China's Xinjiang Region A Surveillance State Unlike Any the World Has Ever Seen

In western China, Beijing is using the most modern means available to control its Uighur minority. Tens of thousands have disappeared into re-education camps. A journey to an eerily quiet region.

Police patrol a night food market near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in Chinas Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Johannes Eisele / AFP

Police patrol a night food market near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in Chinas Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

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These days, the city of Kashgar in westernmost China feels a bit like Baghdad after the war. The sound of wailing sirens fills the air, armed trucks patrol the streets and fighter jets roar above the city. The few hotels that still host a smattering of tourists are surrounded by high concrete walls. Police in protective vests and helmets direct the traffic with sweeping, bossy gestures, sometimes yelling at those who don't comply.

But now and then, a ghostly calm descends on the city. Just after noon, when it's time for Friday prayers, the square in front of the huge Id Kah Mosque lies empty. There's no muezzin piercing the air, just a gentle buzz on the rare occasion that someone passes through the metal detector at the entrance to the mosque. Dozens of surveillance cameras overlook the square. Security forces, some in uniform and others in plain-clothes, do the rounds of the Old Town with such stealth it's as if they were trying to read people's minds.

Journalists are not immune to their attentions. No sooner have we arrived than two police officers insist on sitting down with us for a "talk." The next day in our hotel, one of them emerges from a room on our floor. When we take a walk through the city in the morning, we're followed by several plain-clothes officers. Eventually, we're being tailed by some eight people and three cars, including a black Honda with a covered license plate -- apparently the secret police. Occasionally, our minders seem to be leaving us alone, but already awaiting us at the next intersection are the surveillance cameras that reach into every last corner of Kashgar's inner city. The minute we strike up conversation with anyone, officials appear and start interrogating them.

Before too long, they'll detain us too. More on that later. But while the authorities in Xinjiang keep close tabs on foreign reporters, their vigilance is nothing compared to their persecution of the Uighur population.

Nowhere in the world, not even in North Korea, is the population monitored as strictly as it is in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, an area that is four times the size of Germany and shares borders with eight countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

Oppression has been in place for years, but has worsened massively in recent months. It is targeted primarily at the Uighur minority, a Turkic ethnic group of some 10 million Sunni Muslims considered by Beijing to be a hindrance to the development of a "harmonious society." A spate of attacks involving Uighur militants has only consolidated this belief.

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The Uighurs see themselves as a minority facing cultural, religious and economic discrimination. When Xinjiang was incorporated into the People's Republic of China in 1949, they comprised roughly 80 percent of the region's population. Controlled migration to Xinjiang of Han Chinese has reduced this share to 45 percent, and it is mainly these migrants who benefit from the economic boom in the region, which has plentiful supplies of oil, gas and coal.

With the Uighurs protesting, Beijing has tightened its grip and turned Xinjiang into a security state that is extreme even by China's standards, being a police state itself. According to Adrian Zenz, a German expert on Xinjiang, the provincial 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. With around 500 police officers for every 100,000 inhabitants, the police presence will soon be almost as tight as it is in neighboring Tibet.

At the same time, Beijing is equipping the far-western region with state-of-the-art surveillance technology, with cameras illuminating every street all over the region, from the capital Urumqi to the most remote mountain village. Iris scanners and WiFi sniffers are in use in stations, airports and at the ubiquitous checkpoints -- tools and programs that allow data traffic from wireless networks to be monitored.

The data is then collated by an "integrated joint operations platform" that also stores further data on the populace -- from consumer habits to banking activity, health status and indeed the DNA profile of every single inhabitant of Xinjiang.

Muslim women in Kashgar: Those with contacts abroad, those who visit mosques too frequently or those who possess forbidden content on a mobile phone or computer risk getting detained.
DER SPIEGEL

Muslim women in Kashgar: Those with contacts abroad, those who visit mosques too frequently or those who possess forbidden content on a mobile phone or computer risk getting detained.

Anyone with a potentially suspicious data trail can be detained. The government has built up a grid of hundreds of re-education camps. Tens of thousands of people have disappeared into them in recent months. Zenz estimates the number to be closer to hundreds of thousands. More precise figures are difficult to obtain. Censorship in Xinjiang is the strictest in China and its authorities the most inscrutable.

But a distinct impression forms after a trip through the territory and numerous conversations with its inhabitants, who all want to remain anonymous. Xinjiang, one of the most remote and backward regions in booming China, has become a real-life dystopia. It provides a glimpse of what an authoritarian regime armed with 21st century technology is capable of.

