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The Guardian view on surveillance in

China: Big Brother is watching

In Xinjiang, cutting-edge technology is reinforcing tight social controls. These measures
are unlikely to stay within the region’s bounds

Thu 28 Dec 2017 14.15 GMT Last modified on Thu 28 Dec 2017 22.00 GMT



“Orwellian” is a much-abused word; but in the case of Xinjiang, in China, its use is
entirely apposite. Authorities’ grip on the resource-rich, violence-stricken north-western
region – and most of all on the lives of its Uighur Muslims – grows tighter by the day.
Orwell would recognise the relentlessness of surveillance, the innovative means
employed, and the linguistic distortions that underline rather than disguise the exercise of


“The happiest Muslims in the world live in Xinjiang,” a propaganda official there
claimed this year. Beijing points to high investment in the region and, for example, extra
points for Uighur students in college entrance exams. But a series of recent reports have
unveiled a digital police state. Technological advances such as facial recognition software
and biometric data collection are married to a vast and expanding security apparatus, a
bureaucracy that inserts itself into all parts of life, and traditional hard power: shows of
force by heavily armed police.

Officials have collected DNA from millions of residents this year under what they
describe as a free Physicals for All healthcare programme. It follows a regional security
directive urging the collection of “three-dimensional portraits, voiceprints, DNA and
fingerprints”. At checkpoints, armed police use handheld devices to check smartphones
for banned apps. At petrol stations, machines scan drivers’ identity cards and faces. One
prefecture requires each car to have a GPS tracking device. At knife shops, machines etch
the identity details of the buyer on to each blade. Official forms ask householders about
their prayer habits.

The tightening of controls was triggered by deadly violence: ethnic riots in Urumqi in
2009, which killed almost 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, and knife, bomb and vehicle
attacks, some outside Xinjiang. Authorities blame terrorist separatists for all problems.
But rights groups, exiles and analysts say that many more in the Turkic-speaking Uighur
community are frustrated by economic inequality, discrimination and tight restrictions on
cultural and religious expression or criticism of authorities, all of which officials conflate
with separatism and violent extremism.

Beijing insists that people enjoy “unparalleled” religious freedom. Regional and local
rules and policies include banning “abnormally” long beards; outlawing baby names seen
as excessively religious; prohibiting government workers from fasting, and forcing
restaurants to open during Ramadan. Thousands of residents – mostly Uighurs – have
spent months in “political education centres” where they are drilled in Communist party
doctrine and patriotism. More draconian still is the interrogation and detention of the
relatives of exiles. Some measures may indeed have prevented attacks. But they are also
breeding anger and, analysts fear, radicalisation. Uighurs recently described being driven
to fight in Syria by anger at Beijing rather than Islamist fervour.

The region is unique in China in the level of repression. But it has become a laboratory
for measures then used elsewhere. And as Chinese global ambitions grow, these
techniques are likely to be exported: Beijing knows that parts of its vast One Belt, One
Road infrastructure scheme will be vulnerable to militant attacks. What happens in
Xinjiang is unlikely to stay in Xinjiang.