China has many prisoners of conscience but perhaps none like Wang Yongzhi. Five years ago, according to newly leaked documents, the Communist Party official was assigned the task of forcing tens of thousands of minority Uyghurs into indoctrination camps in western China. The party leaders wanted to eradicate Muslim culture and to show “absolutely no mercy” in doing so.
“Wipe them out completely,” Mr. Wang told subordinates. “Destroy them root and branch.”
But then, in a change of heart, Mr. Wang did feel mercy, especially after more than a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities were held in camps in Xinjiang region and mistreated.
Worried about the harm to relations between China’s Han majority and its minorities, he told others it was OK for Muslims to read the Quran and that party officials should read it to understand Uyghur culture. He quietly released more than 7,000 of the detainees. Later he was arrested and prosecuted. Since 2017, Mr. Wang’s whereabouts have been unknown.
“He refused,” one document said, “to round up everyone who should be rounded up.”
We know this story because another party official, equally courageous, secretly released 403 pages of internal party documents to The New York Times. That anonymous official was also motivated to end what is now called a cultural cleansing of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. The documents give a behind-the-scenes picture of a party so fearful for its survival that it is willing to paint any group as an enemy to stay in power.
In all, at least 12,000 party members were investigated for allegedly not doing their job in this repression It remains unclear what has happened to them. Yet the fact remains that many if not most displayed a conscience about helping innocent people avoid harsh treatment in concentration camps.
More than 70 years ago, George Kennan, an American diplomat and Russia expert, wrote that the Soviet Union, whose regime he said was driven mainly by fear for its survival, would eventually weaken and collapse. His prediction was prophetic. Within the ruling Communist Party, internal dissent over evil acts helped end the Soviet empire.
China’s ruling party may be in a similar place. As it keeps cracking down on innocent groups, such as pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, it risks having its underlying fears and its evil acts exposed by its own officials. Such courage in recognizing the right of individual conscience is what challenges the party’s motives and actions from within. As with those 7,000 Uyghurs freed by Mr. Wang, what is right has triumphed.