The Learning Curve: How Communist Party Officials are Applying Lessons from Prior “Transformation” Campaigns to Repression in Xinjiang
Editor’s Note: This article continues coverage by China Brief of the ongoing efforts by the Chinese government to suppress dissent in Xinjiang (see China Brief, May 15 2018; and China Brief, November 5 2018). This article examines commonalities between the situation in Xinjiang and the government’s prior (and ongoing) efforts to suppress and “transform” practitioners of Falun Gong. Due to the detailed nature of the information this article contains, for this issue of China Brief a rare exception is being made to our standard publishing practices: this article, significantly longer than the standard contribution for China Brief, is being offered as a dual-length piece in lieu of a fourth contributors’ article.
A 45-year-old seamstress is arbitrarily taken away by police for detention at a “transformation through education” session held at an old munitions factory guesthouse, where she is pressured to renounce her religious beliefs. Nine days later, her husband is informed that she has died in custody and see signs of abuse on her body, but is pressured by local officials to permit rapid cremation.
For those following the current campaign of detentions, indoctrination, and torture in Xinjiang, such a scenario may sound familiar. But this incident did not occur in Xinjiang in 2019, and the victim was not Uighur—this happened in Hebei province in 2010 to Yuan Pingjun, a Han Chinese and an adherent of the Falun Gong spiritual practice (Human Rights in China, September 2011). However, there is a link to current events in Xinjiang: Hebei’s deputy party secretary at the time was a rising star in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) named Chen Quanguo (陈全国), now party secretary in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Much analysis to date has noted Chen’s previous experience in Tibet, and the similarities between securitization policies implemented there and those expanding under his tenure in Xinjiang (China Brief, September 21 2017; International Campaign for Tibet, December 10 2018). Less serious attention has been given to the Xinjiang campaign’s commonalities with the party’s long-standing struggle to eliminate Falun Gong—another massive CCP effort at “transformation” targeting millions of spiritual believers. But as is outlined below, Chen’s own career path is not an isolated example: rather, it would appear that the CCP’s nearly 20-year experience implementing the anti-Falun Gong campaign has shaped policies and tactics in Xinjiang, a dynamic that yields insights into how events may unfold in that region and beyond.
“Transformation Through Education” in the Repression of Falun Gong
The concept of “re-education” has a long history in Communist China, most starkly epitomized by the “re-education through labor” (劳教, laojiao), or RTL, system in existence from the 1950s through 2013. In the early 2000s, a new term for a particular type of re-education targeting religious believers gained prominence: “transformation through education” (jiaoyu zhuanhua, 教育转化). This set of practices emerged in the context of the party’s campaign to eliminate Falun Gong, a spiritual and meditation discipline practiced in the late 1990s by tens of millions of Chinese citizens, but which was abruptly banned in 1999 after then-CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin decided it posed a threat to the party’s power. 
The primary bureaucratic entity charged with the suppression of Falun Gong is the “610 Office,” an extra-legal CCP-based security agency named for the June 10 date of its establishment in 1999. Amongst its other tools, the 610 Office developed a particular specialty in thought reform targeting Falun Gong and other religious movements that were categorized as xiejiao (邪教)—meaning “heterodox religion,” but often translated in official sources as the more demonizing term “cult” (China Brief, September 16 2011; Freedom House, February 2017).
“Transformation through education” soon emerged as a central component of the party’s effort to wipe out Falun Gong, with the slogan intended to invoke a positive image of personal growth and compassionate treatment by the state. In reality, in the Falun Gong case, “transformation” has not only involved forcing adherents to renounce the practice—often through the use of violence; iit has also required victims to actively demonstrate, by participating in the psychological manipulation and abuse of fellow believers, that they have decisively turned against their former beliefs centered on the tenets of truthfulness, kindness, and forbearance.
