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China’s Surveillance Laboratory | Dissent Magazine

China’s Surveillance Laboratory | Dissent Magazine


China’s Surveillance Laboratory

Reeducation camps, mosque monitoring, an in depth community of safety checkpoints—these are just some options of the surveillance equipment China is creating to police Uyghur Muslims. A report from Xinjiang.


Darren Byler and Timothy Grose ▪ October 31, 2018
A “convenience police station” close to the middle of the Uyghur district in Ürümchi (Darren Byler)

Muslims in northwest China’s Xinjiang, the Uyghur homeland, endure a continuing barrage of state-sanctioned violence. For a whole lot of hundreds of individuals, that violence comes within the type of incarceration in “reeducation” facilities for which officers only recently tried to offer authorized justification. Those that have been spared this destiny haven’t escaped the state’s assault on their freedoms. Though they don’t seem to be confined to the reeducation compounds lined with razor wire, they’re nonetheless subjected to institutionalized Islamophobia and omnipresent surveillance.

At night time, Ürümchi, the area’s capital, pulses with purple and blue lights. Within the metropolis’s Uyghur districts, “Convenience Police Stations” bristling with face-recognition cameras stand sentinel each 200 meters. Checkpoints are all over the place. Cameras, gates, face-scanning machines, and metallic detectors on the entrance of each residential space, buying middle, and enormous administrative center have turned the town right into a high-tech labyrinth the place solely individuals with the fitting faces and passbooks can transfer with out operating into partitions. The town is a big police lab the place Muslim minorities are handled as check topics in an anti-religious experiment. The partitions, gates, and police are a part of an try and get rid of undesirable types of Islamic apply.

State officers started this experiment in city authoritarianism over 9 years in the past, on July 5, 2009. That morning, lots of of Uyghurs carrying Chinese language flags demanded Communist Get together leaders shield the rights of Uyghurs who had been despatched to work in factories in South China. The protest was met with police violence and shortly spiraled into interethnic bloodshed. In accordance with official figures, the protests and ensuing violence claimed 197 lives and resulted in near 2,000 accidents. Within the following weeks tons of, if not hundreds, of Uyghur younger males have been disappeared by the state. They’ve by no means been seen since.

Violence didn’t finish on Ürümchi’s streets that July afternoon. This decade has witnessed growing incidents of sporadic violence within the area, and it has spilled into Beijing and Kunming. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, as many as 700 individuals have been killed in police raids, assassinations, and skirmishes with safety personnel.

The area’s protracted spiral of state oppression and Uyghur resistance raises questions concerning the future stability of the area itself. Regardless of state claims that Xinjiang has been an inalienable and “multi-ethnic” a part of China “since ancient times,” many Uyghurs insist their language, faith, and tradition are beneath assault and complain of exclusion from China’s booming however Han-dominated financial system by way of types of systematic, institutionalized bias. Uyghur individuals we interviewed stated the area’s violence proceeds from experiences of loss and injustice, not from ideological motivations. Processes of dispossession are pushing Uyghurs to a breaking level. And but the state clings to its well-rehearsed script, which holds that enhancing the Uyghurs’ materials lives by means of market improvement whereas eradicating “extremism” will deliver stability to the area.

Recent economic development in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Darren Byler)Current financial improvement within the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Area (Darren Byler)

Financial improvement offers the best quick advantages for many who already possess social and cultural capital. Due to this, China’s strategy to improvement has reworked the Uyghur’s homeland whereas destabilizing it within the course of. Land reforms and labor-transfer packages started a means of Uyghur dispossession. The buildout of trains, highways, and 3G cellular networks catalyzed a widespread flip to extra pious types of Islamic follow. These unintended outcomes prompted the state to redouble its efforts to eradicate “extremism” whereas accelerating a brand new type of improvement: turning China right into a counterinsurgency policing superpower.

