In China’s far west the ‘perfect police state’ is emerging

During a trip through Chinas violence-plagued Xinjiang, the Guardian witnesses a dramatic security surge as Communist party fights to mollify region

It was Friday, the Islamic day of assembly, but outside Kashgars Id Kah mosque on Liberation Avenue it was the growl of diesel engines that filled the air not a muezzins wistful cry.

One by one armoured personnel carriers, some with machine guns poking from their turrets, rolled towards Peoples Square where a 12 -metre statue of Mao Zedong was preparing to preside over the most recent in a series of tub-thumping anti-terror rallies to be held here in the heartlands of Chinas Muslim Uighur minority this year.

Open-backed lorries packed with heavily-armed troops joined the procession, red and yellow propaganda banners draped from their sides.

Unity and stability are blessings! Separatism and unrest are a curse! read one.

A second advised: Let all those terrorists who dare to be enemies of the person or persons be smashed to pieces!

To ensure the procession went off without a glitch, police had placed this entire city of about half a million inhabitants on lock down. All the roads are blocked, told a black-clad policeman who was posted outside the mosque with a 12 gauge shotgun slung across his chest.

The mass rally, witnessed by the Guardian at the end of April, came as a long-running crackdown in Chinas violence-stricken far west hit draconian new heights.

Three days earlier thousands of armed troops had swept onto the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where, according to one local newspaper, they vowed to sacrifice everything for the party and the people in their efforts to combat the Islamic radicals Beijing blameds for a series of attacks on government officials and civilians.

Please rest assured, my fellow countrymen, that I will … crack down on the arrogance of those violent gangs and terrorists so they are left with no road to go down and no place to hide, one participant told reporters.

A week before, more than 1,000 troops inundated Aksu, a city in Xinjiangs south, for a three-day prove of strength. Suddenly a siren echo out and vehicles shot out onto the streets like swords being drawn from their sheaths, read an account of the event by one local propaganda writer.

The perfect police state

The parades are part of a wider security escalation that has gripped Chinas western frontier since Chen Quanguo, a Communist party hardliner who Beijing credits with appeasing a wave of upheaval in Tibet, was drafted into Xinjiang last summer.

Adrian Zenz, a researcher who has studied the securitisation of both politically sensitive regions, told Chinas leaders believed Chen had managed to contain a surge in self-immolations in the Tibet Autonomous Region, use a series of innovative and repressive policies such as high-tech surveillance and the introduction of tight social controls.

Police
Police patrolling the Old Town in Kashgar, a 2,000 -year-old oasis city in Chinas far west. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

Now, they hoped he could do the same in Xinjiang, a vast and resource-rich borderland that has suffered decades of bloodshed including anti-government uprisings, ethnic rioting and, more recently, terrorist attacks targeting civilians. Im sure he has been send there to mollify Xinjiang, told Zenz, from Germanys European School of Culture and Theology.

Chen has wasted no time in putting his controversial ideas into practice. Since he became Xinjiangs party chief last August thousands of security operatives, ranging from elite special forces to poorly trained rookies, have been deployed onto the streets of villages, towns and cities. Many are low-level surveillance officers tasked with maintaining tabs on the regions 23 m inhabitants and above all members of the 10 m-strong Uighur minority.

Zenz said the recruitment of security staff in Xinjiang had gone utterly through the roof under Chens rule. In the first 5 months of this year, 31,000 such undertakings were advertised – more than the entire total between 2008 and 2012. Last year a record 32,000 security agents were hired.

[ It is] almost like in the old East Germany, Zenz told. The perfect police state.

What are they going to do? Start a war?

A
A shopkeeper comes into the street brandishing a metal pole during a regular anti-terror drill in Tashkurga, Xinjiang. Photo: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

During a week-long road trip-up through southern Xinjiang, the Guardian find first-hand how the unfolding security surge was affecting life across the region.

In a village near Upal, a Uighur market town 50 km south of Kashgar, members of one local militia lined up in the main square, exerting 5ft metal rods, for what are now daily security drills. Nearby, the white and green armoured personnel carriers of Chinas paramilitary Peoples Armed Police raced past, along a corridor of white poplars. I havent ensure so many roadblocks since the last period I was in Hebron, said a European traveller who had come to the region in search of the ancient Silk Road but had instead stumbled across scenes from a conflict zone.

Further south in Tashkurgan, a town on the border with Pakistan, an alarm sounded and storekeepers rushed into the street brandishing poles and clubs. At a local hotel, the receptionist greeted guests in a black stab jacket; a medieval-style cudgel, spikes soldered into its tip, was propped up against the entryway near a metal detector.

Down the road another drill was underway with police developing local men and women to bludgeon imaginary attackers with an arsenal of improvised hand-held weapons. One, two, three, different groups wailed in unison, pummeling their invisible targets on the final count.