In addition to the now-abolished RTL camps and judicial prisons, extralegal detention regimes at various venues (often operating under euphemisms such as “legal education center”) became a common form of punishment, and a means for “transforming” Falun Gong practitioners. The use of such facilities gained new momentum with the abolition of the RTL camp system in 2013 (Amnesty International, December 2013). One study in 2014 uncovered 449 “legal education centers” in existence under various names, spread throughout 329 districts and 173 municipalities (China Change, April 3 2014). The proliferation of these centers also coincided with two nationwide anti-Falun Gong campaigns initiated by the central 610 Office—one from 2010 to 2012, and another from 2013 to 2015 (Congressional-Executive Commission on China, March 2011; China Quarterly, September 2015).
At the centers, detainees are forced to watch propaganda videos, sing patriotic or pro-Communist Party (CCP) songs, and “repent,” while those refusing to concede are made subject to various forms of physical coercion and torture. Medical analogies are used—such as describing dedicated believers as “addicts,” while staff or volunteers with backgrounds in psychology are employed at the centers (Jiangxi Provincial Government, November 2017).
One theme that emerges consistently from official websites and party journals is an effort by the CCP to refine its tactics for “transformation through reeducation work” relating to Falun Gong or other banned xiejiao groups, such as the quasi-Christian “Almighty God” sect (Congressional-Executive Commission on China, October 31 2008; Wugong County (Shaanxi) Government, March 7 2018). Many examples of this are available, stretching across China and over a period of several years:
- A May 2010 document from Anhui province emphasizes the importance of innovation, and states that “we must conscientiously sum up the new experiences of transformations through education and reinforce the results” (Hefei Municipal Government, January 2011).
- A similarly timed document from Henan instructs officials to “use transformation through education bases or transformation classes as a place to train cadres” (Henan Provincial Government, May 5 2010).
- A February 2017 document on a website set up by the China Anti-Cult Association discusses key strategies to serve as the “model” for “transformation through education” of Falun Gong adherents (Kaiwind.com, February 17 2017).
- An October 2017 report from Yunnan province refers to an effort to set up a “transformation through education expert group” and to “organize transformation through education expert training courses” (Yunnan Province Discipline and Inspection Commission, October 25 2017).
Policies and CCP Personnel Linked to Anti-Falun Gong Campaigns Are Employed in “Transformation” Programs in Xinjiang
The terminology used in official documents and relayed by former detainees from the party’s anti-Falun Gong repression is strikingly similar to what has appeared more recently in Xinjiang, including official references to re-education efforts as “psychological counselling” (Zenz, September 2018; Xinjiang Government, May 15 2017). Official documents in both cases also divide targeted populations by perceived severity: such as being “die hard” Falun Gong adherents or “strike hard detainees” in Xinjiang. Local officials are assigned target quotas as a percentage of the known relevant population (hnhx.gov.cn, May 2010); and reports from lower authorities offer accounts of the percentage of those successfully “transformed.”
The link between the two campaigns goes beyond the general evolution of the CCP’s thought reform strategies. Several key officials now influencing events in Xinjiang gained first-hand experience with programs directed against Falun Gong earlier in their careers, and appear to have applied their experience to policymaking in Xinjiang. Four officials linked to the escalating repression in Xinjiang—two at the provincial level and two at the national level—stand out for their previous connections to the anti-Falun Gong campaign, including “transformation” efforts and “education classes” at extralegal detention facilities. One of these men, Fu Zhenghua, is currently serving as PRC Minister of Justice. The remaining three individuals—Chen Quanguo, Sun Jinlong and Chen Xunqiu—are believed to be members of the Leading Small Group for Xinjiang Work, with Chen Quanguo acting as the leader (China File, May 11 2018).
As noted above, Chen Quanguo served as deputy party secretary in Hebei from 2009 to 2011, which covered the initial implementation phase of the 2010-2012 campaign that swept up Yuan Pingjun (as described in the beginning of this article). Prior to that appointment, Chen had been a member of the CCP standing committee in Henan from 2000-2009, including a stint as deputy party secretary from 2003 to 2009. Although Chen’s personal role in promoting the Falun Gong “transformation” effort in the province during that period is difficult to pin down, eyewitness accounts from people detained in Henan during this period describe a variety of tactics intended to break prisoners’ wills: sleep deprivation, forced feeding, being tied in contorted positions, and being forced to watch anti-Falun Gong videos. Camp wardens reportedly told prisoners that monetary rewards would be received for every Falun Gong believer successfully “transformed.” 
