Josh Chin and
Clément Bürge | Photographs by
Giulia Marchi for The Wall Street Journal
Pedestrians pass a “convenience police station” in the Erdaoqiao neighborhood of Urumqi.
URUMQI, China—This city on China’s Central Asia frontier may be one of the most closely surveilled places on earth.
Security checkpoints with identification scanners guard the train station and roads in and out of town. Facial scanners track comings and goings at hotels, shopping malls and banks. Police use hand-held devices to search smartphones for encrypted chat apps, politically charged videos and other suspect content. To fill up with gas, drivers must first swipe their ID cards and stare into a camera.
China’s efforts to snuff out a violent separatist movement by some members of the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic group have turned the autonomous region of Xinjiang, of which Urumqi is the capital, into a laboratory for high-tech social controls that civil-liberties activists say the government wants to roll out across the country.
It is nearly impossible to move about the region without feeling the unrelenting gaze of the government. Citizens and visitors alike must run a daily gantlet of police checkpoints, surveillance cameras and machines scanning their ID cards, faces, eyeballs and sometimes entire bodies.
China has turned the northwestern region of Xinjiang into a vast experiment in domestic surveillance. WSJ investigated what life is like in a place where one's every move can be monitored with cutting-edge technology.
When fruit vendor Parhat Imin swiped his card at a telecommunications office this summer to pay an overdue phone bill, his photo popped up with an “X.” Since then, he says, every scan of his ID card sets off an alarm. He isn’t sure what it signifies, but figures he is on some kind of government watch list because he is a Uighur and has had intermittent run-ins with the police.
He says he is reluctant to travel for fear of being detained. “They blacklisted me,” he says. “I can’t go anywhere.”
All across China, authorities are rolling out new technology to keep watch over people and shape their behavior. Controls on expression have tightened under President Xi Jinping, and the state’s vast security web now includes high-tech equipment to monitor online activity and even snoop in smartphone messaging apps.
China’s government has been on high alert since a surge in deadly terrorist attacks around the country in 2014 that authorities blamed on Xinjiang-based militants inspired by extremist Islamic messages from abroad. Now officials are putting the world’s most state-of-the-art tools in the hands of a ramped-up security force to create a system of social control in Xinjiang—one that falls heaviest on Uighurs.
Policemen and local people in front of the main gate to the Old City in Kashgar, a Uighur-dominated city near the border with Kyrgyzstan.
At a security exposition in October, an executive of Guangzhou-based CloudWalk Technology Co., which has sold facial-recognition algorithms to police and identity-verification systems to gas stations in Xinjiang, called the region the world’s most heavily guarded place. According to the executive, Jiang Jun, for every 100,000 people the police in Xinjiang want to monitor, they use the same amount of surveillance equipment that police in other parts of China would use to monitor millions.
Authorities in Xinjiang declined to respond to questions about surveillance. Top party officials from Xinjiang said at a Communist Party gathering in Beijing in October that “social stability and long-term security” were the local government’s bottom-line goals.
Chinese and foreign civil-liberty activists say the surveillance in this northwestern corner of China offers a preview of what is to come nationwide.
A woman undergoes a facial-recognition check at a luxury mall in Urumqi.
“They constantly take lessons from the high-pressure rule they apply in Xinjiang and implement them in the east,” says Zhu Shengwu, a Chinese human-rights lawyer who has worked on surveillance cases. “What happens in Xinjiang has bearing on the fate of all Chinese people.”
During an October road trip into Xinjiang along a modern highway, two Wall Street Journal reporters encountered a succession of checkpoints that turned the ride into a strange and tense journey.
At Xingxing Gorge, a windswept pass used centuries ago by merchants plying the Silk Road, police inspected incoming traffic and verified travelers’ identities. The Journal reporters were stopped, ordered out of their car and asked to explain the purpose of their visit. Drivers, mostly those who weren’t Han Chinese, were guided through electronic gateways that scanned their ID cards and faces.
Farther along, at the entrance to Hami, a city of a half-million, police had the Journal reporters wait in front of a bank of TV screens showing feeds from nearby surveillance cameras while recording their passport numbers.
Surveillance cameras loomed every few hundred feet along the road into town, blanketed street corners and kept watch on patrons of a small noodle shop near the main mosque. The proprietress, a member of the Muslim Hui minority, said the government ordered all restaurants in the area to install the devices earlier this year “to prevent terrorist attacks.”