Weapons
Weapons at the entrance to a hotel in Tashkurgan. Photo: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

The effects of Chens surge are also impossible to miss in Kasghar itself, a 2,000 -year-old Silk Road oasis town where petrol station, considered possible targets , now resemble prisons, with vehicles only allowed through their razor-wire perimeters one at a time.

By night the city lights up like a twinkling disco ball as hundreds of newly built police strongholds, positioned at almost every intersection, illuminate the darkness with their red and blue glow.

As the sun rises, guards with clubs that resemble giant rolled pins and halberd-style spears assemble outside schools, stores and government buildings. Surveillance vehicles cruise the streets and troops with assault rifles man checkpoints on the suburbs of town, searching boots and demanding documents issued for passengers who are ordered off yellow city buses. It is almost impossible to stroll without running into a security agent of some description.

Its extreme now, sighed one local, who said they were shocked by the scale of the recent processions. What are they going to do? Start a war?

The crackdown has been accompanied by a ratcheting up of controls on religion in a place where it was already forbidden for under-1 8s to enter mosques, to broadcast calls to prayer or attain unauthorised pilgrimages to Mecca.

This year there have been reports of authorities proscribing Islamic names such as Islam, Muhammad or Mecca, proscribing face veils and abnormal beards and even ordering imams to praise Chinese President Xi Jinping during religious services.

At Kashgars Id Kah mosque – where the pro-Beijing imam was stabbed to death in the summer of 2014 – worshippers file out through an archway fitted with at least six CCTV cameras. A nearby sign in English for tourists reads: All ethnic groups warmly welcome the partys religion policy … All ethnic group live friendly together here.

Social controls have also been stepped since Chen took office with some citizens have reportedly being told to surrender their passports to police while others have been instructed to install GPS tracking devices in their vehicles. There are plans for the mass collect of DNA samples a move human rights campaigners lamented as a sign Beijing was taking its Orwellian system to the genetic level.

CCTV
CCTV cameras at Kashgars Id Kah mosque. Worshippers are filmed by at the least six CCTV cameras as they enter and leave. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

I would prefer to be a Syrian refugee

Daily life in Xinjiang goes on in spite of the crackdown. Its like this every day. Its normal, shrugged one Kashgar resident as a convoy of armoured vehicles sped by. But the tightening has pushed others to breaking point. Fighting back the tears, one young Uighur clutched this reporters arm as they described their growing despair at the repression and hope – the working day – of fleeing overseas.

I would prefer to be a Syrian refugee than Chinese, they said, their hands trembling. This is hell for me.

Another resident captured the almost universal fear of discussing, let alone questioning, the changes sweeping the region. The system is very tight, so we must be careful. In 2014, Ilham Tohti, a Uighur intellectual known for his moderate public criticism of Beijings policies in the region, was jailed for life for separatism.

Nick Holdstock, a British author who has written two volumes on Xinjiang, cautioned against lumping all Uighurs together as members of an entirely down-trodden, oppressed minority. On some level things are getting better in Xinjiang. The infrastructure is improving. Its economy is quite healthy.

But Holdstock said the outlook for Uighurs had grown increasingly bleak over the last three decades, with cultural and religious controls ramping up after a succession of now-notorious outbreaks of ethnic violence in 1990, 1997 and 2009.

There is no sense in[ the governments] minds that anything that they are doing is necessarily part of the problem. It is the sense that the more troops you can have, the more security checkpoints, then that is the way to keep going.Wang Hongwei, their own nationals security expert at Beijings Renmin University, said the high-pressure crackdown was designed to intimidate Islamist militants who threatened Chinas national and political systems. They are like millipedes whose bodies maintain wriggling even when they are being cut into pieces, Wang said, claiming there was nothing excessive at all about the recent mass parades.

On
On Liberation Avenue, outside Kashgars Id Kah mosque, Uighur men watch security forces file past for the citys latest mass anti-terror rally Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

Authorities defend the tighten as a necessary offensive against extremists they blame for a series of horrific attacks on civilians, such as a machete attack on a train station in Kunming and a bombing in Urumqi.

But many experts – who believe much of the violence is fuelled not by religious extremism but economic exclusion, government meddling and the eroding of Uighur culture and traditions – fear clamping down further will only breed more rancor and bloodshed.

I think they are going at the flies with a sledgehammer, said one western Xinjiang scholar who asked not to be named for anxiety of not being allowed back into the country.

Zenz meanwhile cautions the current policy by Beijing could inflame rather than extinguish anti-government anger.

Xinjiang is a powder-keg much more so than Tibet, he said The combining of securitisation and crackdown on normal religious practise is an absolute recipe of natural disasters … This is absolutely a ticking time-bomb.

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen

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