Draconian measures to root out terrorism have turned life for ordinary Uyghurs into a daily nightmare of surveillance and terror.
It’s Monday afternoon. The place, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, North West China. A whistle sounds ten urgent blasts. A motley crew of T-shirted, oversized-baseball bat-wielding Uyghur stall holders ram tin helmets on their heads, fasten bullet-proof vests and grab their riot shields. They dash out of their shops and gather in the central square. Another fury of blasts follow, and they converge en masse around the entrance to a stall where a pile of unsuspecting garments lies disheveled on a wooden box. With one accord raised clubs descend on the pile of clothing vigorously and violently…up down, up down, up down…until the items are beaten into submission. After annihilating this “enemy,” the ‘battalion’ is called back to order, lined up, yelled at by an over-zealous community leader anxious to prove his wholehearted support of the government, photographed by a community officer to prove the drill actually happened on his patch, and allowed to disperse. An hour later they go through it all again. But this time the target is a different stall. The same exercise is carried out throughout the day in most shopping centers and bazaars throughout the entire region of Xinjiang, but never predictably regular to avoid complacency. Every business is part of a unit of ten, headed up by a leader who blows the whistle, and his deputy. They all keep tabs on each other and all equally bear the brunt should anyone fall out of line. The maintenance of high alert is crucial.
The whole of Xinjiang region gives the appearance of being on a war footing. But this is a war like no other. This is a “people’s war on terror,” where ordinary citizens have been dragooned into the task of mutual surveillance and control. This is mobilization of the masses on a scale only China could envisage. The enemy is nowhere and everywhere, undefinable and invisible. The enemy is within.
But according to the rules of this nebulous “war” with Chinese characteristics, citizens have to show their true colors. They must either be “in” or “out.” Being “in” is to vigorously give your all to President Xi’s vision of the future. (Which is for China to emerge to become a center of global political, economic and military power in its own right.)
Being “out” to any degree, means extrajudicial “transformation through education” or worse. Sitting on the fence and risking being labeled as a “two-faced” official where you pay lip service but remain a rebel at heart, is the most dangerous position of all. The most draconian punishments are metered out to such as these.
The insidious, incremental militarization of the Muslim region over the past two or three years has crept up on the population of this vast region of deserts and mountains so that now it almost seems normal. People have forgotten what life used to be like. Self-censorship of every conversation is now second nature, as is sizing up those around in queues, restaurants, and public transport for signs they might be plain clothed police or over-zealous snitches. Awareness of every camera and possible listening device in public places or even local cafes is necessary to determine whether your conversation and the identity of your companions is being recorded on the premises or beamed directly to the nearby police station.
Surveillance cameras have been installed universally since the Urumqi riots of 2009 or 7/5 (七五) as they are more commonly known, where hundreds were killed and injured as Uyghurs unleashed their pent up fury and three days later the Han Chinese marched in their thousands through the streets wielding ax handles taking revenge. Street police presence too was significantly stepped up, and small groups of officers could be seen in back to back formation every 100 meters on streets in the capital. “I used to count 100 police officers in the half kilometer stretch on my walk to university each day,” reported Abdullah who had also noticed a similar phenomenon on other routes around the city.
But that “new normal” changed dramatically again in May 2014 following an early morning slaughter of elderly, mostly Han Chinese shoppers in downtown Urumqi by two off-road vehicles setting off explosives, that killed 31 and injured more than 90. This attack came soon after the Urumqi railway station knife attack, and the clampdown on everyday freedoms was immediate.
The city famous for street life, late night food markets, bazaars, and outside cafes became a virtual ghost town towards evening. Double layers of protective barriers went up on every road, alley, and lane, and shoppers were channeled into the narrow gaps remaining. Armies of street cleaners were ordered to paint yellow and black, green or purple stripes on giant tubular barricades outside mosques, schools, public buildings, and police stations. Paint was slopped on vigorously and chaotically with special attention paid to the end of streets where traffic-inhibiting safety bollards appeared overnight. Gaps between these were so narrow that delivery scooters could no longer pass between them. Very soon entrepreneurs had circumvented the system with imaginative long-bodied motorcycles that could squeeze through. The humble scooter disappeared virtually overnight. Subsequent fears that these metamorphosed vehicles might be used to deliver bombs, caused them to be banned for a period entirely, only to be immediately replaced by fleets of delivery mountain bikes.
Residential areas and their warrens of interconnecting alleyways began to be cordoned off with high razor-wire-topped newly built walls blocking every exit. Makeshift holes in these were doomed, and very soon each area had only one heavily guarded entrance barrier, complete with facial recognition, ID card swipe system and of course cameras at every turn.
But curtailing of these freedoms has been nothing compared with a new raft of draconian measures following Chen Quanguo’s arrival in August 2016. Spending on surveillance grew exponentially to billion during the first quarter of 2017, coinciding with the well-publicized building of camps and mass roundups and detentions of Uyghur citizens. According to Adrian Zenz, a German expert on Xinjiang, and whistleblower on the extent and location of Xinjiang’s transformation through education camps, the regional government has recruited over 90,000 police officers in the last two years alone – twice as many as it recruited in the previous seven years.
