The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is one of the most remote areas in the world. You might think that this is a place where no one cares or sees what you are up to. Absolutely nothing could be more wrong. This is the home of the Uygurs and it is where the Chinese government put people in so called training camps. A (not so) warm welcome to a place where the Chinese governement really don’t want you.
Xinjiang is the western most provins in China. It is also the most controversial. It is definitely the one with the most law enforcement presence. Traveling here means that you will be scrutinized, questioned, held in interrogations on the street and basically be a suspect for whatever is going on. Why are you really here?
As a western traveler you are more visible than most, especially these days when few are coming. It is also because the Chinese authorities are actively working against people coming here. A few examples: Firstly, when I visited Kashgar in 2016 I could chose from a number of hotels on different booking sites. Now I could chose between two. In Turpan (Tulufan in China) I had one (1) choice. Secondly, in 2016 there were a few checkpoints on the way south to Pakistan. Now, I had my passport photographed eight times a day (on average) during in checkpoints inside the cities as well as between them. Thirdly, to get into – and out of – a train station it is necessary to pass three check points where basically all your luggage is scrutinized.
World media has long reported on Beijing’s surveillance activities in Xinjiang. As ABC News (among other media) reported in February:
“The database Gevers found appears to have been recording people’s movements tracked by facial recognition technology, he said, logging more than 6.7 million coordinates in a span of 24 hours. […] It was a compilation of real-time data on more than 2.5 million people in western China, updated constantly with GPS coordinates of their precise whereabouts. Alongside their names, birthdates and places of employment, there were notes on the places that they had most recently visited — mosque, hotel, restaurant.”
This is an area where people belonging to the minority groups have been detained based on ethnicity. Beijing claims that these are vocational training centers to prevent extremism but haven’t been able to define what kind of extremism or if it is working.
So the question remains: does all this make it safer? I honestly doubt it and here is my take on it. On several occasions the authorities took a picture of or scanned my Iranian visa (which includes a picture) instead of the actual info page. On a few occasions I was put down as “Swiss” and “European” – not “Swedish”. In 2016 all security was managed by one branch of government. That branch is now divided into two – and according to several people I talked to about this, these branches do not communicate very well.
More importantly though, they don’t seem to know what they are looking for. During my five-hour wait for customs to go thru all of my pictures, I asked them that question in order to help them, or try to understand what they were looking for. After having asked on several occasions and in several locations, no one seemed to be able to explain or define. That, in turn, makes room for the manager of every single check point to treat you according to what he or she thinks they are looking for. There were other incidents that in the end made me conclude that basically anyone can slip thru security here without too much problem.
All in all, I just feel sorry for the people living here who have to put up with a basically incompetently run security organization on a daily basis. Xinjiang wasn’t a dangerous place earlier. But it was – and is – different from the rest of China. And China doesn’t do “different” very well. Change in China has a history of being enforced by the harshest possible methods. If Xinjiang isn’t a safe place today, it is because security forces are making it unsafe.
So, welcome to Xinjiang. Where Beijing doesn’t want you to go. So go. Bring plenty of patience and live with the fact that whatever you say goes straight into a database and that you are on camera 24-7.