This huge and invasive type of securitization arose in 2017 when Xi Jinping urged the development of a “great wall of iron” to guard the area from what Chinese language leaders contemplate a menace to the territorial integrity of the Individuals’s Republic. Shortly after Xi’s remarks, on April 1, 2017, the Communist Social gathering introduced the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Area’s Articles on Eliminating Extremism. This laws’s definition of extremism consists of any motion that “misrepresents religious teachings to incite hatred, foment discrimination, and advocate violence.” The doc additional identifies fifteen illegal “manifestations of extremism,” together with refusing “non-halal brands,” refusing to observe state tv, and sporting “extremist symbols” reminiscent of unauthorized veils or beards. The regulation alerts the state’s reshuffling of the so-called “three forces” that threaten social stability: spiritual extremism, ethnic separatism, and violent terrorism. It now prioritizes eliminating extremism over the all else.

“Extremism,” like the opposite two phrases, does quite a lot of work for the state. The time period is descriptive and prescriptive. It labels sure behaviors irregular, deviant, unacceptable, and out of doors of the mainstream, whereas justifying the policing of norms and, in flip, the imposition of latest norms and types of management. Though the doc’s exact ordering presents a semblance of exactitude, its ambiguous authorized jargon and advert hoc enforcement displays an institutional Islamophobia that drives the policing of Islamic follow. As an alternative of figuring out and clarifying the which means of extremism, as Xinhua Information claims, the regulation and corresponding marketing campaign obscure the already hazy line separating authorized and unlawful spiritual practices in Xinjiang whereas on the similar time empowering native officers to punish Uyghurs for something deemed deviant or irregular.

State officers consider Islam has “sickened” the Uyghurs and regard their piety as a critical menace to Chinese language nationwide sovereignty. At a 2016 convention on spiritual affairs, Xi Jinping inspired the fusion of “religious doctrines with Chinese culture,” remarks some consider are directed towards alleged “Islamization” actions—or Islamic practices and beliefs that haven’t been “Sinicized” by Chinese language tradition or Confucian ethics. Earlier that yr, state leaders ditched laws that might have regulated and monitored the manufacturing of halal meals after some influential students in China criticized the regulation for violating the separation of faith and state; Wang Zhengwei, a Hui Muslim advocate for the invoice who additionally held the very best place within the State Ethnic Affairs Fee, was dismissed from his publish shortly after the choice. These occasions got here towards the backdrop of an increase in on-line anti-Islamic slurs by Han netizens, an alarming state of affairs contemplating the state’s strict censorship of any feedback which will incite ethnic hatred and create political unrest.

Ürümchi: A Middle of Xinjiang’s Police State

Since 2014 Ürümchi has turn out to be the nerve middle of Xinjiang’s police state. This prolonged and costly course of required an overhaul of the town, full with large-scale city improvement tasks, inhabitants relocation, high-tech surveillance methods, and conspicuous propaganda campaigns aimed to “civilize” the autonomous area’s capital. Though Ürümchi was not a cultural or mental middle for Uyghurs traditionally, when Uyghur migrants started to reach within the metropolis in giant numbers within the 1980s and 1990s they reworked sections of the cityscape into native or “yerlik” areas, very similar to different cities in Xinjiang. Due to this, and the violence the state related to the populations dwelling in these areas, the state decided that it should re-engineer them—a course of Jay Dautcher calls “desettlement.” Uyghur social practices and types of information are cordoned off, recognized, and changed with new norms and practices. If devotion to Allah stood on the middle of Uyghur life prior to now, the Social gathering and its chief Xi Jinping should grow to be the middle of Uyghur life underneath the brand new regime. The top aim, what the state refers to as “permanent peace,” is to tie Ürümchi—its aesthetics, tradition, and values—extra intently to Beijing.

