By Philip Wen
KASHGAR/HOTAN, China (Reuters) – Three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China’s ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs.
In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision and witnessed by Reuters on a recent visit, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants. Armoured paramilitary and police vehicles circle with sirens blaring.
China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in this far Western Xinjiang region. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority there of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority and plotting attacks elsewhere in China.
A historic trading post, Kashgar is also central to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond.
China’s worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year’s diplomatic setpiece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing in May.
State media say the drills, and other measures such as a network of thousands of new street-corner police posts, are aimed making everyone feel safer.
But many residents say the drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang’s Uighur heartland in recent months.
As well as taking part in drills, shopkeepers must, at their own expense, install password-activated security doors, “panic buttons” and cameras that film not just the street outside but also inside their stores, sending a direct video feed to police.
For Uighurs like the owner of an online multimedia company facing one of Kashgar’s main streets it is not about security, but mass surveillance.
“We have no privacy,” said the business owner who, like almost everyone Reuters spoke to in Kashgar, did not want to give his name. “They want to see what you’re up to.”
A Chinese security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the new security measures in Xinjiang were not politically motivated, but based on fresh developments and intelligence. He declined to elaborate.
The Xinjiang government and the State Council Information Office, which doubles as the Communist Party spokesman’s office, did not respond to requests for comment.
China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang, and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. Xinjiang’s gross domestic product last year rose 7.6 per cent, above the national average.
Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence.
The incidence of attacks reported in state media have actually declined markedly, both in frequency and scale, since a spate of bombings and mass stabbings in Xinjiang and southwestern Yunnan Province in 2014.