Chen Quanguo’s currently appointed deputy in Xinjiang, Sun Jinlong (孙金龙), also has long-term experience in the anti-Falun Gong campaign dating back to 2001—when, as the head of the All China Youth Federation, he made public comments vilifying the group and urging members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference to fight against it (People’s Daily, February 5 2001). Sun was later a top party official in Anhui and Hunan throughout the above-mentioned nationwide “transformation” campaigns carried out against Falun Gong from 2010 to 2015. One 2010 document from the city of Hefei, at a time when Sun was the city’s party secretary, provides a detailed “overall battle work plan” for the 2010-2012 campaign. It designates tasks such as establishing real-name databases of local residents known to practice Falun Gong, and conducting “legal education classes” for dedicated adherents and door-to-door visits for others, with the aim of reaching a 70 percent total transformation rate over three years (Hefei.gov.cn, May 2010). Another document from Hefei indicates that street-level officials were apparently so effective at their anti-Falun Gong “transformation” efforts in 2010-2012 that they were granted an award established by the city (Hefei Government, January 2014).
CCP Officials with Anti-Falun Gong Experience in the Security Organs of the Central Government
CCP officials who gained earlier experience in provincial-level repression of Falun Gong now also occupy senior positions in the national-level government security apparatus. Two officials in particular stand out for their strong links both to the anti-Falun Gong campaign, and the current repression in Xinjiang. Chen Xunqiu (陈训秋) is the deputy secretary general of the CCP’s Central Politics and Law Commission, which exercises control over the PRC’s security and intelligence agencies. Chen has worked in the central public security apparatus since 2011, when he was promoted to Beijing by then security-czar Zhou Yongkang. (Zhou had been a key ally of Jiang Zemin, and a leading force in anti-Falun Gong efforts after Jiang’s retirement—until Zhou’s own purge in 2014). In his position, Chen would have played a role overseeing the 2013-2015 anti-Falun Gong nationwide “transformation” campaign. Chen himself had already established a record of being harsh on Falun Gong in his time in Hubei in the early years after the group’s ban—first as the provincial head of public security, and then as party secretary in Wuhan. In 2001, he accompanied Liu Jing, then head of the 610 Office, to inspect a “legal education study class” for Falun Gong practitioners in Wuhan’s Jiang’an District (Chinanews.com, May 23 2001).
Although not a member of the Xinjiang Leading Small Group (which coordinates central government policy for Xinjiang), another central official may be playing a crucial role influencing, and guaranteeing funding for, political indoctrination tactics in the region: Fu Zhenghua (傅政华), who became PRC Minister of Justice in 2016. Under his cognizance, the Xinjiang Department of Justice issued a key February 2017 policy document mandating the establishment of “education and transformation training centers” (ChinaFile, May 11 2018; Yuli County Government, March 2017). Moreover, recent research into PRC security budgets has concluded that “Xinjiang’s re-education campaign seems to be managed by the Ministry of Justice…and funded largely out of the budgets of these same authorities” (China Brief, November 5 2018).
Of the four officials examined in this article, Fu’s link to the anti-Falun Gong campaign is arguably also the most direct. Prior to his current position, Fu served as head of the central 610 Office for almost a year. Under his brief leadership, no new national campaign was launched, but various “transformation” efforts continued throughout the country.  In September 2015, when Fu was just beginning his tenure at the 610 Office, he joined a delegation to Xinjiang led by then Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengsheng—and in a rare occurrence, state media listed his 610 Office title (Xinjiang Daily, September 26 2015). A few months later, in May 2016, his then deputy at the agency, Tao Dingcheng, visited Xinjiang and gave a lecture on “anti-cult” efforts at the regional party school (Xinjiang Production Corps, June 1 2016). In addition to Fu’s experience at the 6-10 office, during the period of 2010-2015, he was a top official at the Public Security Bureau in Beijing; research by Amnesty International has described how Falun Gong practitioners who refused to “transform” during this period were “directly sent to various ‘brainwashing centres’ around Beijing” (Amnesty International, December 2013).
