Anti-terror ‘security state’ in Xinjiang

The Uighur people of China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region are coming under unprecedented surveillance and militarization amid official fears of terrorism in the far-western territory. In the latest draconian measure, residents of one prefecture are being ordered to install a government-developed GPS tracking system in their vehicles. By June 30, all motorists in Bayingolin Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture must have the BeiDou navigation satellite system installed in their vehicles, under an order aimed at "ensur[ing] stability and social harmony." Gas stations will only be permitted to serve cars that have the system. Installation is free, but vehicle owners will be charged 90 yuan a year for the Internet fees.

"The car is the main means of transport of terrorists, and is often also used by them as a weapon," a police statement said. "It is imperative that we move to a GPS tracking and electronic license plate system to manage vehicle positioning."

With an area of 462,700 square kilometers, Bayingol is China's largest prefecture—even larger than neighboring Gansu province—and has a large population of Uighurs, the group being targeted under the "anti-terrorist" campaign. In the latest violent incident in Xinjiang, three knife-wielding assailants were shot dead by police Feb. 15, following an attack in which five people were killed in Hotan prefecture, west of Bayingol. (Shanghaiist, NextShark, Feb. 21; RFA, Feb. 20; RFA, Feb. 15)

Hotan was also the scene of a mass attack on a police station with knives and improvised explosives in July 2011, part of a wave of militant attacks in Xinjiang that summer.

Wikipedia indicates, and Travel China Guide appears to agree, that Bayingolin was initially established as an "autonomous prefecture" for the (mostly Buddhist) Mongolian ethnicity in 1954, but was expanded to include adjacent Muslim Uighur-inhabited areas in 1960. At this time the Mongols became a minority in what was ostensibly their "autonomous prefecture"—presumably part of the state strategy of playing China's ethnic minorites against each other. Like Xinjiang in general, Bayingolin has been heavily subject to Han colonization over the past decades, which has enflamed tensions in the area. Uighurs themselves are now a minority in Bayingolin, and have been reduced to a plurality of some 45% in Xinjiang as a whole.

In a clear effort to intimidate the indigenous Uighur populace, Chinese authorities have been staging mass "anti-terror rallies" across Xinjiang, with thousands of armed security officers parading through the streets of Urumqi and other cities in the region. Chen Guoquan, the region's powerful party boss, called on troops to "bury the corpses of terrorists in the vast sea of the people's war [on terror]." (UHRP, Feb. 28)

"Recent events are suggesting that the Chinese state is creating a security state within Xinjiang like never seen before," according to Sean Roberts, author of the forthcoming Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: How the Global War on Terror and China Created Uyghur Terrorism. He charged that Chinese authorities "are taking full advantage of the new technologies that allow states to control their populations—they are making residents install tracking devices in vehicles, they are randomly searching cell phones of Uighurs without probable cause, they are using public surveillance cameras and biometrics. In general, it is a frightening experiment that could spread to elsewhere where authoritarian states seek to fully control the lives of their citizens." (Pacific Standard, Feb. 23)

The US-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) issued a statement last month protesting this escalation of security measures on the anniversary of the Ghulja massacre. On Feb. 5, 1997, Chinese security forces opened fire on Uighur protesters in the town of  Ghulja (Chinese: Yining), leaving hundreds dead. The town has historical resonance, as it was the capital of the short-lived independent East Turkestan Republic, established in 1944 by Uighur rebels and covering much of contemporary Xinjiang.

"It has been 20 years since peaceful Uyghur protestors took to the streets of Ghulja to protest harsh curbs placed on their religious beliefs and the Chinese authorities' open discrimination. However, in those intervening 20 years, instead of seeking ways in which to address Uyghur grievances, Chinese officials have taken steps to increase the repression facing ordinary Uyghurs," said UHRP acting director Omer Kanat in the statement. "The documentation recording severe restrictions on religious freedom and high levels of extreme poverty among Uyghurs is overwhelming… Until the Chinese state accepts its role in gross human rights violations, the dead of Ghulja will remain a stain on its history."  (UHRP, Feb. 7)