Today
Fri 17 September 2021

A Chinese Communist Party official, widely believed to be the mastermind of Beijing’s most draconian policies in Xinjiang and Tibet, needs international pressure applied to him over his systematic repression, say campaigners

He is behind the most draconian security apparatus Tibet has ever known and the mastermind behind camps which have detained more than one million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China. But for most of the world, Chen Quanguo is a name few have ever heard.

Campaigners in the UK want that to change and are calling on British MPs to prove their commitment to human rights.

In July, the UK launched its new Magnitsky-style sanctions against human rights-abusing regimes. The Government quickly targeted 49 individuals responsible for grave abuses in places such as Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Russia and North Korea. But senior officials from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were missing from the list – despite a raft of documented abuses most notably in Xinjiang and Tibet.

The London-based human rights group Free Tibet has now suggested that the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and the recent crackdown on pro-democracy protest movements in Hong Kong is a direct result of governments such as the UK’s failing to take a stronger stance against Beijing.

This was most explicit when, in 2015, David Cameron oversaw a state visit to Britain from the Chinese President Xi Jinping. As the Chinese leader drank beer with the then Prime Minister and handed gifts to the Queen, British protestors were being arrested by the Metropolitan Police for simply displaying Tibetan flags.

Campaigners now say that the Government must reassess its relationship with China and, if it is serious about sanctioning human rights abusers, the first step should be to at least implement a “symbolic” UK travel ban on one of the CCP’s most senior officials, Chen Quanguo.

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Without Blind Spots, Without Blanks

When protests exploded across Tibet’s capital of Lhasa 12 years ago, it was an unprecedented expression of frustration which had been building in the forgotten Himalayan nation for decades. For more than 50 years, Tibet’s Chinese occupiers had been slowly eradicating the country’s unique culture and freedom. Tibetans were pushing back.

Chinese businesses were torched, looted and destroyed; monks took to the streets to confront security forces and, for a brief moment, the world’s media paid attention to the country on the roof of the world. Beijing used the textbook authoritarian response. First came the tear gas, then machine guns.

“There was indiscriminate shooting and we saw two people shot dead in front of us,” Tibetan protestor Pema Lhakyi told Human Rights Watch. “One died in the doorway of the Mentsikhang – the outpatient department of the Tibetan hospital. The bullet hit him on the right side in the kidney area. We banged so hard on the door of the Mentsikhang. That day the hospitals had been ordered not to help anyone. The other died in the doorway of the Pudap Dzong restaurant. Both of those killed were young men of about 25-26. Their clothes were soaked in blood.”

The protests of March 2008 humiliated the CCP, which was months away from hosting the Olympic Games in Beijing. In response, it quickly expanded “patriotic education” sessions across Tibet which forced monks in every monastery to openly denounce the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. But this did little to end the resistance.

Eleven months after the protests, a monk stepped out of a monastery and set himself alight. In doing so, he single-handedly sparked a new form of public protest to demonstrate just how desperate Tibetans had become: they began setting themselves on fire.

In their desperation, the CCP turned to Chen Quanguo, a man who was made Party Secretary for Tibet in 2011. It took him less than five years to solve Beijing’s Tibet problem.

Chen’s strategy centred on seeing all Tibetans as a threat to national security due to their ethnicity and culture and therefore, he believed, they all needed to be monitored. Less than a year after arriving in Tibet, he launched “Grid” security – a vast surveillance system that aimed to control the entire population. State media described it as being “without gaps, without blind spots, without blanks” and Human Rights Watch labelled it as something out of George Orwell’s 1984.

Thousands of security personnel were deployed across a network of police stations, each set up to monitor and manage every block or group of homes across Tibet. It was coupled with the “double-linked household management system” – networks of neighbourhood spies told to report any suspicious behaviour. Those found to have committed a ‘crime’ – whether that be owning a Tibetan flag, singing their national anthem or possessing the teachings of the Dalai Lama – face imprisonment and torture.

Chen also set his sights on self-immolation protests. He knew he could not arrest or punish Tibetans who died from setting themselves alight so he found a different solution – punishing the grieving families by arresting them.

China’s Supreme Court also announced that anyone found to be “inciting” self-immolations would be charged with intentional homicide. Chinese media said in 2012 that this would include anyone who displayed portraits of the Dalai Lama, during the funerals of self-immolators as well as anyone offering condolences to a grieving family. Those who do survive after setting themselves alight are, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, “imprisoned and tortured”.

“A colleague of mine in Tibet Watch, a Tibetan who escaped Tibet in 1998, said that in Tibet today there is no space to breathe,” John Jones of Free Tibet told Byline Times. “Following the Tibetan uprising in 2008, the CCP began to intensify police recruitment in Tibet, clearly to ensure that such protests could not be repeated. ‘Stability’ in Tibet was clearly an objective of the CCP, but the methods used to achieve it seem to be driven by Chen Quango.

“Police recruitment shot up astronomically. During his tenure between 2011 and 2016, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) would advertise over 12,000 policing-related positions – over four times as many positions as the preceding five years. Over 600 new police stations were built within six months of him becoming Party Secretary and innovations such as the Grid system and double-linked households were introduced.

“Perhaps the clearest indication that the CCP attributed these ideas to Chen comes from him being ‘rewarded’ with the position of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) Party Secretary in 2016 – effectively an invitation for him to replicate his methods on a larger scale.”


Smashing, Obliterating Offensive

Not only did Chen replicate his methods there, he expanded them well beyond what had been seen in Tibet before.

He launched the mass detention of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, with a leaked cache of secret Chinese Government documents dating from 2017 revealing that a phrase Chen often used was to “round up everyone who should be rounded up”. He told police officers and troops to prepare for a “smashing, obliterating offensive”.

That offensive is believed to have led to the detention of more than a million Uyghur Muslims for “re-education”. The leaked documents show that officials were advised to tell concerned family members that their relative “has been infected by unhealthy thoughts”.

Tibetan attorney Nima Binara said that Chen is probably the “most prominent member” of a “vast anti-splittist bureaucracy” in China. He explained that the Beijing-based Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative) had documented how this bureaucracy has its own vested interests and sees promoting harsh repression in these areas as key to securing its own position, power, and resources. Sanctions are the first step to countering it.

“Targeted sanctions can alter the calculus of this bureaucracy’s leadership,” he said. “A targeted sanctions programme against Chen and other CCP officials responsible for repression in Tibet and Xinjiang is meaningful for at least two reasons. First, as we observe this year’s 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg tribunals, it upholds the principle that those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity must be held personally accountable.

“Second, it imposes direct and concrete consequences on responsible officials. CCP elites want to be able to travel, send their children for Western education, and perhaps most importantly access global financial networks – targeted sanctions hit these areas hard.”

However, he added that the “most impactful thing” Britain can do is to “push China to compromise in Tibet” and to “return to its longstanding legal position that Tibet is a state that must be autonomous” – a position the Government departed from 2008 which Binara calls “a moral and strategic blunder”.


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