The above analysis has several implications for understanding current and future events in Xinjiang, as well as human rights in China more generally. First, the officials driving the “transformation” campaign in Xinjiang are coming to it with almost 20 years of experience, which helps explain how they have managed to launch and implement such a massive campaign within such a short time frame. Second, the fact that these officials appear to be following the anti-Falun Gong playbook in Xinjiang should raise alarm bells. In indicates that they are playing the long game, have little intention of reversing the policy, and have few qualms about using harsh tactics like severe torture or long prison terms to achieve their aims. In addition, certain conditions appear to be in place to enable rapid escalation to even more horrific abuses, like involuntary organ removals. 
Third, the career trajectories of these four officials highlight the depth and breadth of China’s human rights problems under the Communist Party. It appears that these officials were promoted within the CCP hierarchy precisely because of their proven track record of harshly suppressing innocent religious believers. Fourth, as these and other officials complete their tenure in Xinjiang and move on, we may see the above pattern repeating itself, reinforcing the prospects that similar policies could be deployed against other populations of believers—such as Hui Muslims or underground Christians—at a time when persecution of these groups is already increasing. Meanwhile, “transformation through education” efforts continue today throughout China, mostly targeting Falun Gong believers but in some cases, the members of other banned religious groups as well.
But there are also more optimistic lessons to be drawn from the party’s crackdown on Falun Gong—including that resistance to state oppression is still possible. After nearly 20 years of persecution, Falun Gong survives in China: millions of Chinese still practice the discipline, including hundreds of thousands who have published online statements rescinding denunciations made under torture during “transformation” efforts. In some locales, repression has eased over the past five years, even though a national ban against Falun Gong remains in place. A comprehensive 2017 Freedom House study of religious revival, repression, and resistance in China concluded that “billions of dollars and an untold number of ruined lives later, the party’s concerted efforts to change people’s actual beliefs have largely proven futile” (Freedom House, February 2017).
For these reasons, international actors should continue to expose “transformation” efforts in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Furthermore, targeted sanctions should be considered against key officials. These steps might not reverse current policies entirely, but they might prevent further deterioration of human rights in the PRC, limit the populations affected—and ultimately, save lives.
Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and author of The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping. Cheryl Yu, China Studies Assistant at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, provided research assistance for the article.
 Various factors contributed to the decision by Jiang Zemin and the CCP to ban Falun Gong and launch an aggressive elimination campaign against the previously popular and state-tolerated group. See the author’s previous discussion of these factors in: Sarah Cook, The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping, Freedom House, February 2017, pp 110-113; and Sarah Cook, “The Origins and Long-Term Consequences of the Communist Party’s Campaign against Falun Gong,” written statement to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, “Falun Gong: Review and Update” hearing dated December 18, 2012, https://freedomhouse.org/article/China-communist-party-campaign-against-falun-gong.
 One account on file with the author, based on U.S. asylum application documents, is that of Ms. Ding from Jiaozuo, who recently received asylum in the United States. Ms. Ding was sent twice to a “re-education through labor” camp for three years, once in 1999 and again in 2004, coinciding with Chen’s tenure in Henan. The second stint was in apparent retribution for refusing to go with police to an extralegal indoctrination center. During her time in custody, she experienced abuses aimed at “transforming” believers that ranged from being forced to watch anti-Falun Gong videos to force-feeding, deprivation of sleep, and being tied up in contorted positons for long periods of time, while witnessing evidence of other Falun Gong detainees being tortured with electric batons. She reports that the warden of Shibalihe Forced Female Labor Camp in Zhengzhou, where she was held the second time, told her that the camp would receive 10,000 yuan for every Falun Gong believer successfully “transformed.”
 See, for example, this document from Shanxi Province: “Datong City Communist Party Committee General Office 2016 Departmental Budget” (中共大同市委办公厅2016年部门预算), document dated June 29, 2016. Accessed at: https://archive.is/cUkl9#selection-885.0-885.18.
 Sarah Cook, “Submission to Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China,” Freedom House, November 15, 2018 (on file with author, available upon request).