What can we expect from Xinjiang’s new Party boss Ma Xingrui?

Domestic News

As global pressure on Beijing mounts because of its repressive policies in Xinjiang, the Communist Party has brought in a new man to lead the region.

Ma Xingrui in 2012, speaking at a press conference as general manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. Oriental Image via Reuters Connect

China appointed the governor of the coastal economic powerhouse Guangdong, Mă Xīngruì 马兴瑞, as the new Party chief for Xinjiang, replacing incumbent Chén Quánguó 陈全国, state media Xinhua reported on Saturday. 

Many human rights activists breathed a sigh of relief at the news. The most senior Communist Party official sanctioned by the U.S. for alleged human rights abuses, the outgoing Xinjiang chief Chen Quanguo was notorious for ruthlessly cracking down on Uyghurs and other Muslims minorities. Before his appointment as Xinjiang boss in 2016, he spent five years in Tibet where he earned a reputation as a hardliner. But China has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, claiming the policies spearheaded by Chen are aimed at quashing terrorism and separatism. 

Though provincial leadership shuffles are common in the six months leading up to twice-decade Party congresses, this personnel change is notable. The timing of Chen Quanguo’s departure, in particular, left many experts perplexed. The move followed close on the heels of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Experts argue that by immediately removing Chen from his Xinjiang post within two days after Biden signed the legislation into law, Beijing would be leaving room for interpretation that it was bowing to external pressure, something inconceivable given Beijing leadership’s assertiveness. 

Ma Xingrui’s meteoric rise as Chen’s successor also surprised veteran China watchers. The position of Xinjiang Party secretary has traditionally been reserved only for Politburo members. Analysts generally agree that Ma has effectively secured a seat on Politburo’s 25-member panel for next year.

Who is Ma Xingrui? 

The 62-year-old technocrat comes to the job with a strong background in science and technology. Ma received his doctorate from the prestigious Harbin Institute of Technology, where he launched his academic career. After a stint as professor and vice president of his alma mater, Ma was promoted to the deputy head of the China Academy of Space Technology and served as the general manager of China Aerospace Science & Technology Corp. Ma was elected to the CPC’s Central Committee in 2012 and quickly rose through the ranks, serving as vice minister of industry and information technology, director of the National Space Administration, and director of the State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense. He commanded China’s first successful lunar surface mission, Chang’e 3. 

The scientist kept a low profile as he transitioned from academia to government positions. Ma was parachuted into Guangdong as provincial vice Party chief in late 2013 and had a relatively smooth run in the southern province. He was the Party secretary in the tech hub Shenzhen for two years before becoming governor of Guangdong in 2017.

Guangdong officials have described Ma as a “forward-looking” leader with an innovative mind.  A former colleague remembered him as “a straight-talking man of principle” and a fair boss who treated subordinates with “warmth and sincerity.”  “He never strutted or put on airs. People around him affectionately referred to him as ‘Old Ma,'” said an acquaintance at the Harbin Institute of Technology.

In 2015, the then Shenzhen Party boss Ma faced a moment of crisis when a torrent of construction debris smothered 30 buildings and trapped dozens of people. Shenzhen officials were chastised for lax enforcement of safety regulations and for failing to respond quickly to warnings. Ma bowed in remorse and accepted responsibility in a televised news conference, vowing to punish anyone found culpable.

He does not walk in lockstep with the top leadership all the time. When Evergrande sought assistance from the government of its home province of Guangdong earlier this year, Ma supported bailing out the troubled property conglomerate, an idea that was later rejected by the Beijing leadership in favor of a “market-oriented” approach.

A rocket scientist, not just a technocrat

Ma Xingrui is one of several veterans of China’s aerospace and other military-industrial programs who have been promoted to key leadership positions. Others with similar portfolios include Zhejiang Party Secretary Yuán Jiājūn 袁家军, Liaoning Party Secretary Chén Qiúfā 陈求发 and Zhāng Guóqīng 张国清,  Heilongjiang Party Secretary Zhāng Qìngwěi 张庆伟, Henan Party secretary Xú Dázhé 徐达哲, Sichuan governor Huáng Qiáng 黄强, head of the Ministry of Education Huái Jìnpéng 怀进鹏, and deputy head of the Ministry of Science and Technology Zhāng Guǎngjūn 张广军.

China’s new breed of academics-turned-politicians is distinct from the previous generation of technocrats exemplified by Zhū Róngjī 朱鎔基 and many officials in his administration (he was premier from 1998 to 2003). Zhu leveraged a team of university-educated, English-speaking, reform-minded technocrats to revamp the state sector, overhaul the financial system, and integrate China’s economy into the world, vaulting the country to its position as the world’s trade and manufacturing powerhouse. 

Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 promotion of core technology professionals, on the other hand, is a natural outgrowth of his years-long push to boost China’s core tech competence and achieve tech self-sufficiency. These officials are expected to steer Beijing’s initiatives aimed at assisting domestic champions in overcoming US sanctions and decoupling supply chains.

The technocrats are seen as being relatively aloof from factional allegiances. As Chén Xī 陈希, head of the Party’s powerful Organization Department recently made clear, “Loyalty is of the utmost importance” when grooming the Party’s next generation of political elites. “Loyalty to the Party is the first criterion for selecting cadres. If one fails the loyalty test, then one will not be chosen, no matter how capable they are,” Chen remarked. 

Ma Xingrui is believed to have a clean political track record. However, a brief period of collaboration between Ma and Jjiāng Miánhéng 江绵恒, a former vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the eldest son of former Chinese President Jiāng Zémín 江泽民 has raised some eyebrows. That episode has been quietly suppressed from Ma’s official curriculum vitae

A new focus on economic growth?