Changes in the Heijiashan neighborhood between 2002 and 2016Modifications within the Heijiashan neighborhood between 2002 and 2016

Current improvement tasks are wiping away the few traces of Uyghur tradition left within the metropolis. Authorities started their work shortly after the 2009 riots, once they introduced the demolition and reconstruction of the town’s “shantytown” districts, corresponding to Heijiashan and Yamalikeshan. On the time, these districts have been house to between 300,000 and 500,000 individuals, most of whom have been Uyghur. The citywide, $41 billion city renewal undertaking focused communities with houses stated to be poorly constructed and with out utilities, and with inhabitants who have been allegedly vulnerable to crime. Of their place, and in places farther from the town’s middle, city planners constructed 361 pink and yellow high-rise condominium buildings. Those that might show that they had a authorized proper to the town might purchase these new, naked concrete flats at sponsored costs. Many Uyghurs have been pressured to go away the town or transfer into rental properties in different elements of the town on account of these city renewal tasks. Almost a decade later, a lot of the new housing in Heijiashan stays vacant. By setting up dozens of residential compounds typical of current development elsewhere in China the place tightly nestled Uyghur courtyards as soon as stood, metropolis planners have made the town simpler to control by reworking it right into a easily designed area with enclosures, gates, and cameras.

When accomplished, Ürümchi will in some ways resemble each different mid-sized Chinese language metropolis. To this finish, authorities haven’t spared any particulars. In commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the formation of the Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous Area (XUAR), officers undertook a citywide lighting undertaking to light up Ürümchi’s main roads and sixty-five buildings of curiosity. Beneath every road lamp cling three pink lanterns, that are ubiquitous in Han Chinese language tradition. Such lanterns might sound festive, have been they not hung in a metropolis the place one the primary Uyghur neighborhoods, Heijiashan, is flanked by a army base and flotillas of armored automobiles patrol the streets.

Red lanterns hang from street lights on Tuanjie Lu (Timothy Grose)Purple lanterns grasp from road lights on Tuanjie Lu (Timothy Grose)

Inhabitants Management

Though Ürümchi’s bodily transformation has been dramatic, the success of the urbanization challenge is determined by the authorities’ capability to rigorously monitor and management the town’s inhabitants. With roughly 2.5 million individuals, Ürümchi is likely one of the largest cities in western China. At almost 73 % of the town’s complete inhabitants, Han individuals predominate, whereas Muslim Uyghur and Hui individuals make up 13 and 10 % respectively. Regardless of Ürümchi’s numerous composition, the town is segregated alongside ethnic strains. Over 45 % of Ürümchi’s Uyghurs stay within the Tianshan District, certainly one of seven districts, situated within the metropolis’s middle. 5 sub-districts of Tianshan have Uyghur populations of at the very least 23 %.

As well as, as many as 300,000 Uyghur migrants from southern Xinjiang’s rural oases made Ürümchi their house earlier than 2017. Many got here to the town as a result of jobs have been extra plentiful and safety, at the least in comparison with southern Xinjiang at the moment, was much less strict. An estimated two-thirds of Uyghur migrants have been males, with a median age over thirty; over one half of Uyghur migrants had not accomplished highschool. This group was notably weak to employer discrimination and financial disparity, particularly in comparison with the town’s Han migrants. Nevertheless, many remained within the metropolis, discovering work in eating places, promoting snacks from roadside stands, and peddling shopper items, all whereas continually dodging safety personnel.

The short-term implementation of the “People’s Convenience Contact Card” program exacerbated the precarity of Uyghur migrants in Ürümchi. Launched on Might 1, 2014, and formally described as a way of “effective, reasonable and lawful management of Xinjiang’s floating population,” the marketing campaign required all individuals over the age of sixteen to hold an identification card (along with the usual resident ID card) containing their authorized identify, ethnic standing, phone quantity, and a contact individual (often an official from their hometown) throughout journey outdoors the county the place they have been born. This screening mechanism, scanned at each safety checkpoint, allowed authorities all through the area to maintain shut tabs on the whereabouts of “problematic” individuals. In an effort to obtain this card, nevertheless, people have been required to return to their hometown and apply at their native police station. Nearly all of Uyghurs weren’t given the cardboard once they utilized for it upon their return to their hometowns and, in consequence, weren’t allowed to go away their residence counties. Throughout this era, many Uyghurs informed us that life within the countryside started to resemble an “open-air prison.”

