China Using Drones in Crackdown on Civilians

Human Rights Groups Say Repression of Ethnic and Religious Minorities Continues

Armed paramilitary policemen patrol the square in front of the Zhengzhou Railway Station in Zhengzhou city, central Chinas Henan province
Armed paramilitary policemen patrol the square in front of the Zhengzhou Railway Station in Zhengzhou city, central Chinas Henan province / AP
August 20, 2014

Chinese security forces are now using surveillance drones against civilians in an apparent escalation of their crackdown on ethnic and religious minorities.

The Global Times, a Chinese newspaper affiliated with the state-owned People’s Daily, reported on Monday that forces had sent operators of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the northwestern region of Xinjiang after a "fatal terrorist attack" occurred on July 28. The UAVs surveilled towns "day and night" for "suspected terrorists," helping the police eventually arrest 215 people, according to the newspaper.

The use of drones sparked fresh concerns among human rights groups that advocate for ethnic Uyghurs, who dominate the autonomous Xinjiang region also known as East Turkestan.

Nearly 100 people were killed during the July 28 incident in Yarkand County, according to the Chinese government. Chinese officials said police had shot dead 59 people they described as terrorists, including masked assailants who attacked cars and pedestrians with axes and knives.

However, rights groups such as the Uyghur American Association (UAA) say the Chinese government has failed to address extremism, and even encouraged it, by restricting the movement of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs and admonishing women against wearing veils. Authorities tend to lump all Uyghur civilians in with those they call terrorists, they say.

"The use of drones over villages in East Turkestan shows that China treats all Uyghurs as state enemies," said UAA president Alim Seytoff in a statement from Washington, D.C. "China is not singling out alleged ‘terrorists;’ it is intimidating entire communities, including the very people its purported anti-terror campaign is supposed to protect."

The group expressed concerns that the drones could be used for more than surveillance, such as coordinated strikes against Uyghurs.

Details about the Yarkand crackdown remain murky because foreign reporters are barred from the area. State media initially said "dozens" were killed or injured during the police campaign against what the news outlets called jihad, but reports later revised the death toll upward.

News outlets owned by the government are used as a mouthpiece for the policies and views of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Uyghur groups say the unrest was sparked by government restrictions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the alleged unlawful killing of a Uyghur family. One Uyghur exile leader claimed that security forces killed at least 2,000 members of the minority group, citing anonymous sources on the ground in Yarkand.

"The events of July 28 in [Yarkand] as described by the Chinese state media simply cannot be trusted," Seytoff said. "Reports have emerged putting the death toll of Uyghur civilians at alarming numbers and the state has done nothing to ensure transparency in the investigation of this incident."

"The disinterest of government officials in following up allegations of state violence in [Yarkand] leaves an unambiguous message in the minds of many Uyghurs—their lives are worth less than others," Seytoff added. "As a result, Uyghurs are now vulnerable to the menacing prowess of China’s security apparatus."

Reports indicate that the crackdown on Uyghurs is likely to continue. Fifteen regional officials in Xinjiang were punished by Beijing on Tuesday, including one who "worshipped openly" amid a ban on religious practice by state workers.

"We have to hit hard, hit accurately and hit with awe-inspiring force," said Xinjiang party secretary Zhang Chunxian after the Yarkand incident. "To fight such evils we must aim at extermination. To cut weeds we must dig out the roots."

Authorities have also detained about 200 people after police opened fire on Tibetan demonstrators in the southwestern province of Sichuan last week. Tibetans are another minority that has suffered from decades of cultural and religious repression by Beijing, activists say.

China’s domestic security budget has exceeded the amount spent on the military since 2011, the New York Times reported in March.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

"Broadly targeting an entire religious or ethnic community in response to the actions of a few only increases the potential for violent extremism," said Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, last month after the department criticized China’s persecution of minorities in its annual report on religious freedom.

Published under: China