East Riverside Road - better known to locals as Tibetan Street - is in fact a dusty and narrow alleyway across from the main bus station in this ethnically mixed city on China's Tibetan plateau. Lined with Tibetan shops and teahouses, as well as Muslim bakeries and a row of stalls selling fireworks, it's crowded and chaotic enough that few cars bother trying to enter.
But anxious local authorities watch the fray from above. Hanging at even intervals over the twisting 300-metre length of the road are seven domes containing closed-circuit television cameras - nicknamed "Global Eyes" by the Chinese company that makes them - recording nearly everything that goes on in the bustling alley below.
The use of such surveillance technology has skyrocketed in China in recent years - just as it has in many Western countries - with millions of cameras trained on cities around the country to watch traffic, prevent crime and to keep an eye on dissidents and politically sensitive spots such as Beijing's Tiananmen Square. But the blanket coverage given to a narrow alley in the remote city of Xining highlights how cameras are also being used to closely monitor China's restive ethnic minorities, especially since the 2008 riots on the Tibetan plateau and last year's deadly ethnic violence in the predominantly Muslim Uighur region of Xinjiang.
The cameras along East Riverside Road were installed last year after a pair of murders on the street, which in addition to monks and traders also attracts gangs of beggars and, according to local shopkeepers, thieves. But while some say they're glad for the added security that the cameras provide, many allege that the authorities have other goals in mind.
"We don't like it because we know they're only watching Tibetans. It's political," said Danjiang, the 36-year-old owner of a Tibetan restaurant on East Riverside Road.
Danjiang, who gave only his first name, said police had stepped up surveillance of Xining's Tibetan population ever since the monk-led riots of March, 2008. Those were concentrated in the city of Lhasa and other parts of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but spread to parts of neighbouring provinces, such as Qinghai, that have large Tibetan populations. At the time, Tibetan university students in Xining, the capital of Qinghai, demonstrated in support of the monks.
The use of video surveillance is common across China, though not excessive compared to some Western countries. (There are an estimated seven million cameras watching 1.3 billion people in China, compared to 4.2 million cameras watching 61 million Britons.) What's troubling for human-rights activists is the overt focus on cities and neighbourhoods that are ethnically Tibetan or Uighur, as well as the specific targeting of political dissidents.
Following the March, 2008, riots in Lhasa, authorities awarded China Telecom - the maker of the "Global Eye" cameras - a $6.5-million contract to install cameras at 624 locations, including the train and bus stations, and all hotels in the city. Similarly, a cluster of cameras has monitored the Tibetan neighbourhood around Beijing's Yonghegong Temple since before the 2008 Olympics there.
The program in the Tibetan capital was named "Peace in Lhasa." A press release distributed by China Telecom after winning the contract boasted that "the police only need to lightly click their mouse to direct the 'electronic policeman' around. Such a 'Security Skynet' will leaves no place for criminals to hide, and ensures the citizens' peaceful life and work, as well as the stability and harmony of society."
In Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang and the site of deadly ethnic rioting last year between Uighurs and Han Chinese that left 197 people dead, there are already 47,000 cameras in place, with plans to install another 13,000 by the end of the year. Residents say a disproportionate number are trained on mosques and Uighur neighbourhoods of the city.
It's not just minorities, but anyone that gives the government trouble who gets the extra scrutiny. Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, said that at least half a dozen prominent political dissidents have cameras trained on their residences. Amid growing expression of dissent online, video cameras have also been recently made mandatory in the country's Internet cafés, with direct feeds to the local police stations, making it easier for the government to trace those making anonymous comments on websites.
"Our concern is not surveillance cameras per se [but]the use of such surveillance to further enforce the ban on peaceful assembly and demonstration; the overt ambition by the Chinese government to marry video-surveillance data with a wide range of other government databases [and]the lack of any meaningful regulations to prevent uses that infringe on the right to privacy," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong-Kong based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"The government is entirely free to do whatever it pleases for as long as it chooses with the data gathered through video surveillance, including mobilizing this technology to repressive political or religious ends. Such technology is already highly problematic in democratic countries with an independent judiciary - in China the counterweights are simply non-existent."
According to the official China Daily newspaper, the southeastern factory hub of Guangzhou - which is getting set this year to host the Asian Games - now has 2.6 million surveillance cameras in place around the city, likely making it the most-watched city on Earth. Beijing is believed to have the next highest number of any Chinese city with an estimated 470,000, followed by the heaving southwestern megalopolis of Chongqing with 310,000. (According to official figures, Xining will by the end of this year have a relatively modest 5,000 surveillance cameras watching its two million residents.) Those most closely watched by the cameras say it's a cheap and efficient way for the government to insert itself into their lives. "They use [cameras]to observe human-rights defenders and activists more and more often, rather than arresting us directly. It costs less than using human beings to watch us," said Zeng Jinyan, an outspoken blogger and the wife of jailed AIDS activist Hu Jia.
Ms. Zeng and her young daughter have lived with a camera trained on their Beijing apartment building for almost four years, since shortly before her husband was arrested. She said the biggest inconvenience has been that friends and family have become nervous about visiting her apartment since the cameras were installed.
"My apartment is like an isolated island in our compound. It's very strange, but I try my best to carry on living a normal life."