Urumqi: Police, Block Leaders and Snitches

With its ultra-modern skyline, the capital of Xinjiang is home to a population of some 3.5 million, 75 percent of which are Han Chinese. The Uighurs make up the largest minority. Kazakhs, Mongolians and Chinese-speaking Muslim Hui people also live here. "All ethnic groups belong together like the seeds of a pomegranate," reads a banner overlooking Urumqi's multilane ring road.

"The truth is, you can't trust the Uighurs," says a Han Chinese who used to work for the military. "They act like they're your friend but they only really stick together."

Mistrust between these two ethnic groups has been growing for decades. In 2009, tensions erupted in Xinjiang and claimed nearly 200 lives. Most of the dead were Han Chinese. In 2014, knife-wielding Uighur militants killed 31 people in Kunming. Just months later, two cars sped into a busy street market in Urumqi, killing dozens. There have been fewer major attacks since, but rumors abound among the Han Chinese that serious incidents frequently occur in the south of Xinjiang but go unreported.

In a bid to see calm return to the region, Beijing brought in hardliner Chen Quanguo, party boss in Tibet, and put him in charge in Xinjiang. Within two years, he implemented the same policy he enacted in Tibet and installed police stations across the region. These bunker-like, barricaded and heavily guarded buildings now litter every crossroads of the major cities.

Chen also introduced a block leader system not unlike the old German "Blockwarts," with members of the local Communist Party committee given powers to inspect family homes and interrogate them about their lives: Who lives here? Who visited? What did you talk about? Even the controllers are getting controlled: Many apartments have bar code labels on the inside of the front door which the official must scan to prove that he or she carried out the visit.

To optimize social control, neighbors are now also instructed to turn each other in. "They came to me at the start of the year," says a businessman from Urumqi. "They said: You and your neighbor are now responsible for each other. If either of you does anything unusual, the other will be held responsible." The businessman says he loves his country. "But I refuse to spy on my neighbor."

Chen's predecessor pinned his hopes on an economic upswing in Xinjiang, says a driver who also lives in Urumqi, gesturing at the downtown skyscrapers. He hoped that the more economically comfortable the population would become, the safer the region would be. "No one believes that anymore. The economy continues to grow, but the first priority now is repression."

Turpan: A Duty To Ramp Up Security

A two-hour drive south of Urumqi is the city-oasis of Turpan, historically located directly on the Silk Road. Over the centuries, temples and mosques were built here by Chinese, Persians, Uighurs, Buddhists, Manichees and Muslims. It's also a wine-growing region and a place suited to prayer and contemplation. Beyond the oasis are two ancient city ruins. A grand modern museum in the city center charts their history. But anyone who enters must show an ID and there's a barbed wire fence outside. A dozen surveillance cameras watch the surrounding park, complete with pond and playground.

The museum's security guards wear helmets and flak jackets. Next to the baggage scanners at the entrance are protective shields used by police for crowd control. It "can all be purchased," says an assistant in the museum shop. "On the other side of the street."

Indeed, there is a store selling security equipment just opposite the museum: Helmets and bayonets, surveillance electronics, 12-packs of batons and, above all, protective vests. "300 yuan each," says a salesperson. That's about 40 euros. "But they only help against stab wounds. We've got bulletproof vests too, but they're much more expensive. Do you have the paperwork?"

Map of the Xinhiang region
DER SPIEGEL

Map of the Xinhiang region

All this gear is intended for use by security personnel protecting stores, restaurants, museums, hospitals and hotels. Their operators are obligated to ramp up security measures. "There's just been a new directive," says one hotel manager in Turpan, holding up a stamped piece of paper. Guests must show IDs when they check in and every time they re-enter -- however often they leave and return. More security staff also have to be employed. In Xinjiang, these tightened security measures are designed not only to make the region a safer place but also to create jobs.

"There are 30 men in each bunker," says a Uighur with suppressed anger as he passes one of the new police stations. "Thirty men, 30 breakfasts, 30 lunches and dinners. Every day. What for? Who's paying for everything?"

Hotan: 'Sent To School'

Hotan, a city of 300,000 people, is an oasis in the southwestern fringe of the Taklamakan desert. Attacks have been common there and surveillance is therefore especially prevalent.

When DER SPIEGEL visited Hotan in 2014, it was still possible to meet with a man who told us about the Chinese government's harsh measures in the surrounding towns. Such a meeting would be out of the question today, the man now informs us through a messaging app. It's not even possible to drive from one town to another without written permission, much less meet with a foreigner. "Maybe in a few years," he writes, adding: "Delete this conversation from your phone immediately. Delete everything that could be suspicious."

There is a modern shopping center at the edge of the city, though barely one in five stores is still open. Most of the others were closed recently due to "security and stability measures," according to the official seals adhered to the doors. "Everyone was sent to school," one passerby says quietly while looking around.

