The Crimes of the Red Emperor
Image: Xi Jinping and the first lady arrive in Bali for the 2013 APEC Summit (Flickr)

The Crimes of the Red Emperor

Aaron Sarin
Aaron Sarin
12 min read

Show absolutely no mercy.
~Xi Jinping

On July 30th, Chinese state media published details of the upcoming fifth plenary session. The Party’s leaders have traditionally used the conference to lay out their next five-year plan, but this time a new detail was included—a pointed reference to “targets for 2035.” The date may give us some indication of how long Xi Jinping intends to retain his position as president. China has reached a crucial stage of its development, with superpower status at last in sight, and Xi has decided that only one man can be trusted to guide the country through the final stages of its glorious journey. That man is himself, of course. He has assumed the role of Great Helmsman, famously ordering the removal of presidential term limits in 2018 to ensure that the inferior leaders of the future don’t botch the job.

In the years since becoming president, Xi has drawn state powers to himself like no other Chinese leader since Mao. Today he oversees all aspects of economic, political, cultural, social, and military reform, and at the same time he directs all aspects of national, internet, and information security.1 This dramatic fortification of his personal power requires him to focus on the silencing of dissent—again, to a greater degree than any of his predecessors since Mao. But dissent crops up in many and varied forms, even in China, and as a result we find that the president’s power base is built on countless personal tragedies.

Xi has authorised his secret police to kidnap, “interrogate” (torture), and detain for six months anyone charged with endangering state security, which means, in reality, anyone who has expressed heretical views. Tens of thousands have disappeared as a result. Others have been caught in his anti-corruption dragnet—a convenient cover for him to get rid of dissenting voices. And more than a million people have been locked in concentration camps, most of them guilty only of belonging to the wrong ethnic group. If Xi really does stay in power until 2035 then we can expect the casualties to keep piling up for another 15 years. We owe it to these victims to tell a few of their stories, and to remember some of their names.

Xi’s Gestapo thugs will sometimes come for TV newscasters just before they are due to go on air, but in 2018 they came for an elderly professor while he was actually on the air. Six or seven policemen turned up to drag Sun Wenguang, 83, away from his live interview with Voice of America. These are cynical terror tactics. It’s one thing to read a detached news report about someone having been arrested; it’s quite another to actually hear the panic in the old man’s voice as he shouts: “What are you doing? What are you doing? It’s illegal for you to come into my home!” That interview will not quickly be forgotten by Chinese listeners to Voice of America.

“Deng Xiaoping kept everyone together by promising to make them rich,” says Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director of Amnesty International. “What keeps things together under Xi is fear. Fear of the system, where no matter how high you are, from one day to the next you can disappear.” 243 Party officials are reported to have killed themselves during Xi’s first few years in office, apparently terrified at the prospect of investigation by his dreaded Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. It is not difficult to understand why they might have chosen this route. Both body and will are broken in the Party’s detention centres. Each of those officials knew that after just a few months in police custody, he would no longer be the same person.

The lawyer Wang Quanzhang spent five years in detention (having attempted, in an act of almost inconceivable bravery, to provide representation to Falun Gong practitioners), and in the final year, his wife Li Wenzu was permitted to visit him for the first time. She found a changed man. “He (spoke) in a robotic tone… he had lost about 30 pounds, his skin was darkened, and his memory was hazy. He had a list of written things to tell us, saying he had been treated well, but he couldn’t even recall what he had for lunch today… When the meeting was almost over, he just stood up and left and didn’t even look back.”

A group of Marxist students had the same dispiriting experience earlier in 2019 when Guangdong police showed them a videotaped confession by two of their former friends, Yue Xin and Shen Mengyu. Both girls had been arrested for protesting in support of workers’ rights. After five months in detention, they were almost unrecognisable to their former colleagues. “Their expressions are dull and their faces colourless, and seem partly swollen,” said one of the students. “It makes you wonder what kind of treatment they were receiving inside.”

As Yue Xin and Shen Mengyu had discovered, the old red ideology provides no protection in modern China. Xi Jinping has more in common with an emperor of the ancient world than the chairman of a revolutionary vanguard party. Despite this, somewhat paradoxically, he has resurrected the language of Mao’s era. In the words of John Garnaut, one-time advisor to the Australian government, “Xi’s language of ‘party purity’; ‘criticism and self-criticism’; ‘the mass line’; his obsession with ‘unity’; his attacks on elements of ‘hostile Western liberalism,’ ‘constitutionalism,’ and other variants of ideological ‘subversion’—this is all Marxism-Leninism as interpreted by Stalin as interpreted by Mao.”

The Communist Party of the 21st century is a classic Chinese dynasty rather than the temporary guardian of a workers’ revolution. Its leaders are concerned with the Party itself, not with communism. But Xi is using elements of Marxism-Leninism as the glue to hold society together—like a religion, perhaps, or like Confucianism in earlier dynasties. “Our red nation will never change colour,” he tells the people. And with the return of the old phrases comes the return of the old practices. Xi knows that Western ideas are forever infecting the minds of his subjects; always perverting the purity of students, of lawyers, of government officials. Like Stalin and Mao, he knows that regular purges are necessary in order to preserve the spiritual health of the people.

