Little more than a year into Chen Quanguo’s tenure as Communist Party chief in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), critics came to believe he was building an “open-air prison” in the vast region of mountains and deserts.

Emblematic of the Chen administration’s political clampdown are the numerous so-called “convenience police stations” – known as gangpeng in Chinese and set up across all major cities and rural villages, and granted the authority to inspect and monitor local residents’ wireless activities and digital devices.

At the Qarqiy township Police station, located in Keriye county (in Chinese, Yutian) in Hotan (Hetian), a local official at the station confirmed the presence of two “convenience police stations” within its district, each of which is staffed with at least a dozen security surveillance officers.

“There are two ‘convenience police stations’ in our village. Initially, each of them was staffed with 17 people, and now there are about 15, I think,” said the Qarqiy township police official.

At the Kokyar township police station in a different part of Hotan, a second official revealed the presence of a vast network of “convenience police stations” established across all towns, villages, and major roadways in Hotan.

“Gangpeng officials are spread out, and every ‘convenience police station’ has a few assigned, and each station is electronically connected with one another,” said a Kokyar township official.

“This way, if there is an issue at one point, others within the network are immediately aware of it and can act accordingly,” said the official.

XUAR representatives to the 19th CCP Party Congress led by Chen Quanguo in Beijing on October 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Further down the road in Siyek township, an assistant security officer at the police station said each security checkpoint is equipped with identity inspection vehicles and security surveillance vehicles, used by surveillance and patrol officers who take turns to work around the clock.

“It’s been more than 4 months,” said the officer.

“We take turns to patrol day and night,” he added. “For the most part, we work towards maintaining stability and security.”

The Siyek township officer, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said official guidelines recommend 23 staff for each convenience police station, with a chief of station and one deputy.

“These are special cameras installed at hospital security checkpoints or high security clearance places. We use them to inspect anyone entering the village.”

A police officer based in the Ulughsay village police station in Chira (Cele) county disclosed that in addition to the convenience police stations and normal police stations established across towns and villages, several police watchtowers over 10 meters tall are currently under construction.

“There is roughly one police watchtower in each township. There are eight townships here, and we have seven watchtowers all together,” said the officer.

“We are tasked with standing guard at the watchtower as part of our duty to patrol the area,” he added.

A Uyghur resident of the Upper Atush region told RFA in an interview that there are three convenience police stations in his locality, as well as guards patrolling the area around the clock.

“There is one at each of the three entry points to our village, and the guards there keep the area under constant surveillance. They are constantly patrolling the area on their motorcycles, usually dressed in police uniforms, and most of the time armed with bats and other weapons,” he said.

The police chief of Ilanliq township of Toqsun (Tuokexun) county revealed the presence of five convenience police stations across his village.

“Our work has been complicated because we currently do not have enough people to carry out the tasks.”

“Those convenience police stations require a lot of manpower,” he added.

Ilshat Hasan Kokbore, the President of the Uyghur American Association, said that in Chen’s previous posting as Communist Party secretary in the Tibet Autonomous Region, he had established convenience police stations every 500 meters (yards) throughout the regional capital Lhasa.

Residents view a convoy of security personnel and armored vehicles driving through central Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang region, Nov. 5, 2017. Photo: AFP

Now, Kokbore says, Chen has adopted an identical strategy in the Uyghur region, and is setting up stations on almost every street across Urumqi, the capital of the XUAR.

“This is precisely how he managed to keep the city under constant surveillance at all times, and under heavy control at times of instability,” he said.

“He has adopted this same strategy across cities in the Uyghur region, including major cities like Urumqi and Kashgar,” added Kokbore.

American researcher Patrik Meyer, a visiting professor at the Peking University and Indonesia’s Muhammadiyah University, warned that China’s recent measures in the Uyghur region are likely to create more instability, by further escalating tensions and resentment in the region.

“China’s previous policies towards Uyghurs dating back to 1995 aimed to deconstruct and rebuild the Uyghur identity, and, in response, Uyghurs have displayed increasing levels of resistance towards such policies,” said Meyer.

“What has been especially shocking is the heavy-handed approach China has used in recent years in its efforts to contain radical ethnic groups in the Uyghur region,” he told RFA.

“The measures it has adopted under such an approach have not only proven to be ineffective, but they also violate human rights, even by Chinese standards, and they go directly against China’s own values, laws, and constitution,” said Meyer.

U.S.-based Uyghur scholar Kahar Barat said Chen’s policies toward Uyghurs have “crossed the line” when compared to previous measures used to control people.

“If we consider other historical accounts of colonial rule, measures used to control the people often differ based on circumstances present during that time period. But to use mid-century style totalitarian tactics in today’s world, in the 21st century, crosses the line,” he said.

More ominous, Barat said, is that Chen’s policies did not work in Tibet and are likely to leave the Uyghur region in a worse situation in the future.

“During Chen Quanguo’s time in Tibet, over 100 Tibetans set themselves on fire to demonstrate their dissent. This goes to show that his administration’s policies in Tibet were failed policies in reality,” he said.

“If they repeat the same failed policies in the Uyghur region, then people will certainly demonstrate their opposition again,” added Barat. He said Uyghurs might not resort to self-immolation protests, but could take other risky actions.

“To implement the same failed policies in the Uyghur region, without any consideration of its past failures and without any modification, goes to show that the Chinese government does not acknowledge the source of the problems that occur in our homeland, nor does it acknowledge its own role in the matter,” said the scholar.