Though state officers canceled the Individuals’s Comfort Contact Card marketing campaign on Might 1, 2016, they instantly changed it with safety measures which might be much more invasive. Presently, each resident is designated as “safe,” “normal,” or “unsafe,” based mostly on metrics resembling age, religion, spiritual practices, overseas contacts, and expertise overseas. In 2017, Xinjiang’s Celebration Secretary Chen Quanguo launched a community of over 7,500 “convenience police stations,” described as “street-corner bulwarks for community based policing,” a coverage he had carried out within the Tibet Autonomous Area throughout his tenure as that area’s Get together Secretary.  Based mostly on our 2017 measurements, “convenience police stations” now tower over intersections and sidewalks and forged shadows over mosques each 200 meters in Ürümchi’s Uyghur districts. Authorities boast that the “zero-distance proximity” of stations ensures twenty-four-hour surveillance and swift responses within the occasion of emergencies.

A map of convenience police stations in the center of the Uyghur district in Ürümchi (Darren Byler, with Google Earth)A map of “convenience police stations” within the middle of the Uyghur district in Ürümchi (Darren Byler, with Google Earth)

Comfort police stations function hubs for the area’s new facial-recognition know-how. Just like its predecessor, the Individuals’s Comfort Contact Card, Xinjiang’s facial-recognition system screens and data human motion, however at a a lot quicker tempo. The brand new high-tech system is designed to inform authorities as quickly as suspects stray greater than 300 meters from their houses. With this know-how put in, safety cameras course of pictures from an in depth database of individuals of curiosity, principally Uyghur males. The know-how makes video searchable, permitting police enforcement to question the situation of anybody who has handed in entrance of their cameras at any time.

This in depth surveillance equipment calls for a robust paramilitary and regulation enforcement presence. Within the second half of 2016, the months through which development started on the town’s comfort police stations, Ürümchi’s native authorities marketed eight,000 new police positions. Authorities introduced one other 2,700 regulation enforcement positions between January and August 2017.Nevertheless, the recruitment numbers for Ürümchi symbolize solely a small fraction of the entire for the province: openings for 100,000 safety personnel have been marketed all through Xinjiang throughout this similar interval. These officers monitor their station’s cameras and conduct spot checks of IDs and smartphones of younger Uyghurs. They cease pedestrians and automobiles, in search of individuals who would not have a authorized proper to be within the metropolis or are violating spiritual laws. They search for individuals registered in rural villages and who lack work-authorization paperwork. Additionally they search for indicators of Islamic piety in each the looks of the younger Uyghurs and on their telephones. At occasions, authorities use scanning units and purposes to detect Islamic symbols in photographs and banned phrases, akin to “Allah” or “Khuda,” in texts.

Engineering Uyghur-Chinese language Residents

Underneath the watchful eye of hundreds of safety personnel, Uyghurs left within the capital are coached to grow to be “civilized citizens.” Step one on this course of was forcing Uyghurs to embody Han or secular modes of gown.

Modes of gown the state deemed examples of “extreme” or “foreign” Islam turned the marketing campaign’s first goal. To curb “extremist” Islamic gown, particularly imported types of veiling, authorities in Xinjiang launched “Project Beauty” in September 2011. The initiative requires ladies to shed face veils, hijab, and lengthy robes whereas selling “modern fashion,” represented by free-flowing hair and colourful ätläs material. Officers in Ürümchi ramped up their efforts to de-veil Uyghur ladies by passing of the “Regulation banning the wearing of items that mask the face or robe the body in public places in the city of Ürümchi,” which went into impact on February 1, 2015.

