Within 90 seconds of entering the border town of Shankou, we had attracted the attention of police and were brought to the station for questioning. The Google Translate - Conversation app is your best friend here, and 10 minutes later we were leaving. They politely asked if they could help us in any way. The situation resulting from this offer saw us serenely escorted by a full armoured SWAT van along the way to the nearest cash machine. This interaction was true to most of our future dealings with the Chinese authorities: they undoubtedly check or interfere, but are exceedingly friendly, humble and courteous in doing so which greatly eases any tension, and will without fail offer any help they can. We had one policeman who, after checking us upon entering the highway, drove up and pulled us over 20 minutes later. He apologised profusely and repeatedly, expressing that it was his error and his error alone and how gravely sorry he was for apprehending us again - he had forgotten to photograph our visa page and we were on our way again in five minutes flat. Then there was the time when we pulled into a police checkpoint after a sultry afternoon slogging in the desert sun. The sergeant greeted us with two iced bottles of mineral water, our very highest desire, and then filled up our 8L reserve tanks with the same delicious stuff. He was more of a genie in a lamp than a 'pig' behind a police desk.
Now of course this probably results from an official directive over dealing with foreigners, even so their enactment of it is admirable. I'm also aware that this faultless conduct may not extend to the domestic population, especially the Uighur minority in this region. That being said, we did regularly see police observe formal greetings in salutes and other respectful gestures to locals, and anecdotally the people we asked were content with their police - and as genuine as their answers seemed there's no way of knowing whether expressing criticism would have been possible. One instance in particular partially illumined this dark corner.
We were sleeping in a family run restaurant, our restless snooze scythed into alert panic when a air-raid alarm bellowed in the space. In an instant, and much belying her 70 odd years, the lady proprietor sprinted to the door, fixed on a handy bullet-proof jacket and soldier's helmet, grabbed a great wooden war club (think of a troll's typical weapon), and ran into the street. At this sight, alarm had now evolved into curiosity, what I saw at the door was something to behold. People of all shapes and sizes were running to form a tight square, one from every shopfront on the market. Two police offers were at the front with a stopwatch and were inspecting the gathering force. It was an instant people's militia, they would have trounced Britain's Best Neighbourhood Watch. Since we were now looking for them, we found the same jackets, helmets and a motley collection of weapons hidden near the doorstop of almost every shop we visited. These experiences quickly formed our impression of the State and the People in this region: they are much more one than two, as in the West. For better or for worse, policing forms a greater and more constant part of society here, you feel incredibly safe and yet a little helpless at the same time. Our thin blue line in Britain is truly a deep blue sphere here in China.
All of this describes our human contact with the Chinese police, but it doesn't yet do justice to their investment in hardware. At least in this troubled Xingjiang region, the Orwellian surveillance state is in full swing. In every given field of vision in towns or villages there will be half a dozen cameras, whilst every 200m of road there are steel-tube archways mounted with cameras pointing each way accompanied by motion activated flashlights. The squat square police buildings stand on most major junctions, they seem to be more symbolic than functional and even if they are not always peopled, they always retain their mechanical eyes. The biggest operation here is apparently not done on the streets but in the data centers, the processing and identification of the gigatons of visual data has spawned a whole state-backed tech hub here in Xingjiang. It's not humans that will be watching the footage and archiving the individual information from it but ML algorithms. Here is perhaps the world's most fertile laboratory for a future Deep State.
In practicality, this dystopic vision seems a long way-off, when we were stopped in more remote areas, police were still using pen and paper to log our details, and the old ledgers differed in column titles from one checkpoint to another. It seemed unlikely that our movements were being in put into even the most rudimentary of excel spreadsheets. Yet as their slick brand new roads will attest to a Chinese long way-off is maybe a Rest of World's just round the corner.