Hu the Uniter: Hu Lianhe and the Radical Turn in China’s Xinjiang Policy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 16

Hu Lianhe (center foreground, in navy blue), one of the top officials overseeing Xinjiang ethnic policy, inspects a building site.

An August 31 hearing of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) marked the first appearance of Hu Lianhe (胡联合; literally, “Hu the Uniter”) on the global stage. Until recently Hu, one of the leading figures of a new generation of PRC ethnic policymakers, was little known both domestically and internationally.

At the CERD meeting, Hu Lianhe responded to claims that millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities are being subjected to extrajudicial detention for political indoctrination (CERD, 13 August). Reading intently from a prepared statement, Hu denied the existence of “re-education camps” (再教育中心), asserting instead that China is “a victim of terrorism,” and that the XUAR has initiated a “special campaign to crack down on violent terrorist activities according to law.” This included the trial and imprisonment of “a number of criminals,” and the assigning of people guilty of minor offenses “to vocational education and employment training centers…to assist with their rehabilitation and reintegration” [1]. Hu’s public defense of Xinjiang’s “anti-extremism” strategy suggests his close involvement in the policy’s design and implementation.

Recent analysis of the shift in CCP policy toward Xinjiang has tended to focus on the role of regional Party boss Chen Quanguo, who has overseen the dramatic securitization of China’s far western region (China Brief, 21 Sept 2017). Yet ethnic and frontier governance is a multi-ring circus in China, with a competing matrix of functional bureaucracies and policy options [2]. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to tease out every factor affecting policy, the emergence of Hu Lianhe portends a significant shift in both the institutional and policy direction emanating out of Beijing, and suggests that what is happening in Xinjiang is the leading edge of a new, more coercive ethnic policy under Xi Jinping’s “New Era” (新时代) of Chinese power, one that seeks to accelerate the political and cultural transformation of non-Han ethnic minorities.


The Rise of Hu the Uniter

Hu Lianhe was listed as an official with the CCP’s secretive United Front Work Department (UFWD) at the CERD hearing in Geneva. Like many UFWD operatives, Hu’s identity and background are opaque, and he lacks a formal Party vitae. Yet through his prolific academic writing, we are able to piece together a fairly comprehensive biographical narrative [3]. He was born in Shaoyang, Hunan in 1968 and earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture, a master’s in sociology, and a PhD in legal studies from the CCP’s Central Party School in Beijing, where he received a national merit prize for his PhD thesis on terrorism.

By 1999 Hu Lianhe was listed as a researcher at the powerful Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee (中央政法委, CPLC) in Beijing, the CCP organ overseeing China’s massive domestic security and judicial apparatuses. He retained this position throughout most of the 2000s, but was also seconded, first to the Counter Terrorism Research Center at the China Institute for International Strategic Studies—a military intelligence think tank—and then in 2004 to the Center for China Studies (国情研究中心) at Tsinghua University under the directorship of well-known scholar Hu Angang, with whom he would co-author over a dozen papers.

Hu Lianhe’s academic research is preoccupied with the question of social stability. He helped pioneer the study of terrorism and counter-terrorism in China, publishing three influential books on the topic, where he analyzes much of the Western literature and discussion about terrorism following the 9/11 attacks. He then widened the scope of his research to explore other sources of instability, such as economic inequality, religious belief, criminality, corruption and mass incidents.

He claims to have developed a scientific and comprehensive “theory of stability.” For Hu, the maintenance of stability requires a broader focus than material and economic development, one that incorporates the ways political, cultural, spiritual, and ideological issues also affect stability. Ultimately, stability requires the “standardizing of human behaviour” (规范人的行为) in order to achieve the perfect state of harmony (Beijing Ribao, 13 July 2010). When viewed as a “comprehensive systems engineering project” (全面的系统工程), stability can be literally manufactured through the right blend of governance tools, with rule by law (法治) being the most important instrument.

By his own account, Hu Lianhe help write numerous government white papers and laws. We know he played a key role in drafting the terrorism offenses that were added to the Criminal Code in 2001, and he likely also contributed to China’s 2015 National Anti-Terrorism Law as well as the XUAR’s local Counter-Terrorism Law (2016) and Anti-Extremism Regulation (2017).