"Qu xuexi," meaning to go or be sent to study, is one of the most common expressions in Xinjiang these days. It is a euphemism for having been taken away and not having been seen or heard from since. The "schools" are re-education centers in which the detainees are being forced to take courses in Chinese and patriotism, without any indictment, due process or a fair hearing.

More than half the people we met along the way during our journey spoke of family members or acquaintances who were "sent to school." One driver in Hotan talked about his 72-year-old grandfather. A person in Urumqi told the story of his daughter's professor. An airplane passenger spoke of his best friend.

The stories differ, yet they all contain important parallels. Most of the people affected are men. The arrests usually occur at night or in the early morning. The reasons cited include contacts abroad, too many visits to a mosque or possessing forbidden content on a mobile phone or computer. Relatives of those who are apprehended often don't hear from them for months. And when they do manage to see them again, it's never in person but rather via video stream from the prison visitor area.

During a conversation with a rug salesman at the market in Hotan, a woman in a short dress shows up and joins the chat. She says she works for an office nearby, and that she has taken the day off. She offers to translate the conversation with the salesman from Uighur into Chinese. No, she will later say as she walks across the nearly empty market, the store closures have nothing to do with re-education camps. "The employees were sent away for technical training," she says. Then she politely says goodbye.

A few hours later, we arrive at the train station for the 500-kilometer (311 mile) ride to Kashgar. The station is guarded like a military base. Travelers must pass through three checkpoints and dozens of surveillance cameras to get to the platform.

"Ah," the ticket inspector says to her colleague as we inquire about our seats. "This is the foreign journalist." The train is nearly full, with hundreds of passengers aboard. A few compartments away, I later notice the woman in the short dress who offered her services as a translator at the market.

Kashgar: 'Allergic Images'

The train to Kashgar takes six hours and passes by more oasis towns and settlements, the names of which are synonymous with the Uighur resistance in China: Moyu, Pishan, Shache, Shule. All the train stations are surrounded by checkpoints and barbed wire fences. When the train stops at a platform, the train dispatcher is often accompanied by a police officer with either a billy club or a gun.

Kashgar is more than 2,000 years old. It was one of the most important stations along the old Silk Road. Visitors could once gaze upon one of the best preserved Islamic old cities in central Asia, made almost entirely of mud houses. But the government demolished most of the old buildings and erected a picturesque tourist quarter in its stead.

Unlike in Urumqi and Turpan, most taxis in Kashgar are outfitted with two cameras. One is aimed at the passenger up front while the other points at those in the backseat. "That was imposed over a year ago," one driver says. "The cameras are directly connected to Public Security. They turn them on and off whenever they want. We have no influence."

Normal journalistic research in Kashgar is inconceivable. No one wants to talk. A Uighur human rights activist who met up with us four years ago didn't respond to a single one of our text messages. His phone number is no longer listed. As we later learned, he disappeared months ago. But whether he was thrown into a re-education camp or prison is unknown.

And then the police officers from the beginning of this story show up again and don't let us out of their sight.

There's a bit of drama as we buy apricots from a fruit shop. We speak to a woman who's sitting and reading a book. It's a language book -- the woman is learning to speak Chinese. South of Xinjiang, very few Uighurs above the age of 20 speak Chinese well.

We only exchange a few words with the woman, but as we leave the store, three of our minders, including a woman in a red jacket, walk inside and confront her. I go back and begin to film the scene with my phone. Surprised, the government officials stop the conversation, pretend to be shopping and hide their faces.

An hour later, a police officer flanked by several government officials approaches us. The woman in the red coat is with them. She's a tourist, the officials claim, and she just learned that she was filmed without her permission. According to Chinese law, the footage must now be deleted. The officer escorts us to a police station, where he confiscates the phone and not only deletes the clip from the fruit stand, but also other clips in which our government minders are recognizable. One of the officials warns us against taking any more such "allergic images." We are then allowed to go.

The surveillance infrastructure in Kashgar is state of the art, but the Chinese government is already working on the next level of control. It wants to introduce a "social credit system" that rates the "trustworthiness" of each citizen, to reward loyalty and punish bad behavior. While the rollout of this system in the densely populated east has been sluggish and spotty, the Uighurs are evidently already subjected to a similar point-based system. This system primarily involves details that could be interesting to the police.

Every family begins with 100 points, one person affected by the system tells us. But anyone with contacts or relatives abroad, especially in Islamic countries like Turkey, Egypt or Malaysia, is punished by losing points. A person with fewer than 60 points is in danger. One wrong word, a prayer or one telephone call too many and they could be sent to "school" in no time.

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