CRF Blog

This Is What A 21st-Century Police State Really Looks Like

by Bill Hayes

In This Is What A 21st-Century Police State Really Looks Like for BuzzFeed News, Megha Rajagopalan argues that, “Far from the booming metropolis of Beijing, China is building a sprawling system that combines dystopian technology and human policing.”

KASHGAR, China — This is a city where growing a beard can get you reported to the police. So can inviting too many people to your wedding, or naming your child Muhammad or Medina.

Driving or taking a bus to a neighboring town, you’d hit checkpoints where armed police officers might search your phone for banned apps like Facebook or Twitter, and scroll through your text messages to see if you had used any religious language.

You would be particularly worried about making phone calls to friends and family abroad. Hours later, you might find police officers knocking at your door and asking questions that make you suspect they were listening in the whole time.

For millions of people in China’s remote far west, this dystopian future is already here. China, which has already deployed the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship system, is building a surveillance state in Xinjiang, a four-hour flight from Beijing, that uses both the newest technology and human policing to keep tabs on every aspect of citizens’ daily lives. The region is home to a Muslim ethnic minority called the Uighurs, who China has blamed for forming separatist groups and fueling terrorism. Since this spring, thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities have disappeared into so-called political education centers, apparently for offenses from using Western social media apps to studying abroad in Muslim countries, according to relatives of those detained.

Over the past two months, I interviewed more than two dozen Uighurs, including recent exiles and those who are still in Xinjiang, about what it’s like to live there. The majority declined to be named because they were afraid that police would detain or arrest their families if their names appeared in the press.

Taken along with government and corporate records, their accounts paint a picture of a regime that at once recalls the paranoia of the Mao era and is also thoroughly modern, marrying heavy-handed human policing of any behavior outside the norm with high-tech tools like iris recognition and apps that eavesdrop on cell phones.

China’s government says the security measures are necessary in Xinjiang because of the threat of extremist violence by Uighur militants — the region has seen periodic bouts of unrest, from riots in 2009 that left almost 200 dead to a series of deadly knife and bomb attacks in 2013 and 2014. The government also says it’s made life for Uighurs better, pointing to the money it’s poured into economic development in the region, as well as programs making it easier for Uighurs to attend university and obtain government jobs. Public security and propaganda authorities in Xinjiang did not respond to requests for comment. China’s Foreign Ministry said it had no knowledge of surveillance measures put in place by the local government.

“I want to stress that people in Xinjiang enjoy a happy and peaceful working and living situation,” said Lu Kang, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, when asked why the surveillance measures are needed. “We have never heard about these measures taken by local authorities.”

But analysts and rights groups say the heavy-handed restrictions punish all of the region’s 9 million Uighurs — who make up a bit under half of the region’s total population — for the actions of a handful of people. The curbs themselves fuel resentment and breed extremism, they say. [more]