Following the 2009 riots in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), the government of the People’s Republic of China is “striking hard” against perceived separatist and terrorist activities. Critics argue that the government is actually using the specter of ethnic and religious instability to crack down on the local Central Asian populace and dramatically increase the security presence.
A sign in Urumqi reads: “The military loves the people, the people embrace the military, the military and people are united as one family.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Ever since its “peaceful liberation” of Xinjiang and Tibet, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has endeavored to present itself as a benevolent protector of ethnic minorities. Local propaganda in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) features members of the military linked arm-in-arm with colorfully dressed minorities, all of whom are unified as one family, one nation. However, beneath the official veneer of ethnic solidarity, local Central Asian ethnic groups tend to remain extremely distrustful of the military and Public Security Bureau.
I once remarked to a Uyghur businesswoman that the World Uyghur Congress has declared the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (East Turkestan) a “police state.” Did she believe the statement was true? Had the situation truly become so grave? “Of course,” came the reply. “And you don’t know the half of it.”
The police and military presence is indeed quite large in Xinjiang. Although locals in Beijing noticed more boots on the ground during the 18th Party Congress in November, it is a common sight to see riot police vans driving down the streets and patrols walking down the sidewalks of Uyghur communities. In the three intervening years since the 2009 Urumqi riots, they have now become a part of everyday life in Xinjiang.
In various parts of the XUAR, particularly in the south, one may often witness four or five person patrols policing the streets in urban areas. They consist of one policeman walking in front, three men dressed in fatigues, and perhaps another policemen at the rear. The men in fatigues appear to be members of the People’s Armed Police. One is carrying a rifle, and the other two are carrying riot batons and shields (see below).
In addition, the Public Security Bureau also seems to have set up small civilian patrols. Bearing red armbands and batons, they are reportedly paid 800RMB per month (approximately $125) to keep watch over local neighborhoods. Ironically, one is far more likely to find them chatting idly outside of storefronts or playing cards.