Analysis

Xinjiang’s Oppression Has Shifted Gears

Militarization is being scaled down as internal surveillance and propaganda increase.

By , a researcher at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute.
Police officers ride horses in China.
Police officers ride horses as they prepare to publicize laws and government policies to nomad herders in a remote area in Altay, part of China’s Xinjiang region, on April 22. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Kites fly and children run outside renovated mosques. This is Xinjiang, China’s western frontier region, in 2021. Or at least, this is what outsiders are allowed to see and what Chinese propaganda presents.

Beyond the sanitized streets of tourist areas, a different reality persists.

Heavily militarized police patrols and sprawling reeducation facilities may be disappearing. But highly securitized prisons, intensive propaganda and indoctrination, ubiquitous surveillance, population control, and coercive labor assignments are there to stay.

Kites fly and children run outside renovated mosques. This is Xinjiang, China’s western frontier region, in 2021. Or at least, this is what outsiders are allowed to see and what Chinese propaganda presents.

Beyond the sanitized streets of tourist areas, a different reality persists.

Heavily militarized police patrols and sprawling reeducation facilities may be disappearing. But highly securitized prisons, intensive propaganda and indoctrination, ubiquitous surveillance, population control, and coercive labor assignments are there to stay.

The government is focused on redefining the region’s image as an exotic travel destination and a safe haven for cultural integration.

Propaganda posters of smiling minorities flood the landscape while information operations use dancing Uyghur individuals as their main subjects to convince the world that people in Xinjiang are happy and grateful to the Chinese Communist Party.

But since the first revelations of the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang back in 2017, a lot has come to light.

A robust array of government sources, police leaks, and first-hand testimonies have depicted a ruthless and systematic attempt to take control over and forcibly assimilate people perceived as an imminent (if imaginary) threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Since May 2014, with the beginning of a region-wide counterterrorism campaign, the government has put in place an intricate and brutal system of repression using arbitrary incarcerations, heightened and extremely intrusive surveillance mechanisms, and the installment of what became known as reeducation camps—a net of detention and indoctrination facilities that have detained more than 1 million people.

In the government’s version, this was to defeat the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism. In reality, it put Xinjiang’s Indigenous populations under a state of constant fear.

Much has been said about what is happening in Xinjiang. But how did this all come about? And what comes next?

A recent report by a team of researchers, including myself, at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute explores the whos and hows of Xinjiang’s governance system. It brings to light previously unknown aspects of the mass political campaigns that have mobilized not only all sectors of China’s party-state system but also most areas of Xinjiang society.

We had access to leaked police records from Urumqi, China, which prompted the first stages of our investigation. We then examined thousands of pages of government and party documents—mostly found online through virtual private networks (VPNs) that were later archived, some scraped directly from official government websites, and some from state media publications and social media posts—to have a broader view of Xinjiang’s governance.

This methodology is bound to become the norm when it comes to China research, as most journalists and researchers no longer have access to the country and free, on-the-ground research is not permitted. Despite attempts by the government to block key information from foreign audiences—most Xinjiang government websites, for example, are currently only accessible via certain VPNs—there is still a great amount of data available online that is worth saving and analyzing.

Our main focus is on two features that may help answer unresolved questions on Xinjiang: the return to Maoist-style political campaigns, where the masses are unleashed on the nation’s hidden enemies, and the penetration of the CCP down to the most intimate aspects of citizens’ daily lives.

Although previous political campaigns in Chinese history, such as the Cultural Revolution or the “Strike Hard!” anti-crime campaigns, ended abruptly with a subsequent push to reinstate normality, the CCP desires to normalize campaign-style governance tools and methods in Xinjiang to achieve and maintain what it calls “comprehensive stability.”

This system’s potential longevity is made possible by a convoluted architecture of party and government institutions, summarized in this interactive chart, as well as the insidious penetration of the party-state into remote villages and the homes of Xinjiang’s Indigenous populations.

Neighborhood and village committees represent the lowest tier in the CCP’s hierarchy across the country. They are, in theory, voluntary self-governing organizations. In Xinjiang, they have become the true focal point of the party’s approach to control people at the community level, with new exceptional policing powers.

Officially paired with local police stations, human surveillance, and mosque management teams to form the “trinity” mechanism, the committees manage their respective jurisdictions and are at the forefront of the reeducation system.

On the streets, tourists may now be able to observe sights common to many destinations in China, exploring the newly built “cultural sites” that replace ancient symbols of Uyghur culture, which is continuously under threat.

Yet just across the road, down to residential neighborhoods and more remote, rural villages, the party runs business as usual with an army of cadres and civilians at their mercy.

Community control is driven by the fanghuiju program, a Xinjiang-specific human surveillance policy run by the region’s Organization Department of the Chinese Communist Party, through which mainly Han officials are dispatched to Uyghur homes to spy on their activities, monitor their thoughts and feelings, and carry out indoctrination.

“This redistribution of law enforcement power to civilians and civil society groups blurs the line between civilians and cadres, victims and perpetrators,” the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report said. Everyone is responsible.

Indoctrination is hidden behind the walls of reeducation facilities but is also a part of daily life—in schools, office buildings, and public squares.

Life is punctuated by public loyalty pledges, chants wishing Chinese President Xi Jinping good health, and public denunciation sessions of “two-faced” traitors. Many people are gathered in public arenas to “speak up and brandish the sword,” putting a fist next to their face, condemning “religious extremism,” and praising the CCP.

People are pitted against one another and incentivized to self-police their own neighborhoods. Some of them are convinced the enemy hides among them and they need to uproot a phantom evil taking over their children’s brains. Others going along with it for the sake of their own safety.

The way Xinjiang is governed is invisible at first glance, and that may be the party’s biggest achievement so far. But without this level of control at the grassroots level, the architecture of repression would quickly crumble.

Daria Impiombato is a researcher at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute.

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