be replaced by Ma Xingrui, the governor of Guangdong province. Guangdong is an important springboard for promotion in the Communist Party system. It remains unknown who will take over the post of Guangdong governor.

The changes are part of a wider reshuffle ahead of next year’s party congress, where a new Politburo Standing Committee – the country’s top leadership body – will be unveiled.

China has denied US accusations of carrying out “genocide” or using forced labour in Xinjiang.

The US, European Union and other countries have imposed sanctions over Beijing’s crackdown on Xinjiang minorities, the latest of which was a law passed in the US to ban imports from the northwestern region due to concerns about forced labour.

Chen, 66, one of the 25 members of the Politburo, is the most senior Chinese official on the US sanctions list.

He was sanctioned last year “in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang, which reportedly include mass arbitrary detention and severe physical abuse targeting Uygurs and other mainly Muslim minorities in the region.

In 2016, Chen was promoted to become party secretary of the region, where the United Nations estimates about one million Uygurs have been detained in re-education camps. China describes the facilities as vocational skills training centres necessary to combat “extremism”.

Previously he had been the party chief in Tibet, another region with a history of violence and uprisings against Beijing’s rule. Just months after his appointment in 2011, the region started advertising for another 2,500 police officers.

Ma, his replacement as Xinjiang party chief, has been governor of Guangdong since 2017 having previously served as Shenzhen party boss from 2015.

The 62-year-old is also one of the country’s top scientists, with a background in the aerospace industry.

Guangdong governor Ma Xingrui will take over as Xinjiang party chief. Photo: Edward Wong

After serving as general manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, he was made director of the China National Space Administration in 2013, where he commanded China’s first successful lunar surface mission Chang’e 3.

Veterans of the country’s space programme have been promoted to important political roles in key provinces in recent years and Ma’s new role is likely win him a ticket to join the Politburo in the coming congress.

Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing, said Chen’s replacement was likely to have little impact on policies in Xinjiang.

“The replacement cannot be called a response to international pressure,” Wu said. “The pressure does exist, but what Beijing did is the opposite – as Chen might be promoted to a higher level, and the governance model in Xinjiang might be copied elsewhere in the country.”

However, a Beijing-based expert on Xinjiang issues, who declined to be named, said the replacement might indicate the government wanted to add some new elements to its policy in Xinjiang, arguing that “replacement definitely means new thoughts”.

Professor Song Xiaozhuang, from Shenzhen University’s Centre for the Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau, said Ma’s Guangdong experience might aid Xinjiang’s economic development, as well as help fend off overseas accusations of “forced labour”.

“Guangdong’s economy has led the country in many aspects, including in GDP. Ma is very familiar with the issue of ‘forced labour’ from his dealings with foreign investment from all over the world,” Song said.

On Thursday, US President Joe Biden signed into law a measure that will effectively ban all imports from Xinjiang, saying it showed its determination to “combat forced labour” in the region.

Additional reporting by Tiffany Liang


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