Days later, as the Journal reporters were driving on a dirt road in Shanshan county after being ordered by officials to leave a nearby town, a police cruiser materialized seemingly from nowhere. It raced past, then skidded to a diagonal stop, kicking up a cloud of dust and blocking the reporters’ car. An SUV pulled up behind. A half-dozen police ordered the reporters out of the car and demanded their passports.
An officer explained that surveillance cameras had read the out-of-town license plates and sent out an alert. “We check every car that’s not from Xinjiang,” he said. The police then escorted the reporters to the highway.
A security camera has been erected next to the minarets of a mosque in the Uighur village of Tuyugou.
At checkpoints further west, iris and body scanners are added to the security arsenal.
Darren Byler, an anthropology researcher at the University of Washington who spent two years in Xinjiang studying migration, says the closest contemporary parallel can be found in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where the Israeli government has created a system of checkpoints and biometric surveillance to keep tabs on Palestinians.
In Erdaoqiao, the neighborhood where the fruit vendor Mr. Imin lives, small booths known as “convenience police stations,” marked by flashing lights atop a pole, appear every couple of hundred yards. The police stationed there offer water, cellphone charging and other services, while also taking in feeds from nearby surveillance cameras.
Young Uighur men are routinely pulled into the stations for phone checks, leading some to keep two devices—one for home use and another, with no sensitive content or apps, for going out, according to Uighur exiles.
Erdaoqiao, the heart of Uighur culture and commerce in Urumqi, is where ethnic riots started in 2009 that resulted in numerous deaths. The front entrance to Erdaoqiao Mosque is now closed, as are most entries to the International Grand Bazaar. Visitors funnel through a heavily guarded main gate. The faces and ID cards of Xinjiang residents are scanned. An array of cameras keeps watch.
After the riots, authorities showed up to shut down the shop Mr. Imin was running at the time, which sold clothing and religious items. When he protested, he says, they clubbed him on the back of the head, which has left him walking with a limp. They jailed him for six months for obstructing official business, he says. Other jail stints followed, including eight months for buying hashish.
The police in Urumqi didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Imin now sells fruit and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a cart. He worries that his flagged ID card will bring the police again. Recently remarried, he hasn’t dared visit his new wife’s family in southern Xinjiang.
At a checkpoint in Kashgar, passengers get their ID cards and faces scanned while police officers check cars and drivers.
Chinese rulers have struggled for two millennia to control Xinjiang, whose 23 million people are scattered over an expanse twice the size of Texas. Beijing sees it as a vital piece of President Xi’s trillion-dollar “Belt and Road” initiative to build infrastructure along the old Silk Road trade routes to Europe.
Last year, Mr. Xi installed a new Xinjiang party chief, Chen Quanguo, who previously handled ethnic strife in Tibet, another hot spot. Mr. Chen pioneered the convenience police stations in that region, partly in response to a string of self-immolations by monks protesting Chinese rule.
Under Mr. Chen, the police presence in Xinjiang has skyrocketed, based on data showing exponential increases in police-recruitment advertising. Local police departments last year began ordering cameras capable of creating three-dimensional face images as well as DNA sequencers and voice-pattern analysis systems, according to government procurement documents uncovered by Human Rights Watch and reviewed by the Journal.
During the first quarter of 2017, the government announced the equivalent of more than $1 billion in security-related investment projects in Xinjiang, up from $27 million in all of 2015, according to research in April by Chinese brokerage firm Industrial Securities .
Government procurement orders show millions spent on “unified combat platforms”—computer systems to analyze surveillance data from police and other government agencies.
Tahir Hamut, a Uighur poet and filmmaker, says Uighurs who had passports were called in to local police stations in May. He worried he would draw extra scrutiny for having been accused of carrying sensitive documents, including newspaper articles about Uighur separatist attacks, while trying to travel to Turkey to study in the mid-1990s. The aborted trip landed him in a labor camp for three years, he says.
He and his wife lined up at a police station with other Uighurs to have their fingerprints and blood samples taken. He says he was asked to read a newspaper for two minutes while police recorded his voice, and to turn his head slowly in front of a camera.
A security camera on a street in Tuyugou, at the foot of the Flaming Mountains.
Later, his family’s passports were confiscated. After a friend was detained by police, he says, he assumed he also would be taken away. He says he paid officials a bribe of more than $9,000 to get the passports back, making up a story that his daughter had epilepsy requiring treatment in the U.S. Xinjiang’s Public Security Bureau, which is in charge of the region’s police forces, didn’t respond to a request for comment about the bribery.
