Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang are tightening security in the regional capital ahead of Christmas, with new restrictions in force in mosques and among the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group.
"Police in Urumqi having been carrying out a campaign of checks and searches in the run-up to Christmas and New Year," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), told RFA on Thursday.
"China has once more raised its security threat alert levels, and tighter surveillance is once more in place," he said.
He said that fresh volunteers have been drafted across Urumqi's suburbs to "maintain stability," adding to those already in place.
"There are checkpoints between every small town and village, and they have increased the number of police manning them."
"They are stepping up checks and searches on all major highways, national and regional, especially targeting Uyghurs," Raxit said.
"There is [also] increased surveillance in mosques, with an increase in the number of surveillance personnel based inside the mosques," he said.
"There are armed police carrying guns patrolling outside the mosques as well," he added.
Train, bus stations watched
Local residents confirmed the WUC's report, adding that security measures have once more been stepped up in busy areas like train and bus stations, shopping streets, and malls.
"There is a police sentry box at every station and stop on public transportation, with volunteer soldiers carrying out checks," one Urumqi resident, who asked not to be named, told RFA.
"Anyone carrying fluids—including cooking oil, milk, and bottled water—isn't allowed on the bus or train," he said.
"There's a busy street in Urumqi called Xiaoximen, and even public buses have to pass through a security checkpoint to get through there," the resident said.
He said he doesn't believe such controls will be effective at preventing terror attacks, however.
"If you stop them getting on at one stop, they'll just get on at another. It's like moving water with a sieve."
Residents of Urumqi have long since become used to seeing China's People's Armed Police patrolling busy public areas, including movie theaters, government offices, and shopping districts.
But while armored personnel carriers are still visible on the city's streets, they generally don't patrol them, the Urumqi resident said, adding that volunteers in red armbands often sit around at public transportation stops playing on their smartphones rather than carrying out checks.
"It's [usually] just for the look of the thing," he said.
But a second Urumqi resident surnamed Zhang said security has clearly stepped up in the wake of a stabbing attack on Monday that left three people injured at a bus stop.
"Things have been much tighter in the past few days because of what happened," Zhang said. "They have built sentry huts at all the bus stops, with two people stationed there 24-7."
He said that new rules are now in force requiring anyone born in Xinjiang to carry an ID card showing their personal details and ethnicity if they wish to travel within the region.
"There is no way to find a job or rent an apartment without this card," Zhang said, adding that anyone who leaves their hometown in the region must register with the authorities in their new location within three hours of arriving, even if they are staying in a guesthouse, or risk a fine.
The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.
But rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.