China is now using drones to catch “terrorists” in Xinjiang

Medium-altitude UAVs, likely similar to the one in this 2007 photo, are patrolling Xinjiang’s skies.
Medium-altitude UAVs, likely similar to the one in this 2007 photo, are patrolling Xinjiang’s skies.
Image: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
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The Chinese government announced last week  (Chinese) that it had deployed drones to the autonomous western region of Xinjiang, where separatist attacks have been on the rise in recent years. The New York Times’ Sinosphere blog, citing Chinese state media reports, says the drones will be used to track the movements of Muslim Uyghur separatists, who the government calls “terrorists”, in the region’s southwestern county of Yarkant.

The area was the site of the latest attacks that left over 100 people dead.

The Chinese state newspaper, Global Times, reported that the UAVs arrived in the region weeks ago where they surveilled towns across Yarkant for “suspected terrorists,” and helped police arrest 215 people—18 others surrendered to the authorities.

The move, part of Beijing’s year-long anti-terrorism campaign that began in May with an aim of cracking down on “violent terrorist activities,” was celebrated in China but condemned by human rights groups around the world.

The Uyghur American Association issued a statement condemning the decision:

 “The use of drones over villages in East Turkestan shows that China treats all Uyghurs as state enemies. 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.”

While Beijing maintains that the drones will only be used to hunt “terrorist” suspects, they will likely have the capabilities to track civilians in the area, said David Cenciotti, founder of the blog The Aviationist.

He says it is likely that they are Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) UAVs. These, he explains, would have similar capabilities to the Chinese naval Wing Loong/Chengdu Pterodactyl model that has been deployed to the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu by China) in the past.

” The Wing Loong, are more persistent on a certain area of operation, hence they are more useful for surveillance purposes as they can search, identify and track ground targets (and individuals) silently loitering in the air for several hours,” Cenciotti tells Quartz.

The drones were developed and manufactured by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the main contractor for the nation’s space program. According to a report in the state-run newspaper, People’s Daily, the Xinjiang regional government ordered the drones last year.

China has increasingly turned to drones in recent years to boost its defense capabilities, both domestically and abroad. Photos emerged in May of what is believed to be China’s first armed military drone, the Lijan or “sharp sword.”