Before entering China I had read reports about the increased police and security in the region. This made me apprehensive about visiting the area, not for my own safety but for what I would feel by what I saw.
I would recommend you read this article that gives quite a comprehensive overview and covers most of what I mention below – https://amp.economist.com/briefing/2018/05/31/china-has-turned-xinjiang-into-a-police-state-like-no-other
For what I saw married up to this article. Police on every corner. Cameras everywhere – cities, villages, dirt roads. Checkpoints on major highways and throughout the streets. Phones being checked and data downloaded. Where this activity is positioned most contradictorily is in the highly promoted tourist destination Kashgar – an historic, Islamic city. These factors make the area feel like an archaic, Islamic, police-state Disneyland.
To create the Disneyland vibe there are han-Chinese tourists being ferried around in yellow limo golf buggies through the streets of Old Town, gawping and snapping. And you can’t blame them: Old Town is the caricature of an old Islamic town. Like all good caricatures it looks obscenely fake, just like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Then there are the Uighur people and families who live there, like Mickey Mouse and Pluto, they look and behave differently.
The gawping tourists, historic town and different culture is then contrasted by the behaviour at police checkpoints all over the city. Not everyone is stopped; only those that look like the Mickey Mouse and Plutos of Old Town are made to queue for checks – emptying their bags, being questioned, going through scanners, having their phones checked – everyone else just strolls through. It is as if Disney doesn’t want Mickey Mouse in their theme park.
Around the city, and especially Old Town, the police and army are a constant presence, like stewards,cashier’s and assistants except for the weaponry. Some walk a set route in formation: person with shield walk in front those with a baton walk behind. How this ensures that the danger always comes shield first I don’t know.
When looking closer and interacting with the police, the huge increase in size has obviously put some pressure on resources: some wear sports trainers others boots, some wear clothes that they’ve bought to grow into others look like they’ve done too much growing, some look like they’ve just left school others look too old to remember school.
Then there is the tasks they perform: I would describe them as mainly administrative – man power to fill out the endless log books, to check papers and phones. Some seem to even adopt an area manager approach: picking up pieces of rubbish whilst on a general walk around, helping market stalls close up whilst enforcing the curfew – just generally keeping the place running smoothly.
The police state vibe this creates is boosted by other security defences. All shops are imprisoned by their own bars which need to be unlocked before entering, except for the fact they are normally open and, if not, the switch to open is handily in reach through the bars.
Outside of Kashgar in smaller towns, this protection is combined with neighbourhood watch. In the small villages there would be drills: a shop’s alarm would ring, you see people start running towards the shop armed with medieval style weapons, helmets and armoured vests. They surround the shop in formation in preparation to defend the shop. To see this in action is surreal: everyday people running out of shops, metal bars in hand, struggling to put their helmet on as they plod towards the alarm then once there, puffing and panting, they are greeted by a shouting uniformed police person. One can only assume they are preparing for an individual attack on businesses. By the state of them they are either under-prepared for a prepared attack or over-prepared for an under-prepared attack. The seriousness of the plodding locals was not determinable.
To see such intrusion and discrimination in action made me feel uncomfortable and tainted my experience of visiting Kashgar as a tourist. To diagnose the dystopian disease is easier in others; after seeing the disease in action it is easier to identify symptoms at home: I see armed police walking patrols in London all the time, I am monitored by cameras hourly, I am stopped before entering certain buildings for search, religious and racial profiling happens all the time(just not to me), some areas are heavily policed (I’m just fortunate enough not to live there). Whether these symptoms are terminal is harder to determine.