Xinjiang: The making of China's far-west police state
China's all-encompassing security crackdown in Xinjiang has turned the northwest region – home to most of the country's ethnic Uighur population – into a place activists describe as an open air prison.
Upwards of one million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in the region are held in re-education camps, according to estimates cited by a UN panel in 2018. And for those living outside the camps, ubiquitous ID checks and tight security are a part of daily life.
The United States blacklisted 28 Chinese entities this week over their alleged roles in rights violations in Xinjiang and said it would also curb visas for officials involved in "detention or abuse" of minorities.
Here are some key parts of China's Xinjiang security apparatus:
The most controversial aspect of China's security crackdown in Xinjiang is its vast network of re-education camps, where rights groups and former inmates say detainees are subject to forced political indoctrination and even abuse.
China's Uighur heartland turns into security state
China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in its Xinjiang region. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority. By Nadine Berghausen
Economy or security? China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas
China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security: three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants
One Belt, One Road Initiative: an ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond
China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit: a man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic set piece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence
Ethnic minority in China: a woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East
Communist Party vows to continue war on terror: Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation
CCTV cameras are being installed: many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar
Ban on many typically Muslim customs: the most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police
Security personnel keep watch: authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalised", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses
A Kazakh businessman, who spent nearly two months in a camp, told journalists the facilities only had one goal: to strip detainees of their religious belief. Inmates were forced to sing patriotic songs every morning and eat pork, a violation Islam's religious restrictions, he said.
A news agency investigation of over 1,500 government documents last year also found that Xinjiang camps were run more like jails than schools as claimed by Beijing. Tasers, tear gas and even "tiger chairs" – used by Chinese police to restrain interrogation subjects – were among items requested by centres around Xinjiang.
Still, the Chinese government has defended what it calls "vocational education centres" as a necessary countermeasure for religious extremism, despite denying their existence until last October.
Outside of the camps, local residents in Xinjiang are tightly monitored by an array of high-tech surveillance systems. A mobile app called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform collects information from multiple sources, including facial-recognition cameras, Wi-Fi sniffers and home visits in the region, according to Human Rights Watch.
Xinjiang authorities use the app to target specific individuals, such as those who donate to mosques "enthusiastically", do not socialise with neighbours and do not use a smartphone, the group found.
In April, a report by the New York Times also revealed that Chinese authorities are using a vast system of facial recognition to track Uighurs across the country.
Data leaks have also offered clues to the scale of surveillance across all ethnic groups. Within a 24-hour period, more than six million locations were saved by tracking devices in Xinjiang, according to a Dutch security researcher who discovered an exposed database in February.
The database also stored a range of personal information on 2.6 million people in the region, including ethnicity, address and employer.
In 2017, Xinjiang authorities passed sweeping "anti-extremism" regulations that banned a wide range of behaviours and customs – formalising a regional crackdown on certain Muslim practices. Growing "abnormal" facial hair was included in the government's list, as well as wearing robes that cover the whole body and face.
The new regulations also required Uighurs to watch or listen to government propaganda on radio or TV.
A visit to Xinjiang during the month of Ramadan by journalists also showed profound changes in Uighur-dominant cities like Kashgar, where a sunrise prayer call used to echo throughout the city. This year, the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr was a quiet affair, with locals filing into the city's state-approved mosque as police and officials fenced off the surrounding area.
Since 2017, dozens of mosques and religious sites around Xinjiang have also been demolished or stripped of their domes, according to satellite images analysed by journalists and Earthrise Alliance.
A new investigation found that at least 40 cemeteries were destroyed in the region.
Beijing's push to control the Uighur population has also extended well beyond Chinese borders.
In July 2017, Egyptian authorities aided Chinese officials in a police raid targeting Uighurs in the country. One Uighur, who was an Islamic theology student in Egypt at the time, told journalists he was taken to a Cairo police station where Chinese officials grilled him about his life in Egypt. Then he was sent to Tora, one of Egypt's most notorious jails and detained for 60 days.
Uighurs in countries as far away as the United States have also told journalists they have received menacing messages and explicit threats to relatives in Xinjiang – part of China's powerful state security apparatus's bid to silence activists and recruit informants.
One man told journalists he remains reluctant to speak publicly despite now being a New Zealand citizen because he fears for himself and his 78-year-old mother. After Shawudun Abdughupur refused to give details of his meetings with other Uighurs, he received this chilling message: "We can find you. We are in New Zealand." (AFP)