Zhu Hailun, the man behind China’s Uighur prison camps

According to NGOs, over a million Chinese Muslims, largely made up of ethnic Uighurs, are being held in re-education camps in China’s Xinjiang region.
According to NGOs, over a million Chinese Muslims, largely made up of ethnic Uighurs, are being held in re-education camps in China’s Xinjiang region. AFP, Archives

One man – a Communist Party official by the name of Zhu Hailun – is largely responsible for the Orwellian system of “re-education” camps aimed at Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, according to confidential documents published on Monday.


Zhu Hailun’s name appears repeatedly in the “China Cables”, Chinese government memos released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on November 25, revealing the crucial role that the number two Communist Party official in Xinjiang played in developing the programme aimed at subjugating Uighur Muslims in the far-western region.

Zhu approved the most explosive document leaked in the China Cables: the “manual” on how to run “re-education” camps, where more than a million people have been interned, according to UN estimates.

His 2017 memo detailed a prison system where people can be detained for “educational transformation” over an indefinite period – placed under constant surveillance while being subject to intensive ideological indoctrination.

Zhu also wrote three confidential bulletins describing how the massive electronic surveillance system the Chinese government has set up in Xinjiang can identify people to intern in the camps.

Deep knowledge of Xinjiang

Until now, the 61 year-old apparatchik was in the shadow of Chen Quanguo, the top Communist Party official in Xinjiang. A famously tough operator, well-known for having “pacified” Tibet during his tenure there until 2016, Chen was tasked with fighting the “terrorist threat” in Xinjiang, as well as quashing the Uighurs’ separatist hopes.

In many respects, Chen has worked towards these objectives by using the same approach of constant surveillance and police harassment that worked for him in Tibet, exploiting newer security technologies like facial recognition.

But Chen needed someone with a deep knowledge of Xinjiang to put into practice the system of repression he devised, starting in 2016. This is where Zhu came in.

“Chen Quanguo came in the name of the Party,” an exiled Uighur businessman told the Associated Press. “Zhu knows how to implement, who to capture, what to do.”

Zhu arrived in Xinjiang in 1975 as part of a Communist Party programme that encouraged ambitious young cadres to live in far-flung parts of the country for a few years.

But unlike most his peers, who quickly returned to their home towns when their assignment finished, Zhu chose to stay in Xianjiang.

‘Thunderous power’

Over the years Zhu slowly built a reputation for efficiency and toughness. Notably, Zhu burnished his credentials by organising midnight police raids in mainly Muslim rural villages to carry out his security objectives.

This approach didn’t go unnoticed: When the 2009 ethnic riots erupted in Urumqi, the regional capital, China’s Communist Party decided to make Zhu the chief party official there. It was an unusual decision, because the Party tends to send up-and-coming cadres from Beijing to provincial capitals in order to give them field experience.

Shortly after his appointment, Zhu organised a fierce police harassment campaign against the local Muslim population, foreshadowing the repressive approach Chen formulated in 2016.

He made his approach crystal clear in a 2017 speech to a group of police officers, Reuters reported: “With guns by our bodies, knives unsheathed, fists out and hands extended, we must use thunderous power to strike hard against terrorist activities,” Zhu said.

In early 2019, Zhu retired. He subsequently became head of the regional parliament – a position regarded as a plum end of career job. His successor, the 56 year-old Wang Junzheng, is considered one of the Chinese Communist Party’s rising stars.

This article was adapted from the original in French.


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