Newly leaked internal speeches made by Chinese President Xi Jinping have provided fresh insights on how the Chinese leadership came to impose draconian controls on Muslim minorities in the far-western region of Xinjiang, according to researchers who reviewed the documents.
Beijing has blamed Islamist extremism and separatism for past unrest in Xinjiang that left hundreds of people dead, which rights groups linked to the Communist Party’s suppression of minority cultures and religions in the region. Uyghur, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, is the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang.
The Chinese government has since around 2017 implemented tough policies, including a massive internment program, in an attempt to forcibly assimilate minorities into the mainstream Han Chinese society. The campaign has been rife with abuse and criticized as genocide by overseas Uyghurs and rights activists.
Some of the measures could be traced back to the leaked speeches Xi made in 2014, weeks after knife-wielding men from Xinjiang attacked people at a train station. The transcripts of the documents, marked as secret, were originally leaked to the UK-based rights group Uyghur Tribunal. One document, a speech Xi made at the end of his Xinjiang tour in April 2014, was labeled as “top secret.” They were then published by independent researcher Adrian Zenz, and reviewed by James Millward at Georgetown University Washington and David Tobin at the University of Sheffield.
“The big takeaway from the whole document cache is that the policy in Xinjiang is ordered by the center,” Tobin told VICE World News. “I don’t think Xi Jinping knows what specific torture or implement is being used. But he knows this is happening. He’s ordered these practices. He is in command. He is responsible.”
Here are six things from the speeches that shed light on what Xi wanted to do in Xinjiang.
1. Nip it in the bud
The Chinese leader has ordered officials to “strike hard” on signs of terrorism when they were still emerging.
“The key is to eliminate them in the bud,” Xi said during an April 2 speech in Xinjiang. “Act first to restrain the enemies, crack down early, crack down on the small ones, crack down on the emerging ones. Destroy them with lightning speed and an iron-fist approach.
“We cannot let the enemies grow powerful or harbor problems that will cause trouble,” he said.
The order echoes what Chinese officials later called a “preventive anti-terrorism” policy they had been implementing in Xinjiang. Following an international outcry over the internment camps, Beijing said the facilities were used to educate people who displayed minor extremist tendencies but had yet to commit any crimes, with the goal of eliminating terrorist activities “in the bud.”
But such predictive policing has been criticized as discriminatory and abusive. A report by New York-based Human Rights Watch suggests that Muslims were indiscriminately picked by software and detained based on innocuous behavior such as growing long beards and reciting the Qur’an.
2. Learn from the U.S.
In his speech, Xi said the Communist Party could learn from Washington in encouraging ordinary people to report potential terrorist activities following the 9/11 attack.
He said Chinese people should also be mobilized into reporting suspicious activities like how U.S. authorities carried out the neighborhood watch programs and the iWATCH program.
“Fighting a people’s war should be a speciality of us Communists,” he said. “We are the best at organizing people. We need to mobilize people of various ethnicities to actively cooperate with the anti-terrorism campaign… encourage them to inform on others.”
Xi also emphasized the importance of both big data and human intelligence, citing how Osama Bin Laden was found through informants.
In 2016, the Xinjiang government introduced a program to give out cash rewards of up to 5 million Chinese yuan ($785,000) for terrorism tips.
3. Watch the unemployed
President Xi said that young, unemployed Uyghurs were more susceptible to extremism. “Large numbers of unemployed people hanging around the society could lead to troubles,” he said.
He demanded more vocational training and job opportunities be created, adding that minorities could learn skills, Chinese language, and Chinese culture at company jobs. The president added that Uyghurs should be guided into playing to their strengths, such as singing, dancing, making crafts, and cooking Uyghur dishes.
One leaked speech by Premier Li Keqiang also mentioned that local governments in Xinjiang should attract labor-intensive businesses to “absorb” minority workers.
The order could be why Uyghurs were forced into what Beijing called vocational training centers to learn Mandarin and job skills. Authorities have also organized minorities in groups and transported them to factories far away from home, sometimes against their will.
4. No crime movies
Xi said TV dramas, films, and books that feature wars, violence, murders, crimes, and spying should be cut in Xinjiang.
“Some materials say that shows related to those have increased dramatically these years. That is not OK!” Xi said, according to the transcript. “Some shows should stop getting broadcast in Xinjiang. They could inspire copycats.”
Xi also warned against the spread of religious extremism on the internet, which, if uncontrolled, would open a “Pandora’s box.” He said disapprovingly that smartphones sold at local bazaars often contained videos promoting all Muslims, including Arab militants, being of one family.
Xinjiang authorities would later, as part of its expanding surveillance program, start installing tracking apps on residents’ and visitors’ mobile phones to look for foreign messaging apps, Islamic State publications, and recordings of Qur’an verses.
5. Become family
Although Beijing officially blamed the violence in Xinjiang on foreign infiltration, Xi in his speeches acknowledged tensions between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities as a problem. In 2014, he lamented that young people in Xinjiang, including children, had strong ethnic identities and started living in segregation.
He ordered officials to organize tours between Xinjiang and inland China, and create communities where people of different ethnicities lived together as a way to forge unity. He said Uyghur and Han Chinese cadres should organize weekend activities together, and visit each other’s homes along with their families.
Later, Xinjiang authorities would kick off a “Pair Up and Become Family” campaign, sending more than one million government workers to live in ethnic minorities’ homes. While it was promoted as a cultural exchange program, Uyghurs said the powerful guests were there to ensure that the Muslim minorities had been following a secular lifestyle—also an order in Xi’s 2014 speeches.
6. ‘Population security’
Researchers say Xi has also made veiled references to increasing the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang to strengthen the party’s control.
For example, he encouraged the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a Han-majority paramilitary organization, to attract more descendants and inland residents to settle in Xinjiang.
Xi said that in southern Xinjiang, where most residents were Uyghurs, the birth control policy should be applied to all ethnicities equally. It possibly indicated that Uyghurs there were to be prohibited from having more babies than Han people, as ethnic minorities did elsewhere in China.
Previous research by Zenz, based on government data, showed a drastic decrease in Uyghur birth rates between 2017 and 2019, even as the government was allowing people to have more children nationwide. In those years, a mass internment program was believed to have locked up as many as a million Uyghurs and other Muslims. Uyghurs have also reported forced implantation of intrauterine devices, sterilization, and abortion.