Through his study of instability, Hu developed an interest in the “ethnic question” (民族问题) and the challenge of maintaining stability in “terrorist-prone” regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, where “hostile foreign forces seek to split China.” With co-author Hu Angang, he wrote a number of controversial articles beginning in late 2011 calling for a major rethink of ethnic policy in China, what they labelled a “second generation of ethnic policies” (Aisixiang, 20 October 2011).

Invoking the specter of national collapse in the former USSR and Yugoslavia, they warned of the twin dangers of “regional ethnic elites” and “regional ethnic interest,” arguing that failure to reign in narrow ethnic consciousness in frontier regions like Tibet and Xinjiang had increased the threat of ethnic separatism. If China hoped to survive, it needed to urgently abandon its “hors d’oeuvres style” ethnic policies and embrace the “melting pot,” where different ethnic groups could blend together in forming a cohesive “state-race” (国族) (China Brief, 6 July 2012).

Reflecting his security background, Hu Lianhe frequently warns against complacency, and calls on Party officials to “wake-up” (清醒), increase their “worrying mentality” (忧患意识), and blaze new policy trails. In his writing, sources of potential instability are everywhere. Yet, with their unique geographic, religious, and ethnic profiles, frontier regions like Tibet and Xinjiang are particularly vulnerable, and a “grave and present danger” to national security and the realization of the “China Dream.”

As the more senior and influential author of their joint papers, Hu Angang (b. 1953) has attracted the lion’s share of the attention. We are now in a better position, however, to appreciate the importance of Hu Lianhe and how his obsession with stability helped to not only influence the senior Hu but also shaped the direction of ethnic policies in China. While Hu Angang’s influence might be waning (Duowei, 6 August), Hu Lianhe currently holds a number of important positions that make him arguably the most important Party official overseeing day-to-day Xinjiang work in Beijing, a fact reflected by his public appearance in Geneva.


Shifting Ethnic Policy Priorities

The rise of Hu Lianhe signifies two important shifts in ethnic policy in China: first, the strengthening of the CPLC and the UFWD in policy design, implementation and supervision; and second, the tacit acceptance of key elements of the second generation agenda, especially in the two key battle zones of Xinjiang and Tibet.

In the past, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission (SEAC) and State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) were responsible for overseeing and implementing ethnic and religious policy. These two functional bureaucracies under the State Council operate a network of local offices, known as “ethnic and religious affairs committees” (民宗委), and coordinate a hierarchy of educational institutes aimed at generating ethnic cadres and knowledge (China Brief, 19 October 2015). To reemphasize, they are both government, not Party bodies.

Under Xi Jinping, the authority of the state has eroded significantly, with the motto “the Party leads everything” (党是领导一切的) emerging as a defining characteristic of the New Era. Earlier this year, SEAC and SARA were formerly placed under the direct supervision of the UFWD, with SARA completely absorbed (Xinhua, 21 March). Shortly after this restructuring, the UFWD announced the creation of a new office for Xinjiang work, with Hu Lianhe named the Deputy Director of the so-called Ninth Office (中央统战部九局), a position from which he appears to wield more power than its obscure and similarly-aged Director Yang Bingjian (Duowei, 14 July 2017).

The Party’s CPLC has long played a key role in Tibet and Xinjiang policymaking through its control over the security apparatuses operating in the region. The ongoing securitization of China’s western borderlands has increased the CPLC’s importance, despite the fact that the current head Guo Shengkun does not hold a position on the Politburo Standing Committee. Hu Lianhe is currently the Deputy Head of the CPLC’s Secretariat for Coordinating Xinjiang Work (中央政法委新疆工作协调领导小组办公室) (Anhui Yuanjiang wang, 6 April 2013), and since at least late 2012, he has also been listed as one of the deputy heads of the Secretariat for the Central Party Leading Small Group on Xinjiang Work (中央新疆工作协调小组办公室) (Pengpai, 19 September 2014).