Xi’s main legacy, however, is surely the Xinjiang nightmare. Over the past few years a million or more Uyghur Muslims (and smaller numbers of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz) have been shut in concentration camps scattered about the western province. This mass incarceration is a response to terrorist attacks carried out by Uyghur separatists in Kunming and Ürümqi in 2014—attacks that came at the end of decades of tension between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnicity.

The camps are designed to stamp out extremist thinking. Unfortunately, as with so many of Xi’s policies, there is no concern for collateral damage. Party leaders have been given instructions to round up anyone acting suspiciously, but this definition of “suspicious” appears to have been provided by a paranoid schizophrenic. Uyghurs have been interned for growing a beard; making plans to travel abroad; praying too much (or, on other occasions, not praying enough); setting clocks to two hours after Beijing time; even simply having been born in the 1990s. The wrong skin colour is itself cause for suspicion.

From the outset, Xi told his officials to show no mercy. They took him at his word, and now the personal tragedies are mounting. When 81-year-old Zunun Niyazi was taken into a camp, the old man had no serious health problems. But he died days after his release—a death hastened, there can be little doubt, by this needless late-life trauma. Guards have been given total power over inmates, and so of course torture is commonplace. WeChat posts from Merdan Ghappar (still in detention) describe hellish sounds coming from interrogation rooms—grown men “screaming like babies.”

Total control has also led, inevitably, to sexual abuse. Ruqiye Perhat was raped repeatedly over the course of four years in the camps, resulting in two pregnancies (both aborted), and since gaining her freedom she has made the extraordinary claim that “Any woman or man under age 35 [in the camps] was raped and sexually abused.” Whether or not this statement is true, reports of rape are widespread, and these include the account of a former camp guard.

Inside the camps, prisoners must pray before eating—prayers offered to Xi Jinping, not Allah. He is their new god; he holds the power of life and death. And in a certain sense this is not too far from the truth. The excessive new measures in Xinjiang may have been implemented by Party Secretary Chen Quanguo (a man recently sanctioned by the United States government over this issue), but Chen was following orders, and leaked government documents have identified Xi as the individual personally responsible for the program. He was the man who dreamed up the Xinjiang nightmare.

These documents are thought to have originated from a high-level Politburo source, indicating discord among the Party’s leaders. In fact, Chinese Oskar Schindlers have sometimes emerged—officials like Wang Yongzhi, who orchestrated the release of several thousand detainees. Wang was dealt with swiftly. Xi has made the total control of Uyghur lives an issue of primary importance. He can allow no room for dissent.

The suffering extends beyond the concentration camps. Uyghur women throughout the province have been subjected to forced abortions and state-mandated sterilisations, leading to a sharp drop in the region’s birth rates. Population growth fell by 84 percent in the two largest Uyghur prefectures between 2015 and 2018. This is still not low enough for the Party. In one region dominated by the ethnic group, the authorities set a near-zero birth rate target for the year 2020. Sinologist Joanne Smith Finley calls it a “slow, painful, creeping genocide.” Armed police stalk Uyghur neighbourhoods at night, ransacking apartments in search of illegal items—qur’ans, prayer mats, children.

We all know the story of Mihrigul Tursun, the Uyghur woman imprisoned, tortured, and forcibly sterilised when she tried to visit her grandparents in Xinjiang. Her infant triplets were snatched by the police as soon as she arrived in the airport, and upon her release only two children were returned: her son had died in the “care” of the Chinese authorities. But almost every family belonging to a minority group in Xinjiang now has its own private tragedy.

Tursunay Ziyawudun told the Associated Press that she was given a series of mysterious injections in police custody, and while she was there officers also repeatedly kicked her in the lower stomach. Today she is infertile and suffers from chronic womb pain. Gulzia Mogdin was detained by police after committing the crime of downloading WhatsApp, and as a member of an ethnic minority, she was required to provide a urine sample. The sample showed her to be pregnant, so she was taken to hospital and the foetus was sucked out with an electric vacuum. Mogdin doesn’t even live in China—she was just visiting from Kazakhstan. “We lost a part of our body, we lost our identity as women,” says Zumret Dawut, who was forcibly sterilised in one of the detention camps. “We will never be able to have children again.”

Today, when a Uyghur man is taken from his home by the police, his wife can expect a new man to turn up on the doorstep within days. This will be a spy appointed by the government to monitor her behaviour. Invariably, the spy will be Han Chinese, and as part of his “monitoring” he will share her bed. The Communist Party calls this the “Pair Up and Become Family” program, and the eugenicist overtones are unmistakeable. Xi wants to dilute the Uyghur genes. He is unmoved by the human suffering his program entails—suffering perhaps akin to losing a husband in battle in the ancient world and then being taken as the killer’s concubine (the fate of Andromache in myth and scores of nameless women in reality). These women are being punished for the crime of having married the wrong person.

