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In locked-down Xinjiang, China is tracking kitchen knives with QR codes

In locked-down Xinjiang, China is tracking kitchen knives with QR codes
[Photo: VCG/VCG/Getty Images]

In China’s tightly controlled Xinjiang region, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur ethnic group, commonplace purchases from knives to gasoline are strictly controlled with ID checks amid a growing high-tech surveillance push, the Wall Street Journal reports this week.

A knife shop owner in the midwestern city of Aksu told the Journal he had to spend thousands of dollars on a machine that turns every “customer’s ID card number, photo, ethnicity and address,” encodes the data as a QR code and lasers it into the blades of even the kitchen knives they buy. The Aksu policy, which was previously reported by Radio Free Asia, is intended to trace a knife back to its owner in the event it’s used to commit acts of violence.

Face and license plate scanners are ubiquitous in the Texas-sized region, and many vehicles are equipped with mandatory location trackers. In some cities, incoming vehicles are physically searched, while drivers and passengers are required to pass their belongings through x-ray scanners. On the street, phones’ files are screened by handheld devices. The entrances of mosques, restaurants, and most public spaces are surrounded by surveillance cameras.

A biometric program is also under way across Xinjiang, as the Associated Press notes in its own report on the region this week: a security directive issued last year requires local authorities to “comprehensively collect three-dimensional portraits, voiceprints, DNA and fingerprints.”

Since a surge in deadly terrorist attacks around the country in 2014 that the government has blamed on Xinjiang-based, extremist Islamic-inspired militants, the government of Xi Jinping has sought to strengthen the region’s notoriously stringent national security apparatus. Critics, meanwhile, have blamed the government’s heavy-handed approach in Xinjiang for instilling anger among and toward Uighurs.

During the first quarter of 2017, the government announced more than $1 billion in security-related investment projects in Xinjiang, up from $27 million in all of 2015, the Journal notes, citing research in April by Chinese brokerage firm Industrial Securities. (The WSJ also made a video, below.)

Xinjiang has also been subject to communication lockdowns in addition to the existing limits imposed by the Great Firewall. After ethnic violence erupted between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi in 2009, authorities blocked the region’s internet service, text messaging, and international phone calls for a span of 10 months.