Police officers check the identity cards of a people as security forces keep watch in a street in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter - RC1A412EF700
Police and security forces check ID cards in Kashgar © Reuters

Centuries ago merchants criss-crossed the deserts of Xinjiang, a crucial link for Silk Road trade into Central Asia and beyond. Today the Chinese region is in a state of virtual lockdown after the introduction of a sweeping new security regime that has affected virtually every aspect of daily life. 

The clampdown is unsettling not only the majority-Muslim Uighurs who have long been discriminated against in China’s westernmost region — the Han Chinese on track to displace them as the dominant ethnic group are also beginning to worry. 

“The traditional ethnic divisions no longer apply,” says one academic at Xinjiang University, who asked not to be named. “It is only about those who have power and those who do not.”

Since taking office last August, Xinjiang’s new party secretary, Chen Quanguo, has overseen an expansive overhaul of the already notorious surveillance apparatus in an area almost seven times that of the UK. 

“Measures of control have resulted in a feeling that southern Xinjiang has become an open-air prison,” says Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who has done extensive fieldwork in the region. 

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The curbs disproportionately affect Uighurs, a Turkic people who accounted for 11m of the region’s 23m residents at the last census in 2010, as fears rise in Beijing of Islamist extremism and a political separatist movement.

Thousands have been sent to unmarked detention centres over the past year, usually for two to three months at a time. Nearly every Uighur resident interviewed by the Financial Times had a friend or relative who had been detained. In the centres they are taught Communist party doctrine and persuaded to forgo their ethnic and religious identities. 

“There are so many people being detained, the government is building political education centres in old schools, empty office buildings,” says one Uighur man in the oasis city of Kashgar, who was planning a dinner with a friend released from detention the day before. “You eat, sleep and attend classes in these centres — just like a university, only you cannot leave.”

A new regional network of more than 7,300 police monitoring stations — 500 metres apart in urban areas — plays cheerful tunes even as armed guards stand outside. As fears in Beijing grow over terrorism along China’s borders, so have the numbers of people under surveillance. 

Concerns about religious extremism in Kazakhstan, to Xinjiang’s north, have led authorities to crack down on Kazakhs this year, particularly “oralmen”, Chinese citizens who hold Kazakh green cards that allow them to travel and live in the central Asian nation. Chinese Kazakhs told the FT that even those with temporary visas had sometimes been detained and questioned after returning to China this year. 

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, attends a group discussion session on the second day of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu - RC1C8A378DF0
Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s new party secretary, has overseen an expansive overhaul of the surveillance apparatus in the region © Reuters

“Perhaps because we are still Chinese citizens, the government still cares that we come back to China,” says an ethnic Kazakh resident of Khorgos, a city on the border with Kazakhstan, adding that his retired teacher was among those detained and her passport taken away this spring. 

This year parts of the region forbade parents from giving newborns explicitly Islamic names, including Mohammed. Uighur students studying in majority Muslim countries have been called back to China and detained on arrival, and Uighurs’ travel even within China has become heavily circumscribed. Most Uighurs had their passports confiscated last year, preventing them from leaving China.

“If I wanted to go from here to Urumqi, I would first have to apply for permission from the public security bureau, which they sometimes decided to reject,” says Yasinjiang, a young Uighur man living in Kashgar. 

But while Uighurs have grown accustomed to ever-tighter restrictions on their activity, the region’s almost 9m Han Chinese — who dutifully tolerated surveillance with the promise of long-term economic growth — are also starting to lose patience. 

Owners of smaller businesses have been especially hard hit. They say stepped-up street patrols have resulted in fewer customers, while mandates to buy metal detectors and hire security personnel for storefronts above a certain size have cut into profits. 

“Everyone is getting less business because of antiterrorism security measures. I do not know how much longer even Han residents will tolerate this kind of control,” says a Xinjiang businesswoman originally from the southern province of Guangdong. 

“This is making me go broke, but at least it is making someone else rich,” grumbles Luo Jiameng, a Han businessman who owns a string of Chinese medicine shops in the region’s capital, Urumqi. He says state security required him to purchase a Rmb80,000 ($12,000) detector for his largest store this year. 

Mobile phones belonging to Han and Uighur residents alike are now routinely checked for subversive content and banned software, while universities and businesses are asked to install spyware on their desktop computers. Most Han Chinese who spoke to the FT now keep two phones — one left at home for accessing WhatsApp, Facebook and other forbidden apps and another for daily use. 

“[Party secretary] Chen even makes his family members go through metal detectors and body scanners,” said a US state department official who met high-level Xinjiang government officials last year. “The intended audience was the Han officials who are implementing the policies, suggesting no one should behave as if they are above the law.”

Mandatory mobile app informs on residents

The Jingwangweishi icon © Avram Meitner

Xinjiang residents in August received a reminder from local authorities that they were required to download a mobile app named Jingwangweishi, or “web cleaning soldier”, which promised to “clear the trash off your phone”. 

The app’s real purpose is more nefarious. An analysis by Avram Meitner, an independent security researcher who examined the software, found the software scans phones for digital fingerprints of illicit files, informing authorities when it finds them.

The app is unsophisticated, say developers, and easy to bypass by knowledgeable users. But deployed en masse among the less tech-savvy, it has already inspired widespread paranoia and self-censorship among residents. 

“The authorities can find anything you have searched years ago or even deleted from your phone. I do not know how they do it, but we feel like we are monitored everywhere,” says Yalikun, a young resident of Kashgar, echoing anxieties shared by more than a dozen Uighur residents of Xinjiang interviewed by the FT. 

Security officers regularly stop residents of all ethnicities for routine phone checks on the street. Residents say files with Islamic content are especially targeted. 

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