The systematic and pervasive repression of Uyghur minorities in the restive Chinese province of Xinjiang is a well-known fact. But the latest report published by The Intercept, which accessed the leaked Chinese Police data, reveals the depth and extent of how the Chinese state keeps a tab on its Muslim minority population.
The database throws light on the lengths that China goes in not only scrutinising the minority Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang but also their relatives and friends, along with those who are living abroad. Artificial Intelligence, sophisticated surveillance systems, new-age technology and human intelligence are all employed by the Chinese Communist Party to track and monitor the Uyghur Muslims and those associated with them.
For instance, the police automation system in Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang province, issued an “intelligence information judgment” to flag that a female relative of a purported extremist had been offered free travel to Yunnan, a province to the south.
Technology used as a tool to further repress the Uyghur residents
The woman had found the offer on a WeChat group called “Travellers”. Authorities zeroed in on the group because of ethnic and family ties, its members included minorities such as Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz. The order said, “This group had over 200 ethnic-language people, many of whom are relatives of the incarcerated people. The order directed the police to launch an investigation immediately citing the tendency of relatives of extremist people to gather.
As a consequence of the order, one person with no criminal background, who had not heard of WeChat before or travelled within China came under the scanner of the police. The authorities noted that the person exhibited “good behaviour” and elicited “no suspicion”. Yet, his phone was confiscated and sent to “internet safety unit” and the community was to “control and monitor” him, meaning that a government would appoint a trusted cadre member to visit him regularly and keep an eye on his household.
Apparently, the man was investigated primarily because of religious activities, not by him but by his elder sister a few months ago. According to the police data, the woman and her husband had invited a couple over Tencent QQ app. The couple had bought a laptop and logged on to the group every day from 7 am to 11:30 pm. The husband stopped drinking and smoking and this was a cause for alarm for the Chinese authorities. Between the two couples, the police recovered 168 religious audio files deemed illegal, as they were linked to the Islamic seminary Tablighi Jamaat.
Following Islam is considered as a “red-flag”
Practising Islam is considered a red flag that can invite coercive police action. While China claims that the policing in Xinjiang is to curb the menace of extremism and terrorism, it is just a cover for carrying out invasive surveillance of the Muslim minority residents. Mosques have cameras inside and people are monitored for the way they pray. Showing curiosity about Islam, growing a beard, carrying a prayer rug, Uyghur Books, quitting drinking or smoking, is a potential sign of religious extremism and can trigger police action against the adherents.
A wide range of behaviour habits among Muslims is considered criminal even if it is legal at the time of the incident. A police document revealed that Hui women were detained because of the evidence that showed that they had studied Quran in an online group—which was apparently legal when they studied but became illegal just before their detention. The group was inactive for almost a year before they were detained.
Chinese police forcibly suck out information from mobile phones through the “anti-terrorism sword” tool
The police database is a product of a reporting tool developed by a private defence company Landasoft that aides the Chinese government to carry out surveillance of citizens in Xinjiang. The database brings to fore a systematic campaign of repression that involves cameras placed in the homes of private citizens, the development of internment camps for housing the “extremists”, children being forcibly separated from their families and sent to preschools with electric fences, the organised destruction of Uyghur cemeteries, a structured plan to suppress Uyghur births, forced abortion, sterilisation, and birth control.
One of the most invasive ways in which China prises out personal information from its residents is using a mechanism called as “anti-terrorism sword” phone inspection tool. Checkpoints dot across the expanse of Urumqi, where city police force to plug their phones into these devices. They collect personal data such as contact list, text messages, photos, videos, audio files and documents to run it against an array of prohibited items.
Biometrics program touted as health initiative used for surveillance activities
In addition to sucking out private information from mobile phones, the Chinese government has also hustled people into participating in the biometrics program that is dubbed as a health initiative. The citizens were mandated to have their faces scanned, voice signature analysed and provide their DNA under the “Physicals for All” program. The database accessed by The Intercept reveals that the program was extensively used by the police for their surveillance activities.
Besides, the documents in the database also show widespread use of facial recognition technology to keep a tab on people that alerted by the surveillance system as ‘suspicious’. China has been increasingly deploying new technologies to aide its repression of minorities in Xinjiang.
Suffocating surveillance of Uyghurs a result of Chinese paranoia about the external or malign influence
The primary objective of Chinese authorities to put the citizens of Xinjiang under surveillance is to limit any influence that could engender the desire for greater autonomy and freedom among people. The zeal for “back-flow prevention” was reflected in China’s efforts to identify those who left the country as security threats. According to a report, Uyghur residents in Xinjiang who had managed to go abroad and seek political asylum elsewhere were regarded as terrorists, further cementing the fact that Uyghurs are monitored outside China as well.
Contact with areas outside Xinjiang, or with people in contact with those areas, is extensively monitored and is grounds for suspicion. Authorities also keep a strict vigil on suspected individuals who are made to participate in weekly “flag-raising” ceremonies to assess their psychology, with a keen eye on their loyalty and fervour. Authorities monitor not just former detainees, people under suspicion, but their relatives as well, to confirm their participation and ascertain how passionate they are about doing so.
Detention centres used to control the population, especially of Muslims
Ever since allegations of the existence of detention centres to house Uyghur population surfaced, China has been in denial, calling them “training centres” and “re-education camps” for the welfare of the residents. However, the Chinese police database leak illustrates an expansive network of detention centres that are put to use to incarcerate people and control the population, especially of Muslims.
Along with surveillance and strict policing, the database sheds light on a system where lengths of incarceration, even under the pretext of “training” or “re-education”, is often so uncertain that relatives are obliged when the detainees are handed out fixed-term sentences. Documents reveal Xinjiang’s complex system of prison-like facilities are categorised into four categories: “re-education” is for temporary detention; “vocational training” is a more lenient form of re-education; and long-term prison. It is not unusual for detainees to pass through multiple types of imprisonment in a sort of pipeline fashion.