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As Xi Jinping prepares for the annual Beidaihe conclave, he is also trying to quiet the hubbubs enveloping the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Hong Kong. (Source photo by Reuters)
China up close

Xi deploys heavyweights to Xinjiang and Hong Kong before conclave

President taps No. 4 Wang Yang and No. 7 Han Zheng to tame turbulence

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- The Zhongnanhai leadership complex in central Beijing, just west of the Tiananmen gate and home to the offices of the Chinese Communist Party and the central government, will soon become empty as leaders move to the seaside resort of Beidaihe.

The town in Hebei Province, a few hours' drive from the national capital, hosts current leaders and party elders every summer for a conclave known as the "Beidaihe meeting."

Participants, including President Xi Jinping, will exchange views on critical issues until mid-August.

Ahead of Beidaihe, party leaders have been busy. The movements of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body, are particularly noteworthy.

On July 16, state-run China Central Television reported that Wang Yang, the fourth-ranking Politburo Standing Committee member, had attended a three-day conference in the Hetian district of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Wang is chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body.

What made those concerned really pay attention was how Wang was introduced in the CCTV report, as head of the Central Committee's Xinjiang Work Coordination Small Group. It was the first time for CCTV to refer to Wang in this manner.

It has been 10 years since Xinjiang saw a massive clash between Han Chinese residents and the mostly Muslim ethnic minority Uighur residents in Urmuqi, the region's capital city. Many people are thought to have died (Chinese authorities have admitted 197 deaths).

Tensions in the region have been simmering, and Western countries now accuse China of forcibly detaining more than 1 million Muslims in the autonomous region.

A group of 22 countries, including Japan, the U.K. and France, in early June submitted a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council expressing concerns over the mass detention of Uighurs.

Against this backdrop, Wang was tapped to "coordinate" on Xinjiang issues.

Wang hails from the Communist Youth League, the Communist Party's massive youth organization. But he was not among the league's core group of elite members, such as Premier Li Keqiang.

Instead, it was former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping who noticed Wang as a young local leader in Anhui Province and promoted him.

This outsider status has granted Wang a special position in regard to President Xi. He is not seen as a representative of the Communist Youth League faction, which Xi has seen as a rival force. Nor is Wang part of Xi's inner circle.

Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, was dispatched to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, while Vice Premier Han Zheng has been sent to Shenzhen to coordinate responses to the Hong Kong protests.    © Reuters

"To understand the meaning of the appointment, look at the attendees of the Heitan conference, as well as the international situation China is in," said a Chinese political source familiar with ethnic minority issues in China.

Among the participants at the three-day conference was Chen Quanguo, the top official of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and one of 25 Politburo members.

Chen, who also once served as the top official of the Tibet Autonomous Region, is an experienced hand in ethnic minority issues. He has drawn international attention as a hard-liner.

On July 16 -- the same day CCTV aired footage of Wang and Chen attending the Hetian conference -- a ministerial-level conference on religious freedom got underway in Washington, bringing together people from around the world.

Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called for Chen to be subject to sanctions as an individual for being responsible for human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Were Chen to be subjected to sanctions based on the Global Magnitsky Act, he would be banned from entering the U.S. and his assets there, if any, would be frozen.

President Donald Trump's administration has also stepped up its criticism of China's religious crackdown.

"In Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imprisoned more than a million Chinese Muslims, including Uighurs, in internment camps, where they endure round-the-clock brainwashing," Vice President Mike Pence said at the Washington conference.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck an even harsher tone, saying, "China is home to one of the worst human rights crises of our time. ... It is truly the stain of the century."

China, which says the detention facilities are vocational training and educational facilities, was quick to take countermeasures.

According to Chinese media, a group of 37 countries, including Russia, North Korea and Venezuela, sent a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council expressing their support for China's anti-terror measures and policy toward ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

The Chinese government also released a white paper on historical matters concerning Xinjiang, which says that the region "has long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory" and that Uighurs are also "part of the Chinese nation."

China has strongly defended itself over the Uighur issue. Be that as it may, Beijing does not want to see the issue become a factor that further intensifies the trade war with the U.S. Nearly four weeks have passed since Xi and Trump agreed to restart trade talks that had nearly collapsed.

This is why Wang -- whom the West remembers as having headed the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue -- and not Chen was tasked with "coordinating" the Uighur issue.

This does not necessarily signal a clear shift to a more flexible policy on Xinjiang issues. Dealing with ethnic minorities continues to be a central issue for maintaining the stability of the communist regime.

Wang is also in charge of the Taiwan issue.

In May, Wang held talks in Beijing with many Taiwan media representatives and called for their cooperation in peacefully unifying Taiwan with mainland China.

Many of the Taiwanese were from media outlets close to the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang or KMT, which prioritizes solid relations with mainland China.

The KMT announced on July 15 that Han Kuo-yu, the mayor of Kaohsiung, had handily won the party's presidential nomination, defeating rival candidates, including former Foxconn Technology Chairman Terry Gou.

Han will square off against Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's sitting president, of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, in the presidential election in January.

China's leadership now faces one more critical issue: Hong Kong.

The former British colony has seen a series of massive protests against the local government's proposed extradition bill, which would allow criminal suspects to be handed over to mainland China.

Men in white T-shirts with metal poles and wooden rods attacked demonstrators at a train station in Hong Kong after police left the area.   © Reuters

In a new twist, some young protesters on Sunday targeted the Chinese government's representative office in Hong Kong. A front-page article published in the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, the following day condemned the attack as "a blatant challenge to the central government's authority."

Meanwhile, footage of men in white shirts attacking demonstrators with batons at a railway station in Hong Kong has gone viral, leaving the city in shock.

With no end in sight to the unrest, Han Zheng, the seventh-ranking Politburo Standing Committee member, journeyed south to Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, adjacent to Hong Kong, to take command while communicating with Hong Kong's top leaders.

It was an unusual mission, and Han has made it "at least twice" since June, an informed source said. This suggests how grave the Hong Kong situation is. Some are calling it "the July crisis."

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

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