Beijing's Eyes and Ears Grow Sharper in Xinjiang

The 24-7 Patrols of China's "Convenience Police"

Chili placed in the form of the Chinese national flag in Heshuo county, Xinjiang province, China, September 29, 2016. Reuters

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

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