In a speech following his appointment, the new Xinjiang Party chief pledged to “maintain public order” and “never allow any lapses from stability.” He lavishly praised Xi’s “helmsmanship” and lauded Chen for his “leading role” in ensuring Xinjiang’s “social and economic progress.”

Some media outlets have interpreted such government boilerplate as evidence that, aside from differences in leadership styles, there will be few, if any, changes to Xinjiang’s governance.

The Xinjiang leadership reshuffle comes as China’s treatment of Uyghurs receives increasing international scrutiny. Human rights groups believe China has detained more than one million Uyghurs in a sprawling network of “re-education camps,” euphemistically called “vocational education and training centers.” Countries including the U.S. have accused China of committing genocide — defined as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Beijing has dismissed all allegations as “baseless and fabricated,” claiming that such drastic measures are required to combat terrorists and Islamist extremists.

Experts generally believe that Xi Jinping solidified his Xinjiang policy after his first visit to the western province as China’s president in 2014. Immediately after Xi’s visit, a group of explosives-wielding assailants carried out a lethal attack outside the Urumqi railroad station. In the years since, Xi has steered policy in Xinjiang in a more radical direction, laser-focusing on security and stability at all costs. Chen Quanguo took such directives to the extreme, transforming the remote region into a draconian high-tech police state unrivaled in scope and sophistication.

Although Beijing shows no signs of relenting and remains defiant in the face of international condemnation, Chinese officials have hinted at a slight shift in tone since 2019. In a series of commemorating articles, China’s official Xinhua News Agency hailed Xinjiang’s “fight against terrorism and extremism” since 2014 as “a major interim success” (阶段性重大胜利), a term reserved to indicate completion of Beijing’s stated goals and laying the groundwork for new policy initiatives.

The clearest indication of Xi’s renewed priority came in September 2020, at the Third Central Symposium on Xinjiang Work, the Party’s highest-level meeting on the region. Xi emphasized the importance of “high-quality economic development,” emphasizing that development is a necessary foundation for long-term peace and stability in Xinjiang. He congratulated himself on achieving hard-won stability and security through an all-out offensive “combating terrorism, infiltration, and separatism.” The Party’s strategy in Xinjiang had been proven “completely correct,” Xi continued.

However, Xi remains committed to total control of the region by crushing any traces of dissent, and economic growth is unlikely to change that. In fact, in a leaked internal speech from 2014, Xi noted that the countries that were among the first to leave the USSR, such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Yugoslavia, were relatively prosperous, and he warned cadres that economic development would not be a panacea for Xinjiang. According to Xi, the outcome of the “anti-separatist struggle” was the fundamental barometer of the success of Xinjiang work.

However, the shifted tone of Party rhetoric indicates that Beijing leadership seems to be coalescing around a more sustainable, coherent plan, allowing for a sense of normalcy while maintaining control of the reins of power.

Ma is likely to be Xi’s lieutenant of choice to carry out his blueprint for Xinjiang as laid out in 2020. Experts believe Ma’s Guangdong experience will help him guide Xinjiang’s economic development. His previous interactions with foreign investors and international corporations should have provided him with ideas on how to address labor and human rights concerns as Western companies increasingly avoid products. 

According to Xinjiang Daily, the region’s Party newspaper, Ma spent his first day on the job in Urumqi visiting community centers, farmers’ markets, bazaars, and industrial parks. Ma’s first-day itinerary contrasted sharply with that of his predecessor, who convened a region-wide conference call on “stability work,” rallying local officials to beef up security and remobilize around Xi Jinping’s broad security directives.

What will become of Chen Quanguo?

Though not codified in any official documents, members of the Politburo Standing Committee generally follow the “seven up, eight down” retirement cutoff rule, under which officials 67 or younger in the year of the Party congress remain in contention for the next term, while those 68 or older retire. Chen Quanguo, who will be 67 years old next year, could theoretically be elevated to the exclusive seven-member standing committee.

However, given Chen’s stature and the controversies surrounding his legacy, such an arrangement would be unusual. Chen’s ascension would be more likely if Xi expands the standing committee’s size to accommodate more political allies, as some political insiders have speculated. Experts are divided even on the general direction of Chen’s next move. 

According to the Hong Kong-based MingPao and SingTao Daily, Chen’s next position will be the deputy head of the Central Rural Work Leading Group currently headed by Hú Chūnhuá 胡春华, Vice Premier of the State Council. Serving on the National People’s Congress leadership panel or as a deputy to a central body or coordinating group are among common positions for retiring Politburo members. A former Xinjiang Party Chief Wáng Lèquán 王乐泉 whose heavy-handed crackdown sparked the 2009 Urumqi riots, has been reassigned to a similar semi-retired role as president of the China Law Society. Wang’s failure to restore order following the first violent incident was thought to have led to his eventual removal. Wang’s immediate successor, Zhāng Chūnxián 张春贤, met a similar fate. A soft-spoken, reform-minded official known for being accessible to journalists, Zhang was sidelined to vice-chairperson of the NPC after Beijing leadership concluded that he had failed to quell ethnic unrest in the region

One anonymous Beijing-based Xinjiang scholar said that throwing Chen Quanguo under the bus for his controversial tactics would be ideal if Xi wanted to “deflect the heat of blame” away from himself. However, such a move would be considered “bad optics” for Beijing since it would appear as if Xi Jinping was caving in to external pressure, which the supreme leader would prefer to avoid.

Some experts believe Chen’s career trajectory will be more similar to that of Wáng Zhèn 王震. Known as “King of Xinjiang” (新疆王), Wang pioneered the iron-fisted crackdown and social control of the border province during Mao’s era. If such speculation is correct, then Chen will most likely lead the CPC Central Committee’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission or become Vice Premier of the State Council while remaining a member of the Politburo.

lizzi lee