China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is now the site of the largest mass repression of an ethnic and/or religious minority in the world today. Researchers estimate that since 2016 up to one million people (mostly ethnic Uyghurs) have been detained without trial in the XUAR in a system of ‘re-education’ centres. Outside of the ‘re-education’ centres the region’s Turkic Muslim population is subjected to a dense network of hi-tech surveillance systems, checkpoints, and interpersonal monitoring, which severely limit all forms of personal freedom penetrating society to the granular level.
The known practices of the ‘re-education’ facilities clearly resonate with the worst totalitarian precedents of the 20th century. Many of these facilities resemble prisons complete with hardened security and surveillance features including barbed wire, guard towers and CCTV cameras. Further, within them detainees experience a regimented daily existence as they are compelled to repeatedly sing “patriotic” songs praising the benevolence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and study Mandarin, Confucian texts and Xi Jinping Thought. Those detainees who resist or do not make satisfactory progress “risk solitary confinement, food deprivation, being forced to stand against a wall for extended periods, being shackled to a wall or bolted by wrists and ankles into a rigid ‘tiger chair’, and possibly waterboarding and electric shocks”. More recently, evidence of sexual assault, forced contraception and sterilization of Uyghur women has also emerged.
Beijing’s defence of these policies ― that they are measures to prevent ‘terrorism and extremism’ amongst Uyghurs through the provision of ‘education’ and ‘training’ ― while easily dismissed as a mendacious justification for mass repression, nonetheless hints at the nature and ambition of the Party-state’s undertaking in Xinjiang.
The intersection of technologically-enabled surveillance with the CCP’s evolving efforts at ideological ‘remoulding’ of certain categories of the XUAR’s population arguably emerges as a defining characteristic of what two theorists, Ding Wang and Dan Shan at the Xinjiang Police University, described in 2016 as the ‘Xinjiang mode’ of counterterrorism. This ‘Xinjiang mode’ combines what they define as the ‘war model’ of counter-insurgency adopted by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan with China’s own ‘public security model’ and ‘governance model’. This fusion has resulted in the development of a new technology of control that seeks the negation of the very possibility of societal resistance to the Party-state.
While the Party-state’s securitisation of Uyghur identity has long been evident, it was intensified by several orders of magnitude with the appointment of Chen Quanguo and Zhu Hailun as XUAR party chief and deputy party chief respectively in 2016. Chen himself had accumulated experience in Tibet, where he had been party secretary from 2011 until his transfer to Xinjiang. In Tibet, Chen had implemented a policing system of ‘grid style management’ that segmented ‘urban communities into geometric zones’ policed by ‘convenience’ police stations connected to CCTV cameras and police databases enabling greater surveillance capabilities.
Once in Xinjiang, Chen has implemented ‘grid management’ and integrated it with the surveillance systems established under his immediate predecessor, resulting in a multi-tiered policing system based on exponential recruitment of contract police officers to man ‘convenience’ police stations.
The purpose of such a system was explicitly detailed by Chen in a speech on 18 August 2017 in which he gave instructions for the ‘party, government, military, police, soldiers and civilians’ of Xinjiang to ‘unite closely’ to ‘build a wall of copper and iron against terrorism’ and to implement a mechanism of ‘comprehensive, round-the-clock and three dimensional prevention control’ to ensure that ‘terrorists’ were caught ‘before they appear’.
The technological edge of this ‘three dimensional prevention control’ is the aggregation of data provided by the XUAR’s use of facial recognition scanners at checkpoints, train stations and petrol stations, collection of biometric data for passports, and mandatory apps to cleanse smartphones of subversive material. This data is then fed into the ‘Integrated Joint Operations Platform’ (IJOP) ― an app used by XUAR public security ― to report ‘activities or circumstances deemed suspicious’ and to prompt ‘investigations of people the system flags as problematic’.
This, as the two Xinjiang Police University theorists Wang and Shan note, provides the basis of the ‘public security’ model, as this ‘anti-terrorism intelligence system’ provides security forces with ‘the ability to obtain information on signs, tendencies…related to violence and terrorism’ and thereby enhance ‘social prevention and control capabilities’.
Yet surveillance, as Richard Jenkins reminds us, is but ‘a means to an end’ ― i.e. the ‘protection’ and ‘management’ of either the population-at-large or specific segments thereof. And it is here that the ‘public security’ model intersects with what Wang and Shan term the ‘governance model’ to create the ‘Xinjiang mode’ of counterterrorism. The ‘governance model’, they note, is focused on the long-term ‘resolution of ethnic and religious ideological issues’ that give rise to ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’. Here, Wang and Shan assert that as religious ‘extremism’ is an ‘ideological’ problem, it must be solved ‘by ideological methods’. These include sustained ‘education’ of the population in order to ‘reject the brainwashing of distorted religious views’ and thereby increase their ‘immunity to extreme terrorism’.
The ‘anti-terrorism intelligence system’ erected in Xinjiang permits the Party-state to undertake ‘social sorting’ ― the ‘identification and ordering of individuals in order to “put them in their place” within local, national and global “institutional orders”’.
The XUAR surveillance apparatus thus enables the authorities to not only identify and categorise particular populations as prone to ‘distorted religious views’ but to ascribe to them particular penalties, constraints or sanctions according to their categorisation. Thus for example, the surveillance apparatus may track and document ‘48 signs of extremism’ that can then determine the detention of Uyghurs (and other Turkic Muslims) to ‘re-education’ centres.
In a broader perspective, the ‘Xinjiang mode’ of counterterrorism is highly suggestive of processes of ‘high modernism’ described by James C. Scott in which the state seeks to legitimise the ‘rational design of social order’ through the centralisation, collection, and processing of information. As Scott noted, however, most previous such projects of the modern state to reduce the chaos and disorder of social reality ‘to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations’ have proven to be not only ‘utopian’ but ‘continually frustrated’.
Xi Jinping and the CCP appear to remain undeterred by such precedents. According to Xi’s report to the CCP Central Symposium on Xinjiang-related work on 26–27 September 2020 the Party’s Xinjiang policy is ‘100 per cent correct’. He goes further to say that ‘education on the sense of Chinese identity should be incorporated into the education of officials and the younger generation in Xinjiang as well as its social education’ to ‘let the sense of Chinese identity take root in people’.
While it has arguably been the technologically-enabled ‘anti-terrorism intelligence system’ that has captured much of the world’s attention, this apparatus is but a means to an end. The ‘Xinjiang mode’ of counterterrorism amounts to a coercive instrument of social management and re-engineering designed to compel the assimilation of the Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims to the Party-state’s vision of what it means to be a ‘modern’ Chinese citizen.