Wary Of Unrest Among Uighur Minority, China Locks Down Xinjiang Region : Parallels Following riots and attacks in past years, residents of Urumqi, the capital of the western region, now live and work under intense surveillance, and are subject to detention after traveling abroad.
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Wary Of Unrest Among Uighur Minority, China Locks Down Xinjiang Region

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Wary Of Unrest Among Uighur Minority, China Locks Down Xinjiang Region

Wary Of Unrest Among Uighur Minority, China Locks Down Xinjiang Region

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And we're going to spend some time now in China's far northwestern region, Xinjiang, which is four times the size of California. It's home to a Muslim minority group called the Uighurs. They have had this tense relationship with China's government as more Han Chinese, the country's dominant ethnic group, has moved into the region. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, an unprecedented security crackdown is making that relationship even more tense.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Here at the Grand Bazaar in the heart Urumqi, they've got drums, guitars and nearly everything else, sold from tiny stalls blasting local music into a square filled with Islamic architecture, a place that feels more Afghanistan than China. That's because this Chinese city is closer to Kabul than Beijing. And now it's got something else in common with Kabul - a hefty security presence.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through interpreter) It makes me feel safer. They've built police stations every few blocks or so. The police check on us every day, no matter if you're a doctor, teacher - anyone. It's all for our safety.

SCHMITZ: Increasingly draconian security measures make this shoe vendor unusually cheerful. Maybe it's because a camera above her stall is capturing her conversation with a foreign journalist. I mention this to the woman, whose aquiline nose and large, deep-set eyes look more Middle Eastern than Chinese.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: She dismisses this line of thinking. She says she and other Uighurs, who make up more than 40 percent of Xinjiang's population, are treated well by China's leaders. But that's not what protesters at this very place thought eight years ago.


SCHMITZ: Nearly 200 people were killed and more than a thousand injured in the riots of July 2009 after Uighurs, angry about discrimination from the ethnic Han majority and the government, took to the streets. The government responded by calling in the military, detaining thousands and shutting down the Internet. In the years that followed, Uighur terrorists killed dozens of Han Chinese in brutal coordinated attacks at train stations and government offices. A few Uighurs have joined ISIS, and Chinese authorities are worried about more attacks on Chinese soil. Last year, President Xi Jinping appointed a party secretary of Xinjiang, who is transforming the region into one of the world's most tightly controlled police states.


CHEN QUANGUO: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: Earlier this year, Chen Quanguo, whose patriotic name literally means entire country, addressed police in an impressive show of force. Ten thousand officers were dressed in black riot gear, lined up in neat columns.


CHEN: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Unintelligible shouting).

SCHMITZ: "The sword is drawn and we're about to hear the thunder," said Chen to his officers. "Comrades, are you ready?"


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Chinese).

SCHMITZ: Chen arrived to Xinjiang fresh from Tibet, where his crackdown on dissent there disturbed human rights organizations but earned him accolades from President Xi. He went on a police officer hiring spree there, and he promised to do the same in Xinjiang.

ADRIAN ZENZ: In order to replicate the same density of policing and surveillance, you need to recruit tens of thousands of police forces. And that's exactly what Chen Quanguo did.

SCHMITZ: Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology, says Xinjiang is now hiring nearly 100,000 security personnel - 30 times more officers than were hired a decade ago.

ZENZ: This is Xinjiang's new industry number one. It is becoming the most important source of employment.

SCHMITZ: And you can feel that on the streets of Urumqi, city of four million. Every few blocks, there's a police station. Officers routinely demand identification from passersby. Shops are forced to employ security guards wearing red armbands. Gas stations are fenced off with razor wire. Guards demand drivers' IDs to enter. And this new police state comes with an eerie soundtrack.


SCHMITZ: Along the streets, you hear the same pair of propaganda songs - a children's song about obeying traffic laws and a tune promoting core communist values. The government forces shops and restaurants in Uighur neighborhoods to broadcast these two songs on loop all day. A middle-aged man who trades auto parts tells me all this new security has killed the local economy. Like many Uighur men, he travels frequently to Central Asian countries on business. And like every Uighur I spoke to, he doesn't want to use his name for fear of getting in trouble with police.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) It's nearly impossible for me to run my business now. I can no longer travel abroad because police have seized all our passports. You have to ask permission to travel now, and once you return from a trip, they find you and ask what you did there, who you saw. It's troublesome. Before, we could come and go as we pleased.


SCHMITZ: The man stops to answer his phone.

As we're waiting for this guy, I'm noticing that there are one, two, three, four, five, six - six cameras - all watching us (laughter) as we're talking.

In fact, thousands of the region's newest security jobs are for video and Internet surveillance staff. The businessman says all this security has had a personal impact, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) We can't even visit our relatives anymore. If we try, the local police will come to check on us to see what we're doing there.

SCHMITZ: In other parts of Xinjiang, the government has set up political re-education centers where Uighurs who have managed to travel abroad are detained upon re-entry, sometimes for months, and then forced to watch propaganda videos and to take classes in Chinese language and identity before being released.


SCHMITZ: At a nearby coffee shop, a young Uighur woman says police now stop residents and demand their phones. They plug them into a computer and force residents to download a government app.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Through interpreter) The app automatically checks to see if other apps on your phone are safe. If not, it'll ask you to delete them. It'll also detect videos about terrorism and things like that.

SCHMITZ: Outside Urumqi city center is a ring of suburbs where most of the city's Han residents live, residents like 36-year-old He Jin. She says after the riots of 2009, she was scared of the city's Uighur enclave.

HE JIN: (Through interpreter) Without these measures, each time I see a face that doesn't look like mine, I might wonder if they're terrorists from outside the country, or if they're going to throw a bomb or something. Now with a police station every few hundred feet, I feel safe.

SCHMITZ: But 27-year-old Xiang Xin Xin has a different take. He's Han. He's young. And he says a rising police state is a drag to live in.

XIANG XIN XIN: (Through interpreter) Everywhere you go, they check your ID. Restaurants and shops waste money on hiring security guards. There's nowhere fun to go out at night because everything closes early.

SCHMITZ: Xiang says he went to college in Shanghai, nearly 2,000 miles away, where he admired the skyscrapers and walked along leafy lanes with no security personnel demanding to see your ID. He said he felt free. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Urumqi.


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