BEIJING – China is putting a western city where deadly ethnic violence broke out in 2009 under full surveillance, including ensuring "seamless" coverage of sensitive areas of the city with tens of thousands of cameras, state media reported Tuesday.
Security has been tight in Urumqi since tensions between the area's largely Muslim Uighurs and members of the country's Han majority flared into open violence in 2009. Uighurs have long resented what they see as an incursion by Han migrants into their ancestral homeland, the Xinjiang region.
The government says 197 people were killed in that outbreak of violence, the deadliest in Xinjiang in years. China has sentenced dozens of people for their involvement in the riots, most of them Uighurs. Beijing blamed overseas Uighur groups of plotting the violence, but exile groups denied it.
Just before the one-year anniversary of the violence last year, officials said about 40,000 high-definition surveillance cameras with riot-proof protective shells had been installed throughout the region. Nearly 17,000 were installed in Urumqi last year, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported on Tuesday. It was not clear if that figure was in addition to the one reported last year.
The surveillance coverage will continue to grow this year, according to Urumqi Mayor Jerla Isamudinhe, who spoke to the city's legislature over the weekend, Xinhua reported.
Surveillance is "seamless" — meaning there are no blind spots — in sensitive areas of the city, the report quoted Wang Yannian, who leads the city's information technology office, as saying.
It's not unusual to see surveillance cameras by the thousands in Chinese cites, and authorities have been known to install them in sensitive areas like mosques in Xinjiang and in temples in Tibet, which saw its own burst of ethnic violence in early 2008.
China is wary of anything that looks like separatism and has branded as "terrorists" those who oppose China's authority over Xinjiang, a strategically vital region with oil and gas deposits.
Last fall, the U.K.-based consultancy IMS Research said more than 10 million surveillance cameras would be installed in China in 2010. Beijing itself has more than 400,000, the China Daily newspaper reported last April.
Rights activists have objected to their widespread use, pointing out that China has very little in the way of privacy protections.
Tuesday's report said 3,400 buses, 4,400 streets, 270 schools and 100 shopping malls are already under watch by the cameras.
The increase in surveillance is part of a pattern of tightening Beijing's control over the region. After the 2009 violence, the region's Internet, international telephone and text messaging links to the outside world were severed for more than half a year. Officials last year also reported the hiring of 5,000 new police officers in Xinjiang.
Uighur exile groups have asked for an independent investigation of the violence and the crackdown.
Chinese authorities have long been accused of alienating the largely Muslim Uighurs, who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the country's majority Han, with tight restrictions on cultural and religious expression and nonviolent dissent.
China's leaders say all ethnic groups are treated equally and point to the billions of dollars in investment that has modernized the region.