The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
The troubled region of Xinjiang, in China’s northwest, has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last couple of months. Thousands of local police stations have cropped up across the region and tens of thousands of policemen have been recruited to man them around the clock.
These structures, known as convenience police stations, are part of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s latest effort to stem the religious and ethnic violence that has long marred Xinjiang. Since the deadly Urumqi riots in 2009, in which the Uyghur minority clashed violently with ethnic Hans, Chinese authorities have ratcheted up control through a massive expansion of its security apparatuses. And yet the violence continued, with market bombings, suicide attacks, and mass stabbings that have left hundreds of Han and Uyghur civilians dead over the past decade.
Now, high-definition security cameras blanket the region, and some 200,000 cadres are being dispatched to rural villages in an effort to watch over the restive Uyghur population. According to state-owned media, the new neighborhood-based police depots offer residents a range of “convenient services,” such as phone charging stations, WiFi, umbrellas, wheelchairs, and even hot tea and free newspapers. But their main purpose is surveillance, providing a series of forward operating bases for community policing and 24-hour patrols.
Since arriving in Xinjiang in late August, Chen Quanguo, the autonomous region’s new Communist Party secretary, has doubled down on weiwen, or “stability maintenance” work. In outlining his policy agenda in September, Chen stressed the importance of “placing stability ahead of everything else,” and called on security officials to adopt a more proactive, systematic, and fine-grained approach in combatting the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism, and splittism. Within days of his speech, construction began on hundreds of new police stations.
This dense network of surveillance is what Chinese officials call “grid-style social management,” a practice that dates to ancient Rome and in its modern incarnation involves segmenting urban communities into geometric zones so that security officials can watch over residents and their activities with the aid of new technologies. The goal, according to a recent article in a Xinjiang-based newspaper, is “complete coverage without any chinks, blind spots, or blank spaces.”
These stations are equipped with the latest anti-riot equipment, and, in some cases, high-tech surveillance equipment such as face and voice recognition software, which is used to track suspects and even build profiles of likely troublemakers. Party officials call these frontline police the “eyes and ears” of the state, and have instructed them to respond quickly and decisively when trouble arises. In theory, these new police stations will allow the Communist Party to penetrate deeper into Xinjiang society and boost their ability to monitor those Uyghurs who seek to openly resist or even quietly parry Han rule.
This is not China’s first rollout of convenience stations. Chen Quanguo pioneered grid-style policing in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, where he served as party secretary from 2011 until the middle of this year. Today, a total of 698 convenience police stations are dotted across the city of Lhasa, with each unit covering a radius of 300–500 meters and monitoring 400 or so residents. Chen was also the first party leader to extend grid management into rural areas, chiefly in the form of village-based party work-teams, but also through the beefing up of policing in remote parts of Tibet.
In Tibet, the grid method is employed to monitor “special groups,” such as migrants, monks, former prisoners, or anyone thought to be a potential threat to social stability. Security officials are encouraged to be more proactive in policing their zones of responsibility in order to nip any trouble in the bud and use “red armband” patrols to search homes for photos of the Dalai Lama or other incriminating material. At checkpoints, police inspect passing vehicles and individuals’ ID cards and mobile phones. And security cameras are used to record the license plates of cars and to track down anyone or anything suspicious.
Chen has brought similar tactics to Xinjiang. There are now 949 of these security outposts across Urumqi, built within a matter of months, and similar work is under way in other major cities such as Kashgar, Hotan, Yining, and Aksu. As in Tibet, grid-style policing has been extended to hotspots, especially remote parts of southern Xinjiang, where Han and party influence had previously been limited. On the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, for example, Makit county (81 percent Uyghur) is building 61 convenience police stations, including 14 in each of its rural townships.
In order to staff these new police stations, Xinjiang is in the process of recruiting an unprecedented number of new security officers. Our analysis of online recruitment advertisements (see here for an example) reveals plans to employ around 31,000 new police officers in Xinjiang this year, over three times the number recruited there the previous year. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, Xinjiang authorities have sought to employ more than 60,000 new security staff.
Funding these new positions (and the necessary equipment) is expensive. The public security budget of the autonomous government in Urumqi has skyrocketed 356 percent since 2009, rising to $7 billion in 2016. Yet Xinjiang’s total internal security budget is at least three times higher, over $25 billion in 2015, when one adds local security spending and fiscal transfers from the central government.
In a bid to keep costs down, police recruitment is increasingly casualized in Xinjiang. Prior to 2012, all advertised police jobs were part of the civil service, with strict yearly quotas and a number of jobs set aside for ethnic minorities. Yet recent recruits, including 92 percent of the 2016 intake, are being employed on short-term contracts with lower requirements and fewer restrictions on residency and ethnicity. In fact, 88 percent of advertised security-related recruitment in 2016 made no restrictions based on ethnicity, suggesting that Party officials had reduced the quota for ethnic minorities and were rushing to fill new positions. The Urumqi City government has even turned to a private recruiting company in neighboring Gansu Province, where it sought to lure 500 individuals to Xinjiang with decent pay and benefits as well as a promise of eligibility for a public service position after two years.
The beefing up of security is a broad, long-term trend in post-Mao China. It reflects the deep insecurities of the party-state, one that fears its own people more than it does external threats. Since at least 2010, China has spent more on domestic security than national defense, and in per capita terms, the security spend in Xinjiang and Tibet is nearly three times the national average. Here, declared enemies include not only those who resist state power but also those who fight the imposition of Han cultural and political norms.
It is still an open question whether this sort of community-based policing is effective in countering terrorism and extremism. The situation is far more complex than overly simplistic narratives that suggest that violence begets violence, or that security pressure produces an equal counter-force or even open resistance. There are far fewer Tibetan self-immolations—three in 2016 and seven in 2015 compared to 83 in 2012—and this is quite possibly due to the state’s Orwellian surveillance network.
According to the Communist Party, the strategy has also reduced the number of violent, terror-related attacks in Xinjiang and that ethnic relations had experienced “heartening changes.” But according to human rights groups and regional experts, the intense surveillance has amplified the mistrust between the Han and Uyghur communities in Xinjiang, where cultural misunderstandings and outright prejudice are commonplace. In October, two Uyghur youths were detained in Urumqi on charges of disturbing ethnic unity after they criticized an offensive doctored image—a snapshot of a stack of boxes labeled “halal pig lard” that was circulating on the Chinese Internet.
Community-based policing is now the norm across the globe, and can be effective under the right circumstances. But recent research demonstrates that trust and transparency are vital ingredients for its effectiveness, especially in combatting extremist behavior and violence in Muslim minority communities that already feel under siege and are subject to unfair treatment. In Xinjiang—and Chinese society more broadly—these two elements are sadly in short supply.
Across China, Uyghurs are unfairly profiled, stereotyped, insulted, and harassed on a daily basis, and they are rarely accorded the presumption of innocence. Since President Xi Jinping came to power, an ugly tide of virulent anti-Muslim bigotry has spread and intensified across Chinese society. Islamophobia is not only rampant on Chinese social media; it also colors everyday interactions on Chinese streets.
Most Uyghurs remain deeply suspicious of the party-state and its enforcement agencies. Since 2009 the gap between the Uyghur and Han communities has widened significantly, with few policy levers for ameliorating the deep tensions that exist. The party’s new convenience policing strategy is set to exacerbate this mistrust and drive Uyghur resentment further underground. The failure to address the deep sense of cultural insecurity at the heart of Uyghur life today means that the violence will continue, even if there are fewer incidents and perhaps more unsophisticated lone-wolf attacks.