“The day we left, I was filled with anxiety,” he says. “I worried what would happen if we were stopped going through security at the Urumqi airport, or going through border control in Beijing.”
He and his family made it to Virginia, where they have applied for political asylum.
Annotations in red added by The Wall Street Journal. Notes: * Xinjiang considers it suspicious for Uighurs to visit a list of 26 mostly Muslim countries, including Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. ** “Persons of interest” refers to people on the police watch list; “special population” is a common euphemism for Uighurs seen as separatists risks. Sources: Tahir Hamut (provided the form), Uighur Istiqlal TV and Adrian Zenz (confirmation of 26-country list).
Chinese authorities use forms to collect personal information from Uighurs. One form reviewed by the Journal asks about respondents’ prayer habits and if they have contacts abroad. There are sections for officials to rate “persons of interest” on a six-point scale and check boxes on whether they are “safe,” “average” or “unsafe.”
China Communications Services Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of state telecom giant China Telecom , has signed contracts this year worth more than $38 million to provide mosque surveillance and install surveillance-data platforms in Xinjiang, according to government procurement documents. The company declined to discuss the contracts, saying they constituted sensitive business information.
Xiamen Meiya Pico Information Co. Ltd. worked with police in Urumqi to adapt a hand-held device it sells for investigating economic crimes so it can scan smartphones for terrorism-related content.
A description of the device that recently was removed from the company’s website said it can read the files on 90% of smartphones and check findings against a police antiterror database. “Mostly, you’re looking for audio and video,” said Zhang Xuefeng, Meiya Pico’s chief marketing officer, in an interview.
Inside China’s Surveillance State
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Near the Xinjiang University campus in Urumqi, police sat at a wooden table recently, ordering some people walking by to hand over their phones.
“You just plug it in and it shows you what’s on the phone,” said one officer, brandishing a device similar to the one on Meiya Pico’s website. He declined to say what content they were checking for.
One recent afternoon in Korla, one of Xinjiang’s largest cities, only a trickle of people passed through the security checkpoint at the local bazaar, where vendors stared at darkened hallways empty of shoppers.
Li Qiang, the Han Chinese owner of a wine shop, said the security checks, while necessary for safety, were getting in the way of commerce. “As soon as you go out, they check your ID,” he said.
Shopkeepers perform an antiterrorism drill under police supervision outside the bazaar in Kashgar.
Authorities have built a network of detention facilities, officially referred to as education centers, across Xinjiang. In April, the official Xinjiang Daily newspaper said more than 2,000 people had been sent to a “study and training center” in the southern city of Hotan.
One new compound sits a half-hour drive south of Kashgar, a Uighur-dominated city near the border with Kyrgyzstan. It is surrounded by imposing walls topped with razor wire, with watchtowers at two corners. A slogan painted on the wall reads: “All ethnic groups should be like the pods of a pomegranate, tightly wrapped together.”
Villagers describe it as a detention center. A man standing near the entrance one recent night said it was a school and advised reporters to leave.
Mr. Hamut, the poet, says a relative in Kashgar was taken to a detention center after she participated in an Islamic ceremony, and another went missing soon after the family tried to call him from the U.S.
The local government in Kashgar didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Police officers at a gate in the Old City of Kashgar.
Surveillance in and around Kashgar, where Han Chinese make up less than 7% of the population, is even tighter than in Urumqi. Drivers entering the city are screened intensively. A machine scans each driver’s face. Police officers inspect the engine and the trunk. Passengers must get out and run their bags through X-ray machines.
In Aksu, a dusty city a five-hour drive east of Kashgar, knife salesman Jiang Qiankun says his shop had to pay thousands of dollars for a machine that turns a customer’s ID card number, photo, ethnicity and address into a QR code that it lasers into the blade of any knife it sells. “If someone has a knife, it has to have their ID card information,” he says.
On the last day the Journal reporters were in Xinjiang, an unmarked car trailed them on a 5 a.m. drive to the Urumqi airport. During their China Southern Airlines flight to Beijing, a flight attendant appeared to train a police-style body camera attached to his belt on the reporters. Later, as passengers were disembarking, the attendant denied filming them, saying it was common for airline crew to wear the cameras as a security measure.
China Southern says the crew member was an air marshal, charged with safety on board.
—Fan Wenxin, Jeremy Page, Kersten Zhang and Eva Dou contributed to this article.