Rocket scientist put in charge of Xinjiang

Domestic News

Under Chen Quanguo’s leadership, Xinjiang became globally notorious for the mass internment and surveillance of Uyghurs. Now Chen is being replaced by an aerospace engineer who has been running prosperous Guangdong Province.

Ma Xingrui, the new leader of Xinjiang. Oriental Image via Reuters Connect.

The top Communist Party official in Xinjiang, Chén Quánguó 陈全国, age 66, is vacating the role of Party secretary — the highest leadership position in the province — and will move to “another responsibility” according to Xinhua News Agency (in Chinese). Chen will be replaced by Mă Xīngruì 马兴瑞, who has been the governor of Guangdong Province since 2016.

Chen is widely blamed or credited for being the architect of the repressive internment and surveillance programs in Xinjiang that target Uyghurs and other Muslims.

  • Chen was the Party secretary of Tibet starting in 2011, until he moved to the same role in Xinjiang in 2016. His hard-line tactics in Tibet are said to have recommended him for the top job in Xinjiang, where sporadic violence had been increasing since the 2009 riots in the provincial capital, Urumqi.
  • In July 2020, the U.S. government imposed Global Magnitsky Act sanctions and visa restrictions against Chen and three other officials for their roles in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
  • Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law a bill banning goods from Xinjiang unless companies can prove they aren’t made with forced labor.

Who is Ma Xingrui?

Ma is an actual rocket scientist: He has a doctorate from Harbin Institute of Technology, and has served as the general manager of China Aerospace Science & Technology Corp. and as the chief commander of the Chang’e lunar exploration mission.

  • In 2012, Ma was elected as a full member of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, and in 2013, he went into government full time, becoming the deputy Party secretary of Guangdong Province.
  • Ma became the Party secretary of Shenzhen in 2015. His management of the booming southern city was impressive enough that he was chosen as the governor of Guangdong Province in 2017, the first governor in over 30 years who was not born in the province.

What does Ma’s appointment mean for Xinjiang? Ma himself indicated that there would be no change in Xinjiang policies in the Party’s Xinjiang Daily newspaper, where he vowed (in Chinese) to be loyal to the Party with Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 as its core, and to ensure “social stability.”

But some observers may read the replacement of Chen as a sign that the Party believes that enough skulls have been cracked in Xinjiang to ensure stability, and now it is time for an economically experienced leader to take over and make the province boom.

Firebrand former editor of the nationalist Global Times Hú Xījìn 胡锡进 tweeted this about Chen’s departure:

Chen Quanguo completed his mission in Xinjiang. He realized stability of the region and put an end to terrorist attacks there. Though his approach of Xinjiang governance has been seriously misread by the West, Chinese history will record him as an accomplished key official.

Other reports:

China replaces Xinjiang party boss associated with Uyghur crackdown / Guardian
New Xinjiang boss vows no reversal to stability-first policy / Bloomberg (paywall)
Northwest China’s Xinjiang gets new Communist Party chief / Caixin (paywall)
China replaces Xinjiang Communist Party chief Chen / Reuters