(Infographic by Darren Byler and Timothy Grose)(Infographic by Darren Byler and Timothy Grose)

In subsequent years, this “de-extremification” marketing campaign flooded the town’s airwaves. China Nationwide Radio’s Uyghur-language broadcast often aired the next public service announcement emphasizing that Uyghurs ought to put on conventional Uyghur clothes deemed non-extremist (translation follows):

“Grandma, Grandma! It is windy outside. Make sure you tie your veil tightly. Mother, your shirt looks so good on you. Why doesn’t my atlas shirt look like yours?”

“My child, take a look at yourself in the mirror. Your doppa [hat] looks good with this type of shirt.”

“When can I dress like you?”

“When you get older like me, then you can pick colorful atlas cloth like this and wear a style that matches the times…”

[Narrator:] “Friends, are you listening? Our ethnic clothing has been handed down to us by our ancestors and should be cherished. It is a splendid testament to our identity. Therefore, you shouldn’t forget the importance of combining traditional clothing with modern clothing for our future development.”

Officers didn’t restrict their ban on sartorial practices to Islamic veils. In 2015, officers recognized the “five abnormal types,” a designation that additionally consists of inappropriately lengthy beards and clothes bearing “Islamic symbols.”

A Project Beauty poster that was posted throughout the Uyghur neighborhoods of Ürümchi at the beginning of the People’s War on TerrorA Venture Magnificence poster that was posted all through the Uyghur neighborhoods of Ürümchi firstly of the Individuals’s Warfare on Terror.

Based on native officers, violations of this gown code “flagrantly interfere with the ordinary lives of the masses.” In a 2015 interview with Phoenix On-line, Xiong Xuanguo, then secretary of XUAR’s Standing Committee of Politics and Regulation, justified the ban on 5 grounds. His first justification was doctrinal: though not an Islamic jurist, Xiong maintains beards and veils will not be mandated by the Qur’an. He then offered a cultural rationalization: these appearances run counter to Uyghur “traditional” sartorial tradition. How, Xiong asks, can an ethnic group with a practice of singing and dancing gown in such a method? Xiong additionally introduced a medical rationalization, claiming that veils are detrimental to the well being of girls, placing them liable to respiratory tract infections and pores and skin illnesses. Lastly, he famous, the ban in Xinjiang follows comparable restrictions already enforced in France, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria.

As Uyghurs’ appearances develop into much less “Muslim” and conform to mainstream Han requirements, the state has begun to give attention to weakening their religion. To this finish, officers proceed to step up mosque surveillance. On November 11, 2016, metropolis authorities revealed a doc titled “Strengthen Ürümchi Education Management Services for Mosque and Religious Activities.” In response to these new tips, officers should deepen their understandings of the persistence, complexity, mass attraction, ethnic nature, and international connections of Xinjiang’s religions, they usually should unite clerics and believers intently with the state.

Chinese flags wave in front of Hantängri Mosque in the Nanmen neighborhood of Ürümchi (Timothy Grose)Chinese language flags wave in entrance of Hantängri Mosque within the Nanmen neighborhood of Ürümchi (Timothy Grose)

In follow, the unity the doc alludes to has meant elevated safety personnel close to mosques. Trustworthy getting into the Yanghang and Dongköwrük mosques, two of the town’s largest, should move by means of face-scanning turnstiles and metallic detectors. In 2017, in the course of the Eid al-Fitr prayer marking the top of Ramadan, worshippers on the Yanghang mosque have been pressured to collect across the flag and sing the nationwide anthem; the morning’s khutbah (sermon) inspired the congregation to be patriotic residents. These practices and messages have been repeated regularly throughout the town. Because the fall of 2017, many Uyghurs have stopped attending mosque providers altogether.

