The confidential government documents that show China’s plans for sweeping extrajudicial detentions and internment camps in Xinjiang are all signed by one man: Zhu Hailun.
Zhu was the region’s second-most-powerful official when he issued the directives in 2017, serving as deputy chief of Xinjiang’s Communist Party and as its top security official. His pivotal role in the crackdown was the culmination of a career stationed in Xinjiang’s most turbulent cities, and marked his emergence as a trusted enforcer in the Chinese government’s campaign to smother Uighur unrest.
Zhu arrived in Xinjiang in 1975 as a “sent-down youth,” part of a Communist Party initiative that sent educated urban youths to live in the countryside to further China’s Maoist revolution. A member of China’s Han ethnic majority, he was 17 when he departed prosperous Jiangsu province on China’s east coast for Kargilik, a remote county amid the deserts and steppes of China’s far northwest. Uighurs, the region’s largest ethnic group, had long chafed under official discrimination and economic marginalization under Beijing.
Unlike the many sent-down youths who returned to their homes after postings, Zhu stayed in Xinjiang and rose through the ranks of the local Communist Party. In the 1990s and 2000s, he served lengthy stints as party leader in two of the most fractious Uighur-majority cities in Xinjiang, Kashgar and Hotan.
“He’s someone with a lot of ground experience in the trickiest parts of Xinjiang,” said James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University and an expert on contemporary Xinjiang.
Zhu’s signature is on five of the six documents at the heart of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist’s China Cables investigation, a collaboration with 17 media partners in 14 countries.
In 2009, clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi killed nearly 200 people. Authorities said most of the deaths were Han Chinese. The city’s top Communist Party official and security chief were sacked, and Zhu was brought in to take charge. The promotion came with the mission to stamp out Uighur unrest.
Tensions in Xinjiang persisted, and China appointed another proven enforcer, Chen Quanguo, as the party leader for the region in 2016. Chen came to Xinjiang from Tibet, where he had flooded the region with security forces and seized control of Buddhist monasteries, imposing Chinese authority over a restive Tibetan ethnic community.
“He had a track record as a fixer of ethnic unrest,” Millward said of Chen, “but would have needed a right-hand man who really knew the Xinjiang territory.”
Zhu became that right-hand man. In 2016, he was promoted to Xinjiang’s deputy party leader, just as Chen readied a sweeping program of surveillance, internment and indoctrination that far exceeded in scale and ferocity the crackdown in Tibet.
In February 2017, as China was building the camps used for mass internment of Uighurs and other minorities, Zhu addressed a rally of heavily armed Chinese troops in Urumqi.
“We shall load our guns, draw our swords from their sheaths, throw hard punches and relentlessly beat, and strike hard without flinching at terrorists,” Zhu exhorted the soldiers, according to a report in The Guardian.
Around this time, Zhu issued a confidential document detailing policies for the camps. The undated document, described as a “telegram,” states at the top that it is “Signed and approved by Zhu Hailun.” The document states that it was created at some point in 2017. In the same year, Zhu’s handwritten signature appeared on bulletins to a committee of the Xinjiang Communist Party that gave detailed instructions for rounding up suspects without judicial proceedings.
Linguists and experts who reviewed the documents have expressed a high degree of confidence in their authenticity. Former detainees have also corroborated their contents.
Zhu did not respond to questions sent to him via China’s international press contact point. Attempts to fax its Xinjiang equivalent failed. Responding to questions about the camps and surveillance program from ICIJ media partner the Guardian, the Chinese government called the leaked documents “pure fabrication and fake news.” In a statement, the press office of its UK embassy said: “There are no so-called “detention camps” in Xinjiang. Vocational education and training centres have been established for the prevention of terrorism.”
In early 2019, Zhu stepped down as Xinjiang’s security chief and was elected deputy head of Xinjiang’s People’s Congress, a regional legislative body. The move is standard practice for provincial deputies who reach the age of 60, and Zhu was replaced as security chief by Wang Junzheng, a rising star in the Chinese Communist Party, according to reports in the South China Morning Post.
The United States last month imposed visa restrictions on unnamed Chinese officials cited for their roles in repression in Xinjiang. It is not known whether Zhu is on the list, but experts say his rank and responsibilities make him a likely target.
“Having spent so much time in this Uighur region, he might have had crucial insight in how to implement this brutal crackdown,” said Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher and an authority on China’s clampdown in Xinjiang.
“Zhu Hailun really brought the local experience to the table.”