Under Xi, familial links are always proof of guilt. When the Uyghur academic Dr. Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for “terrorism” (he had criticised some of the Party’s policies), his family saw their property and assets confiscated, leaving them destitute.2 From a purely logical perspective, this Mosaic morality makes sense. Any serious threat to the wellbeing of our children would make most of us think twice about engaging in dissident behaviour. So the majority of people stay quiet, and in the absence of opposition, Xi is able to focus on strengthening China. As China grows stronger, he achieves his ultimate aim: securing the Party’s position. All very logical, but the cost to the unfortunate family members never enters into the emperor’s equations.

Xi applies the same morality outside Xinjiang and across the nation, forever punishing the sons for the sins of the fathers. He appears to lack any sense of his own absurdity: even two-year-olds have been named on government blacklists, having inherited their parents’ guilt and also their parents’ debts.3 On other occasions children have been used as leverage. Civil rights lawyer Wang Yu was arrested in 2015 as part of the “709 Crackdown”—the forced disappearance of lawyers across China. Charged with “inciting subversion of state power” (the Party’s favourite catch-all crime), she refused to confess. But one day her interrogators came into the cell and showed her a photograph of her 16-year-old son, labelled “suspect.” The shock was so great that Wang fainted. When she came round she was more than willing to read a prepared confession for the television cameras.4 The journalist Gao Yu had a similar experience after she was taken into custody for leaking a Party document—her child was “threatened with unimaginable things.”

Professional connections carry the same danger as blood ties. Legal assistant Zhao Wei learned this when she made the mistake of finding work with a rights lawyer (a Christian rights lawyer, to boot). Her employer vanished into the jaws of the police state on July 10th, 2015, another victim of the 709 Crackdown, and Zhao was taken later the same night. Ten plainclothes officers turned up at her door, trashed her flat, and disappeared her.

The crackdown is best understood as a calculated political move with the intention of silencing one of the country’s main sources of dissent. The very existence of rights lawyers is inconvenient for a man pursuing unchecked power. When he discredited those lawyers as “a major criminal gang” guilty of “seriously disturbing social order” by “drawing attention to sensitive cases,” Xi made life much easier for himself. But once again, if we look beneath the politics, we will find plenty of human wreckage.

Six months after Zhao Wei vanished, journalists Tom Phillips and Christy Yao reported on the situation in her hometown. They found a 61-year-old mother who spends part of each day grieving on her daughter’s unmade bed. “Every day I cry,” she told them. “They must be torturing her… I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. We want to appeal but I don’t know who to appeal to.” She made several attempts to get legal help, but stopped when she received threats from the authorities. Her fears for her daughter were probably well-founded: the trainee lawyer Lu Shuyun later claimed to have been tortured when she was detained as part of the same crackdown.

The heartache felt by Zhao Wei’s mother has been felt for years now in homes across China—in every family broken apart by Xi Jinping’s endless groping for power. To him, these families are just statistics. “Our lives are worth about as much as dirt,” Shenzhen citizen Agnes Ouyang told the New York Times. For CCP apologists, her perspective is too narrow: Xi thinks on “a bigger scale” than the leaders of democratic countries. But in practice, such widescreen thinking means disregarding the human details; the individual suffering that the president’s sweeping policies bring.

There are only two conceptions of human ethics, according to the novelist Arthur Koestler. He was a man who had believed in both of them, having moved from membership of the German Communist Party in the 1930s to international fame as an anti-Communist writer in the 1940s. The first conception—placed in the mouth of one of his characters—“declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units.” The second conception “starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb.”5

For Koestler, fascism and communism were both manifestations of this second conception, despite their surface divergence. And in this sense, China’s modern imperial totalitarianism is no different. More than any of his predecessors since Mao, Xi Jinping acts like a man who believes in the second conception of ethics. The rules of arithmetic are applied to human units, strengthening the Party, and so Sun Wenguang languishes in police custody, robbed of his freedom in the last years of his life. Tursunay Ziyawudun faces a future with no hope of children, while the family of Ilham Tohti face theirs destitute. Ruqiye Perhat lives every day with the scars of her concentration camp trauma. And in a small town somewhere in central China, Zhao Wei’s mother waits for news of her daughter.


1 Julia Lovell – Maoism: A Global History (Vintage, London, 2020 edition, orig. 2019), p 444. Lovell cites Sangkuk Li – “An institutional analysis of Xi Jinping’s centralisation of power,” Journal of Contemporary China 26.105 (2017), pp. 325-36
2 Kerry Brown – CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019), p180
3 Clive Hamilton – Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Hardie Grant, London, 2018), p250
4 Kai Strittmatter – We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State (Old Street Publishing Ltd., Exeter, 2019), pp. 36-7. Strittmatter cites Safeguard Defenders – Scripted and Staged: Behind the Scenes of China’s Forced TV Confessions (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, April 2018), p24
5 Arthur Koestler – Darkness at Noon (tr. Daphne Hardy, Vintage, London, 2005 edition, orig. 1940), p128

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Aaron Sarin

Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield, currently focusing on China and the CCP. He regularly contributes to