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Navigating Checkpoints in the Uyghur Homeland

The checkpoint at the entrance to the Grand Bazaar in Ürümchi. Han people entered through the right side.

On a visit in April 2018 to the Uyghur homeland in Northwest China I was amazed by the number of checkpoints that turn every city and town into a maze of ethno-racial profiling and ID scans. In some areas, the checkpoints are every several hundred meters. The checkpoints are only for those who pass as Uyghur. Han folks and obvious foreigners are usually directed to walk through the exits of the checkpoints with the wave of a hand. The checkpoints are not for them.

Since 2009 there have been a number of large-scale violent incidents involving Uyghurs, state security and Han Chinese civilians. Since 2014 the state has conducted a so-called People’s War on Terror that has subjected Uyghurs between the ages of 15-45 to intense scrutiny. As a result of this campaign, the state has detained hundreds of thousands of young Uyghurs in a reeducation camp system while radically increasing the police presence.

At the checkpoint exiting the highspeed rail station in Turpan I observed the way “native” (Uy: yerlik) people were directed through two long lines to have their IDs checked while others were permitted to go through a line through an exit gate on the left without any check at all. The determination of who was “native” was made by a Uyghur officer who was scanning our faces for racial phenotypes and the level of fear in the individual. People who walked confidently without looking at the officer were sometimes read as Han even if they were not. Speaking Uyghur I asked the Uyghur women around me which line a foreigner should go through. They said I should go with them.

A face scan checkpoint to exit the high-speed train in Turpan. The line on the left side which goes through a simple metal gate held open by an officer is for Han people.

When it was my turn I explained in Uyghur to the young Uyghur officer that I was a foreigner. He said we needed to go into the police station across the square to register. As we walked toward the station he asked me in a really pointed way if I could also speak Chinese. I said I could. He seemed to be suggesting that I do so when we entered the station itself. We joked about how hard it was to learn languages. He said he didn’t have good learning environment, so his English was not good. When I entered the police station I understood why he was suggesting that I speak Chinese, the Han officers were observing the work of the many junior Uyghur police officers in the station. If I spoke Uyghur, it may have been a problem. I explained in Chinese that I was just visiting Turpan for the afternoon and planning to see some tourist sites. They joked about how in America people were able to take vacations. The police never get a break, they said.  A Uyghur officer scanned my face on my passport photo and then matched it to a scan of my face using an app on her phone. They explained that this scanning was for my protection while I was in Turpan. Face-scanning people was just a normal part of life here.

While I was there a young Uyghur man was escorted in. He was nervous and stuttering a bit, his face was pale. The officer accompanying him said his ID had beeped when he went through the checkpoint. My second face scan of the day was done so I wasn’t able to stay and hear what they were going to do with him.

Over the course of a week in cities across the Uyghur homeland I went through dozens and dozens of checkpoints. I saw young Uyghur officers berate elderly Uyghurs for not showing their IDs. I saw many random checkpoints at the sides of the road that only targeted Uyghur young men and women; or that only targeted cars driven by Uyghurs. Throughout my time there I did not see a Han person asked to show his or her ID at spot checks in the Uyghur districts of Ürümchi, Turpan or Kashgar. The unwritten rules were clear.

A random smart phone spot check near Kashgar’s New Bazaar.

At some checkpoints, officers also ask Uyghur young people to give them the passwords to open their smart phones. At these checkpoints, the officers look at the spyware app Clean Net Guard (Jingwang Weishi) that all Uyghurs are now required to install on their phones. The officers match the registration of the phone to the ID of the person and they also see if any alerts have been issued by the app. The app scanned the content on the phone and content sent from the phone for any material deemed “extremist” or “separatist.” These types of checkpoints are particularly harrowing for young Uyghurs, because the evidence from these scans is used to send Uyghurs to indefinite detention in reeducation camps.

At a checkpoint in Kashgar’s Old City I came across a Uyghur woman screaming at a Han officer in Chinese. With tears in her eyes she was yelling, “How many people are left in your family?” He tried to shut her up by barking “Yak!” “Yak!” (No! No!) in Uyghur and then switching to Chinese he yelled “Bu!” “Bu!” (No! No!) trying to shut her up. People are not permitted to protest the indefinite detention of their loved ones. Those that do are often detained themselves. I didn’t linger because I didn’t want the outcome to be worse for her.

At this checkpoint in Kashgar the sign says in both Uyghur and Chinese that ID cards will be checked. In practice only Uyghur IDs are checked.

An edited version of this essay first appeared in the journal Eurasianet.

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