So-called “convenient” police stations started springing up in August 2016 between 300-500 meters apart, which have now become a normal part of the street furniture these days. The steel-framed rectangular blocks housing up to 20 police officers, were the brainchild of Chen Quanguo, the new governor of Xinjiang, who arrived fresh from quelling dissent in Tibet. Despite a benign front providing “convenient” toilets, umbrellas, shelter from the rain and even wheelchairs for the infirm, their very presence for Uyghurs instills terror. Whilst for Han compatriots, they serve as a reassuring presence in turbulent times and pose no threat at all, for Uyghurs whose phones and ID are checked several times a day, there is always a sneaking fear that each check could be their last. For those who have an imprisoned friend or relative, or who might have inadvertently downloaded a photograph, music or a suspicious app, or those who have so far resisted calls from their hometown police to return, the shadow of these stations is palpable. Most who heed the calls to abandon jobs and life in the capital and return home are either drafted into the all-pervasive local community policing corps from which it is almost impossible to extricate themselves, or indeed to a precarious future in the camps. “I try to dodge them whenever I can,” said Alim, whose parents have both been taken away. “I dread the checks in case I am taken or returned to my home village. I have a good job here. I am the only breadwinner left in our family and have to care for my four young brothers.”
Armbands, metal detectors, and riot shields without which no shop keeper or bus stop monitor can be said to be properly dressed are worn as a matter of course with heavy penalties for those who forget, or for shop owners whose inspections of their customers fail to pass muster. Shops and restaurants are routinely closed for days or weeks at a time as a punishment for not employing a full-time door guard, a requirement which hits small businesses particularly hard. “We have a tiny six-table cafeteria,” complained Abdullah who said that his canteen barely made a profit before the new regulations. “Now we have to pay the salary of someone who just sits there in case the community police turn up and wave a body scanner over our customers,” he said, adding that the cost of riot shields, helmets, and bullet-proof vests they are forced to wear, also come out of his own pocket.
The entire shopkeeping, artisan and stall-holding population of Hotan in the south of the province was transformed last summer overnight into a sleeping army. From nan sellers to street sweepers, jade carvers to rose petal sorters, they are all required to sit at work swathed in camouflage suits, donning tin helmets and bulletproof vests with riot shields, baseball clubs and body restrainers at the ready. When their leaders blow the whistle, they gather up their weapons, rush to an assembly line and huddle in combat formation until the all clear is given. Of course, the enemy is nowhere to be seen, but they must be ready.
Carrying knives, scissors or anything that could be a weapon are forbidden, and transgressors picked up immediately by the all-pervasive x-ray and metal detection equipment at the entrance to every shopping center, park, cinema, public building, and sports complex. Rigorous bag searches, body and pocket checks wherever you go are de-rigueur. Knives that are required for trade must now be engraved with their owner’s initials and chained to butcher’s or melon seller’s chopping boards.
Special treatment is reserved for those whose relatives are in detention or live abroad. The simple act of pressing their ID card against facial recognition software on entry to any building, housing complex or public area, sounds an alarm which brings four or five armed guards running. An escort to the nearest police station follows, they are questioned aggressively whilst computer checks are run and not released until they are cleared to go free. A simple day trip to the mountains or local beauty spot for these people can result in at worst, detention, and at best being thrown off the public bus they are on and turned away from the resort to find their own way home. Driving through town at night has its own gauntlet of hazards as motor scooters and cars are funneled through rigorous checks of their contents and drivers of their documents and phones.
Against the well-publicized background of ongoing roundups, detention, and disappearances of hundreds and thousands of Uyghur citizens, a new Dystopian “normal” has taken over. The domination has been steady and insidious.
The dawn of each new day heralds yet another layer of security. Whether it be a second layer of razor wire, now the accepted decoration atop every single wall or building in the city, or another configuration of surveillance cameras at the end of your street or housing complex. Many are now reporting cameras at the end of their apartment landings which then broadcast comings and goings on wall to wall screens in the residential area police station. “Every part of our social life is monitored,” said Turnisa, a local primary school teacher. “Friends don’t come any more and I am too scared myself to have visitors in case they bring me trouble.” She added that mistrust has grown exponentially between friends. “How do I know what hold the government has on my friends or how much they are questioned when they leave my home?” She asked. “We all keep ourselves to ourselves these days. We are all afraid.”
Whether it be a new system of armed guards pacing the roads, new uniforms and weaponry for the elderly bus stop monitors, electrification of school fencing, or increased numbers of armed security at the school gates, people wonder when it will all end. “We cannot imagine what they will think of next,” said Tursun, a shopkeeper who has so far managed to evade capture. “I wake up every morning wondering if this will be my last day of freedom,” he said. “They could pick me up on any pretext at any time.” He spoke of seeing roundups while coming home from the cinema early one evening a few weeks before. “The police were just taking people off the street and driving them into a large van,” he said.
Selim, a law student, spoke of hearing a commotion outside his window at midnight one evening. “I watched for more than an hour as people piled out of three vans and were herded into the police station. There were men shouting, women screaming and children crying.” He said that family members were running off and returning later to bring clothes and provisions for those who had been taken. He mentioned that one room at the front of the building seemed only to contain children. “They were all just sitting on chairs and tables in the window,” he said.
There are no prizes for guessing the color scheme of the spring and summer’s flower displays in Urumqi last year. While Uyghurs, their families, and children lived in simmering fear as to what the next minute might bring, the CCP soft power agenda in glorious red and yellow was there for all to see. Beijing’s determination to push its own brand of Socialism with Chinese characteristics and herald Xi Jinping’s new era of “sinicization,” ethnic uniformity and racial harmony was encapsulated in an exclusively red and yellow verdant spectacle. While marigolds, red salvia, irises, tulips, and variegated red and yellow-leaved bushes radiated from every border in the capital, this year’s floral offering to the city was unmistakably a political statement. Patriotic songs blasted out national unity from loudspeakers at every junction, giant screens on street corners emblazoned with marching armies and China’s military might against the background of stirring military themes, combined with multitudes of Chinese red flags adorned with golden stars fluttering over every shop, school, street corner, and public place. The Party’s determination was unflagging. There was no escaping the all-pervasive message that China and life with “Chinese characteristics” in all its dystopian forms was here to stay.