November 25, 2019

Xi Zhongxun’s “soft touch” approach to the region contrasts dramatically with his son’s crackdown. On November 16, the New York Times, drawing on leaked documents, reported new details on Xi Jinping’s crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang. Over the last weekend, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published even more material in a similar vein. Other classified materials available in American libraries, however, demonstrate that the Chinese Communist Party has at other times used a much softer approach toward Xinjiang – and that such policies happen to be most closely associated with Xi’s own father, Xi Zhongxun. After the Communist victory in 1949, Zhongxun ran the Northwest Bureau, which managed a segment of the country about as big as India, including Xinjiang. The region is full of numerous Muslim peoples, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Hui. In 1949, Zhongxun said, “If it can be said that the Northwest has a defining characteristic, that defining characteristic is ethnic work.”


Joseph Torigian is currently a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relation’s David Rockefeller Studies Program and a professor at the School of International Service at American University.