The surveillance of the Uighurs: the future for China?

Beijing could use civilian control techniques in the west as a template for its policies in the east.


Beijing is dramatically increasing its intrusive surveillance systems in the unruly Xinjiang province.


– Chinese spending on surveillance of the Uighur ethnic minority has surged from tens of millions to over a billion dollars in a few short years.
– Prolonged unrest in Xinjiang and Uighur foreign fighters in the Middle East have given Beijing cause for concern.
– Intensified surveillance and control policies in Xinjiang could further inflame unrest
– Successful deployment of surveillance systems in china’s west could be replicated to ensure greater control in the east.

China has expanded its surveillance of Uighur Muslims in the country’s western Xinjiang province. Examples of Beijing’s monitoring of Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities include a DNA database that has been compiled via blood samples, facial recognition software, GPS tracking mechanisms in cars, domestic military checkpoints and the confiscation of Uighur passports to prevent them from leaving China. According to a December 2017 Wall Street Journal article, the Chinese government announced over $1 billion in security-related investment projects in Xinjiang, up from $27 million in 2015.

The goals of these investments, namely counterterrorism and regional stabilisation, are based on a combination of historical and modern political factors. For over two millennia Chinese rulers have had fluctuating levels of control over Xinjiang. The ethnic minorities of Xinjiang have historically rejected Han Chinese governance, as they believe that Beijing doesn’t have their best interests in mind. The clash of opinion between the Uighurs and Beijing have led to protests, violence and terror attacks by organisations such as the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who have killed hundreds of people since 2009.


Armed Police soldiers and armored vehicles WZ551 in the street of Urumqi in September 4, 2009. Days before and at the time, tens of thousands of civilians demonstrated around major places in the city, against a series of the hypodermic needle attacks starting in mid-August.

Photo: Ccyber5 / Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese crackdown on Xinjiang comes as an estimated 5,000 Uighurs have travelled to Iraq and Syria since 2014 to fight for terrorist organisations such as ISIS. It is believed that the vast majority of Uighurs who have gone to fight in the Levant have done so not to create a Middle Eastern Caliphate, but instead to gain combat experience that they can use for their own liberation efforts back home. With violence in Iraq and Syria dying down, Beijing has begun to employ state of the art surveillance technologies and methodologies to prevent further terrorist attacks from occurring in China. In 2009, protests and riots accounted for the deaths of 200 people according to the Chinese government, with outside estimates being much higher. Moreover, knife and bomb attacks in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s largest city, as well as smaller cities and towns, have claimed hundreds of lives, and injured many more since 2013. This considered, the return of terrorists with combat experience has Beijing worried.

In addition to the waning of violence in the Levant, the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, a project aimed at sparking economic growth throughout the Indo-Pacific, will be heavily contingent upon the securitisation of Xinjiang. The western province acts as the land-route gateway to Eastern China’s manufacturing core. Thus, precious metals from Central Asia, and goods and services from South Asia, will pass through the newly created transportation infrastructure of China’s west. If violence stemming from ETIM were to increase, China’s extensive investment into transportation infrastructure and its diplomatic effort concerning the Belt and Road initiative could yield less than satisfactory results.

The increased militarisation of Xinjiang will make it very difficult for those Uighurs who fought abroad to return home. However, it will not be impossible. Xinjiang is home to 23 million people and is twice the size of Texas. The population size, extensive rural terrain and local knowledge of the region will more than likely allow foreign fighters to slip through the cracks and return to China, as they have in Europe and elsewhere.


Anti-China protest outside White House after the July 2009 Urumqi riots

Photo: Malcolm Brown / Wikimedia Commons

The deployment of surveillance mechanisms in Xinjiang has the potential to spread throughout the rest of China. Zhu Shengwu, a Chinese human-rights lawyer who has worked on surveillance cases stated that, “They [the Chinese government] constantly take lessons from the high-pressure rule they apply in Xinjiang and implement them in the east.” This comes in the wake of China’s internet crackdowns, and the growing likelihood that President Xi will seek a third term in office.

The surveillance methodologies that President Xi has rolled out in Xinjiang could act as a trial for metropolitan centers such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Some surveillance methods such as motor vehicle GPS tracking and a blood collection database might be difficult to execute in cities of tens of millions of people. However, less invasive tracking techniques such as facial recognition software, and police or military checkpoints at strategic access points are much for feasible. While mandatory GPS monitoring of motor vehicles may be viewed as too invasive, more discreet tracking via smart phones would allow the Chinese government to accomplish the same goals of heightened government monitoring of individual movements. This would likely be a more effective avenue for the Chinese government to pursue as a significant amount of Chinese citizens who live in metropolitan hubs rely on bicycles, not cars.

Additionally, due to the Belt and Road initiative, Beijing is trying to get more ethnic Hans to move to cities in Xinjiang, such as Urumqi, to spearhead regional trade efforts. According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), the Chinese government “provides incentives for migration to the region from elsewhere in China, in the name of recruiting talent and promoting stability”. However, this will likely pave the way for further communal unrest in Xinjiang as some Uighurs will respond with violence to Beijing’s efforts to try and make the region more ethnically Han.

Another potential pitfall of China’s oppressive governance of Xinjiang could be their relationship with their Central Asian neighbors. As China’s economic relationship with Central Asian countries continues to grow and Central Asians are exposed to Xinjiang via trade and commerce, countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan will become more aware of the oppression of the Uighurs. This could lead to the citizens of these countries sympathising with, or even assisting, their Turkic cousins push for independence.

However, after a significant slowdown in economic activity in the region in 2016, Central Asian countries will seek to closely guard their recovering economies in the year ahead. It is thus highly unlikely that any Central Asian country will risk jeopardising their diplomatic and trade relationship with Beijing by openly supporting Uighur independence, particularly as the Belt and Road Initiative gains momentum. This will make joining organisations such as the ETIM the only avenue for Central Asian Muslims to actively support a free and independent East Turkestan (Xinjiang).

As China has shown time and again, it is willing to increasingly strengthen its grip on unstable provinces to project a sense of nation-wide stability, rather than grant statehood to provinces such as Xinjiang and Tibet. With that in mind, it is more likely than not that China’s militarisation of Xinjiang will become a staple of their governance strategy elsewhere, as China crackdowns via digital surveillance at home to help secure its influence abroad.