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The limits of China's surveillance state

Recent attacks point to a future in which repression alone will no longer be enough to guarantee stability

Violence in Xinjiang appears to be worsening significantly, despite Beijing's large commitment of money and manpower to build a comprehensive surveillance apparatus intended to pre-empt social disorder. China now spends at least $111 billion (Bt3.5 trillion) per year nationwide on internal security - nearly as much as its reported 2013 military budget of approximately $114 billion.

Yet 2013 has been among the most violent years in the past decade in Xinjiang, with some data showing that at least 189 people - mostly Uyghurs - have been killed in violent confrontations with government forces since March, with many others left injured. More disturbingly, Xinjiang's troubles seem to be metastising into other parts of China, a dynamic the authorities have worked hard to prevent.

On October 28, an SUV driven by a Uyghur man and containing two members of his family rammed into a crowd at Tiananmen Square, killing two tourists. The vehicle's occupants then lit themselves on fire. The Tiananmen suicide attack and the rising tide of violence in Xinjiang itself suggest that in the face of determined adversaries, China's well-manned and generously funded surveillance systems and repressive apparatus are not nearly as effective at pre-empting unrest as Beijing would like them to be.

Beijing itself is leading the way. For those walking or driving in Beijing (and a growing number of other Chinese cities), the operative phrase increasingly is "smile, you're on camera." Beijing now reportedly has at least 800,000 CCTV cameras.

The Uyghurs who drove into the Square and self-immolated most likely passed hundreds of cameras, if not more, in the final kilometres of their journey. Yet despite running this gauntlet of cameras, web watchers, phone taps and police on the street, they were not discovered until they had entered one of the CPC's most important sites, run down sightseers, and lit their SUV - a white Mercedes Benz - on fire. If the car had been carrying explosives or struck a more crowded part of town, things could have been much worse.

Beijing clearly sees its growing surveillance systems as a tool for cracking down on separatist movements. In November 2012, The Telegraph reported that Chinese security forces intended to use a network of surveillance cameras to help end self-immolations by Tibetan protesters and that police could be on scene within two minutes after undesired activities were spotted by CCTV cameras. At present, China may have as many as 30 million security cameras installed around the country. Its cities seem to be bent on adding more as quickly as possible, while enhancing their capabilities.

Strategic implications

The Tiananmen attack will likely prompt the Chinese security agencies to take a "tactical" approach and push for installing more cameras and upgrading their technology and capabilities. These measures would likely include adding facial recognition software to more camera systems as well as integrating systems with one another.

However, there is a real risk that focusing heavily on technical security measures will fail to yield the security enhancements Beijing desires. Consider the fact that even in high-security prisons worldwide, where virtually every movement and activity is watched by guards and security cameras, drugs still get smuggled in, weapons still get made, and inmates still regularly get attacked and even killed. In short, where there is a will there is a way, and the limits of surveillance as a pre-emptive tool are rapidly exposed.

It increasingly appears Beijing's longstanding "strike hard" policies in Xinjiang have not broken the will of the Uyghurs to resist, and in fact may have actually increased the ranks of those willing to openly challenge Han dominance in the region. The rising crescendo of violence in Xinjiang suggests that among certain segments of the Uyghur population, the wall of fear that Beijing has worked so assiduously to construct over the past 20 years may be cracking. If true, this is a serious problem because it may portend a cycle whereby violence triggers repression and tighter repression begets additional violence.

Uyghur insurgents will not be able to obtain guns domestically, but Xinjiang lies next door to several Central Asian states where borders are porous and weapons plentiful. However, another weapon in the insurgents' arsenal is likely plentiful in Xinjiang's many farming areas: ammonium nitrate fertilisers that can be used to make simple, but deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a technique pioneered by the Taliban in Afghanistan. State capacity in the region is also generally low, especially with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who cannot even effectively manage their internal affairs, much less ensure border security in remote regions. The likely result: Beijing will be forced to invest further in securing the border from the Chinese side.

Xinjiang's rich natural resource bounty is also at risk of insurgent attacks. Insurgents in other countries such as Colombia, Iraq and Yemen have made a habit of targeting energy infrastructure. Xinjiang's rail network, growing number of oil and gas pipelines, and planned long-distance power lines intended to supply electricity to Central and Eastern China are all potentially at risk. Should insurgents decide to leverage the province's remoteness and the difficulty of constantly watching hundreds of kilometres of vital infrastructure and begin attacking it, Beijing could have a real problem on its hands. Such attacks would be increasingly disruptive to the national economy as Xinjiang's energy suppliers become more deeply entwined with consumers further east.

The increased instability in Xinjiang has truly national security implications. China has other restive border areas such as Tibet, less violent than Xinjiang but which still command significant attention and resources from the security services. This situation is likely to worsen when the Dalai Lama passes from the scene with no heir apparent. Most importantly, the trouble Beijing is having containing the actions of what amounts to probably a few thousand true Uyghur separatists who are actually willing to take up arms suggests that serious economic disruptions in coming months and years could trigger social disorder that even the current muscular repression apparatus could not contain. A number of foreseeable events - a severe debt or real estate crisis, say - could rapidly trigger a time of economic reckoning in China. Moreover, a complex multitrillion dollar economy such as China's holds meaningful potential to produce various types of economic "black swan" events that could prove at least as disruptive as the foreseeable ones.

If tens of thousands of security cameras, two million Internet monitors, and large internal paramilitary forces cannot resolve and contain the problems in Xinjiang, how would they cope with potentially millions of angry citizens roiled by economic problems? If Beijing is forced to more tightly control people movements, vehicle movements, and access to basic dual-use goods such as nitrate fertilisers, the resultant "terrorism tax" would have profound effects on trade and economic activity.

China's leadership has proven smart and capable, but the current problems emanating from Xinjiang increasingly point to a future in which repression alone will not be enough.

Gabe Collins is the co-founder of China SignPost and a former research fellow in the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute.


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