Filling the Void with Han Cultural Norms

Whereas the state is eliminating Islamic parts of Uyghur social life, it’s changing them with norms and practices widespread to mainstream Chinese language society, starting with the promotion of the nationwide language, Chinese language, in schooling, regulation, and commerce. Ürümchi has turn out to be the testing floor for sweeping language reforms that privilege Mandarin earlier than extending them to southern Xinjiang. To make certain, each China’s Structure and the Regulation of Regional Ethnic Autonomy shield the rights of minority ethnic teams to “use and develop” their native languages. Nevertheless, the Uyghur language has steadily develop into subordinate to Chinese language, particularly within the realm of schooling.  As early as 2004, all faculties in Ürümchi adopted a Chinese language-language solely coverage.

Even the area’s Uyghur-language tv channels encourage viewers to talk Chinese language. A tickertape that runs periodically on Xinjiang Tv Channel 5, an Ürümchi-based station, broadcasts these messages to the area’s Uyghur audio system:

  • Converse the nationwide language fluently. We will make pals in all places.
  • The nationwide language is our language in faculties.
  • Unfold the nationwide language; let’s be like members of the identical household.
  • Once we converse the nationwide language, our lives are brighter and society extra harmonious.

To make certain, many Uyghurs acknowledge the significance of studying Chinese language and need to study it. However additionally they crave formal instruction of their mom language. A university-educated man in his late twenties remarked:

The federal government says it’s giving [Uyghurs] a chance to study one other language, and we [Uyghurs] ought to be completely happy as a result of studying languages is an effective factor. That’s not the purpose. In fact I need to study Chinese language. With out it, I wouldn’t be capable of discover a job. However I need to research my very own language too.

Contemplating the emphasis positioned on Chinese language, a few of our sources even grimly predicted that Uyghur youngsters within the not-so-distant future will develop into monolingual audio system.

Fluency in Chinese language is step one in the direction of state-defined Chinese language “civilization,” however all the challenge requires Uyghurs to undertake a completely new set of values. Indicators within the type of Han people artwork on buildings, the partitions of underpasses, and even inside taxis remind Ürümchi’s residents of “our [i.e., Chinese] values.” As an alternative of an ethical code outlined by Islam, Uyghurs are advised to embrace twelve secular values recognized by the state: prosperity, democracy, civility, concord, freedom, equality, righteousness, lawfulness, patriotism, professionalism, sincerity, and friendliness. The message is strengthened via lots of of storefront audio system, billboards, and comfort police stations.

These values have even been put to music. Starting in June 2017 and persevering with by way of the autumn, authorities pressured all store and restaurant house owners to play the melody on a steady loop. The “Ethnic Declaration of the Chinese People” anthem declares:

The lyrics present Uyghurs with a brand new creed and blueprint for mannequin conduct enforced by face-recognition cameras and spot checks. As a part of “Eastern Civilization” and members of the multiethnic Chinese language individuals, Uyghurs are anticipated to simply accept, internalize, and embody the twelve core values of the New China. There isn’t any room for religion in values and norms aside from these propagated by the state. This unilateral strategy elicits public compliance by way of the establishment of a police state that enforces Han conceptions of norms and extremes. This course of neither builds belief nor engenders loyalty amongst Uyghurs—and till they’ve significant types of self-determination and autonomy, resentment will solely proceed to develop.


Darren Byler is a lecturer within the Division of Anthropology on the College of Washington. His analysis focuses on Uyghur dispossession, tradition work, and “terror capitalism” in Ürümchi. He has revealed analysis articles in Modern Islam, Central Asian Survey, and the Journal of Chinese language Modern Artwork and contributed to volumes on the ethnography of Islam in China, transnational Chinese language cinema, and journey and illustration.

Timothy Grose is an assistant professor of China Research at Rose-Hulman Institute of Know-how in Terre Haute, Indiana. His analysis on Uyghur ethno-national id, the “Xinjiang Class” boarding faculty—the subject of his forthcoming e-book, Negotiating Inseparability in China: The Xinjiang Class and the Dynamics of Uyghur Id—and on a regular basis expressions of Islam in Xinjiang has appeared within the China Journal, the Journal of Modern China, Asian Research Evaluation, ChinaFile, the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, and a number of other edited volumes on Xinjiang.

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