Following the 2008-9 ethnic riots in Lhasa and Urumqi, two new frontier strategies emerged alongside the continued emphasis on “leap frog-style” economic development. At the 2010 Central Tibet and Xinjiang Work Forums held in Beijing (Xinhua, 23 January 2010; Xinhua, 19 May 2010), Hu Jintao spoke about the importance of interethnic “mingling” (交融, jiaorong) and “stability maintenance” (维稳, weiwen) in ethnic work. In order to attenuate ethnic consciousness and forge a new sense of shared national belonging, top Party leaders called for a strengthening of interethnic mingling, which many defenders of the ethnic status quo immediately labelled a euphemism for ethnic “fusion” (融合) or even “Hanification” (汉化) (China Brief, 19 June 2014). In his academic writing, Hu Lianhe was an early and vocal champion of ethnic mingling, asserting its centrality to progress and the upholding of social stability.

Alongside this concept of mingling, Hu Jintao also stated, for the first time, “what is beneficial for national unity and social stability is an important criterion for evaluating the effectiveness of ethnic work.” This focus on security opened the door for increased investments in policing and other security and surveillance methods in Xinjiang and Tibet (China Brief, 14 March 2017). Upholding ethnic unity and stability is now the single most important performance indicator for cadre promotion in these two regions [4].

The concepts of jiaorong and weiwen appear to have emanated with Jia Qinglin and Zhou Yongkang (Menggu xinwen, 21 September, 2013), who at the time headed the UFWD and CPLC, respectively. However, Xi Jinping not only endorsed these concepts at the 2014 Central Ethnic Work Forum (China Brief, 7 November 2014), but has also transformed them into the driving logic of ethnic policy in the New Era, with hundreds of academic articles and policy documents exploring the centrality of these two policy “formulations” (提法).


The Cost of Stability

In his remarks at the CERD hearing, Hu Lianhe claimed Xinjiang has been plagued by the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism and separatism since the 1990s, and the Party’s efforts to shore up social stability “have won great support of people of all ethnic groups” (CERD, 13 August). “Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil,” Chinese state media wrote in defense, preventing it from becoming “China’s Syria or China’s Libya” (Global Times, 12 August). Security is simply the cost of stability for Hu and other Party leaders, and must be “shouldered by people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang.”

The radical shift in ethnic policy, however, exhibits an odd mix of hubris, paranoia, and frustration on behalf of top Party officials. Irritated by the slow pace of integration and violent acts of resistance in Xinjiang and Tibet, policy reformers like Hu Lianhe seek to supercharge nation-building through the adoption of more forceful yet blunt forms of mingling and securitization. “Stability is about liberating man, standardizing man, developing man,” Hu Lianhe wrote in 2010, “and establishing the desired working social order” (Beijing Ribao, 13 July 2010).

Yet securitization and interethnic mingling are deeply incommensurate, with pre-emptive surveillance and coercive re-engineering eroding the trust and sociability required for genuine social cohesion and nation-building. Rather, the political re-education camps and classes in Xinjiang are signs of a regime that is losing patience, and seeks to use its newfound power to “mingle” and “standardize” the non-Han minorities out of existence. In deeply divided societies like Xinjiang and Tibet, force begets instability, which in turn justifies more security. In the process, the stability that Hu Lianhe desires becomes increasingly elusive.


James Leibold is an Associate Professor in Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia, and an expert on ethnic theory, policy and conflict in contemporary China. He is the author and co-editor of four books and over twenty-five peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and a frequent contributor to the international media on these topics.



[1] In the written English transcript of Hu’s statement, he denies the existence of both “re-education centers” and “counter-extremism training centres,” but the second term was omitted from his oral statement.

[2] For additional information, see Jessica Batke, “Central and Regional Leadership for Xinjiang Policy in Xi’s Second Term,” China Leadership Monitor, no. 56 (2018): 1-13; and James Leibold, Ethnic Policy in China (Honolulu: East-West Center, 2013). The circus metaphor is borrowed from Vivienne Shue and Patricia M. Thornton, “Introduction,” in To Govern China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017): 22.

[3] The following is based on my analysis of over twenty-five books and articles either authored or co-authored by Hu Lianhe between 1999 and 2017. A full list of references are available from the author upon request.

[4] For more information on this, see Ben Hillman and Gray Tuttle, eds., Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016): 29-30.