Chinas rollout of thousands of 5G base stations throughout its far-western Xinjiang region has raised suspicion that the technology will not be used for economic development but for enhanced digital surveillance of Uyghurs and other Muslims, experts say, media reports said.
The build-out in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is part of a nationwide expansion of the fifth-generation, or 5G, technology standard for broadband cellular networks that mobile phone companies began deploying worldwide in 2019. China is rolling out 5G to further digitize its economy and society, RFA reported.
With an area of 642,800 square kilometers (248,200 square miles), Xinjiang has the largest land area of all the provinces and autonomous regions in China, though most of the vast region consists of uninhabited deserts and mountains.
Xinjiang’s regional capital Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi) was one of China’s first cities to adopt 5G technology in October 2019, followed by a network rollout that covered other urban areas in prefecture-level cities.
The 5G network rollout across the entire region will augment an existing pervasive digitized system that monitors the movement of residents through surveillance drones, facial recognition cameras, mobile phone scans as part of China’s efforts to control the predominantly Muslim population, experts said, RFA reported.
China has built more than 30,000 5G base stations in Xinjiang, adding another roughly 10,000 this year at a cost of 1.65 billion yuan (U.S. $230 million), according to an October 10 report by state-run Tianshan Net-Xinjiang Daily, the official news website of Xinjiang.
There are nearly a dozen 5G base stations for every 10,000 people in the region with a total population of roughly 12 million, the report said. All prefecture-level urban areas and county urban areas, and 90.5 percent of townships and towns, now have 5G network coverage.
“The 5G network will further deepen the coverage of counties and townships, and ‘county and county access to 5G’ will further consolidate the foundation of digital Xinjiang,” the report said.
China has used digital technology to monitor and censor Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in Xinjiang, amassing huge amounts of data from cell phones, personal computers, and security cameras to impose political and social control of the Muslim groups.
For years, Chinese authorities have subjected Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang to arbitrary arrests and restrictions on their religious practice and culture, RFA reported.