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.
The Chinese state security apparatus has also built large numbers of police booths on the streets of both Xinjiang and ethnographic Tibet over the course of the past year. They are located strategically at various intersections in cities and towns. Although the vast majority are quite small, they are staffed by local police and installed with surveillance equipment to monitor those passing by.
The Chinese Public Security Bureau has similarly introduced a number of “mobile service offices” into urban areas throughout the western PRC. They are generally parked near significant landmarks, such as mosques or public squares. Like the police booths, they have surveillance cameras mounted (see below).
One can often see SWAT vans and personnel posted in Uyghur communities, especially in areas where large numbers of Uyghurs tend to gather. In fact, it appears that SWAT police tend to perform duties that average local police might perform in cities in the eastern PRC. The decision of the Chinese government to deploy large numbers of SWAT police likely reflects its preoccupation with maintaining social stability in the face of perceived threats from terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.
The Chinese government has also set up a substantial number of police checkpoints outside of strategically important cities such as Urumqi and Kashgar. Police at these checkpoints appear to be concerned with stopping buses and taxis, rather than private vehicles. Sometimes police or SWAT personnel will board buses to check identification cards. Generally speaking, however, passengers will have to disembark and enter a checkpoint facility. The more sophisticated stations include metal detectors and personnel who scan the second-generation Chinese identity cards of each individual to learn their personal data, particularly where they’re registered to live. In this manner police can easily track the movements of members of Central Asian ethnic groups as they travel through Xinjiang. Unlike Chinese tourists or businessmen, who tend to fly from one location to another, Uyghurs tend to travel around the autonomous region by less expensive modes of transportation. Pictured below is a small police checkpoint in Xinjiang.
As the military and police presence in Xinjiang continues to grow, so does local resentment. Uyghurs and members of other Central Asian ethnic groups who are determined to serve their compatriots as policemen, SWAT team members, or Public Security Bureau employees are subsequently caught in a difficult situation.
“The Chinese government discriminates against us Uyghurs,” one police officer told me. “We have no freedom and no human rights.” Another Uyghur who was affiliated with a SWAT unit said that he while he joined to protect the Uyghur people, he didn’t trust his Chinese colleagues and questioned their motivations for serving in Xinjiang.
As long as tensions remain high in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Chinese government will continue to deploy large numbers of military and police forces in cities and towns across the XUAR. Unfortunately, until the Chinese government addresses the counterproductive policies that lie at the heart of local discontent, omnipresent propaganda will do little to gain the confidence of the local Central Asian populace.
Graham Adams specializes in the study of ethnic minority policy in the People’s Republic of China. His name has been changed to protect his identity.