The Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs) who are the indigenous people of Xinjiang (formerly East Turkestan), living in the (annexed) western frontier of China, are a nation by the text-book definition of nation. Because of their distinctive national character and identity, they are one of the most persecuted people in our time in the hands of the majority Han Chinese people who run the communist state of People’s Republic of China (PRC). Many Uighurs have disappeared and millions of their people are interned today in their own land by Xi Jinping’s brutal (CCP) regime in this police state.
The authoritarian, communist state is in a league of its kind when it comes to surveillance of its people, esp. the culturally distinct Uighur people who have long resisted the CCP’s ‘Hanification’ policy. So appalling is this racist policy that any Muslim who refuses to eat pork or keeps a beard or wears a hijab or chador veiling her head or prays facing the Makkah or fasts during the Muslim lunar month of Ramadan is automatically viewed as a terrorist, a threat to the authoritarian regime. Outside Suu Kyi’s Myanmar, no country in our time has a worse record in violating human rights of the minorities than Xi’s China.
Thanks to the advances in the Internet and China’s new status as the second most powerful state in our planet, the Ministry of Public Security has significantly overhauled its intelligence-gathering infrastructure since at least the turn of the century for the purpose of people-control. Around 2003, the ministry embraced the British model called “Intelligence-Led Policing”, which entailed placing intelligence “at the center of all strategic and operational decision-making.”
The CCP claims that its mass surveillance systems in Xinjiang mainly targeted Uighurs to counter “the three [evil] forces”—separatism, terrorism, and extremism” (Work Report of the Government of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, January 14, 2019, Xueke Lai Zacker). Internal evidences suggest that Under the Strike Hard Campaign, Xinjiang authorities have collected biometrics, including DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents in the region between the ages of 12 and 65. The data collected from surveillance are being entered into centralized, searchable databases.
Buckley and Mozur in their investigative piece, published in the NY Times (May 22, 2019), accused the Chinese leadership of investing billions of dollars in every year, making Xinjiang an “incubator for increasingly intrusive policing systems that could spread across the country and beyond” (Buckley, Chris and Mozur, Paul: How China Uses High-Tech Surveillance to Subdue Minorities). Police, and neighborhood security guards use technologies to spy on Uighurs in the Xinjiang region. Mobile app developed and sold by the China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC) is being used to collect information and to enter into the databases. The app developed by CETC thoroughly helps identify and flag any suspicious activities of an individual Uighur to the authorities. Facial recognition is another system that is being used to track and to identify Uighurs.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) also found evidences of Chinese authorities collecting massive amounts of personal information—from the color of a person’s car to their height down to the precise centimeter—and feeding it into the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) central system, linking that data to the person’s national identification card number. Internal evidences also show that Xinjiang authorities consider many forms of lawful, every day, non-violent behavior—such as “not socializing with neighbors, often avoiding using the front door”—as suspicious. The app also labels the use of 51 network tools as suspicious, including many Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and encrypted communication tools, such as WhatsApp and Viber.”
The IJOP app, used by the Chinese authorities, flag usual practices such as “donating to mosques or preaching the Qur’an without authorization” by Uighur Muslims as suspicious and problematic. The IJOP is also being used to monitor day-to-day activities of Uighurs, including monitoring personal relationship and connections with foreigners in China and abroad. Basically, the surveillance employed by the Chinese authorities aggressively monitor the daily life of Uighurs from bedroom to marketplaces, from working places to mosques, from private communication to public contacts. IJOP actively monitors communications between Uighurs who live in the Xinjiang region and relatives and friends who live in abroad. When flags are raised by the IJOP app, Chinese authorities instruct security officers to investigate people for “problematic” relationship and contacts including having foreign links. The personal information collected through the IJOP app help Chinese security officials to raise range of personal questions during the investigation.
The New York Times reports that “the authorities in Xinjiang also sometimes force residents to install an app known as “Clean Net Guard” on their phones to monitor for content that the government deems suspicious. The Uighur cities like Kashgar are now treated like battlefield under Xi’s authoritarian regime applying “the ideas of military cyber systems to civilian public security”. In essence, Xinjiang has been turned into a virtual cage that complements the indoctrination camps where the authorities have detained a million or more Uighurs and other Muslims in a push to transform them into secular citizens who will never challenge the ruling Communist Party. The program helps identify people to be sent to the camps or investigated, and keeps tabs on them when they are released.
In the city of Kashgar, with a population of 720,000 — about 85 percent of them Uighur — the CETC platform draws on databases with 68 billion records, including those on people’s movements and activities, according to the demonstration viewed by a Times reporter at the industry fair, held in the eastern city of Wuzhen in late 2017. By comparison, the F.B.I.’s national instant criminal background check system contained about 19 million records at the end of 2018.
Buckley and Mozur opine that the Chinese authorities control over Uighur life in Xinjiang today is similar to the Mao Zedong era (1949-1976), when people were restricted to where they were registered to live and police could detain anyone for venturing outside their locales. After economic liberalization was launched in 1979, most of these controls had become largely obsolete but not so for Xinjiang where the CCP uses a combination of technological systems and administrative controls to reimpose a Mao-era degree of control, but in a graded manner that also “meets the economy’s demands for largely free movement of labor.” Today’s surveillance system under Xi Jinping not only paves the way for segregation of Muslim Uighurs from the Han-Chinese people but also it enables the state to subdue millions of Muslims in Xinjiang in one of the most brutal methods practiced by authoritarian regimes of our time.
In March 2019, the Chinese government claimed that it had arrested nearly 13,000 terrorists in Xinjiang since 2014 and that its surveillance programs had helped arrest Uighurs who allegedly would pose threat to the state. In February 2020, a document was leaked from an insider in the Xinjiang region. According to the leaked document the Chinese government imprisoned Muslims for basic religious activities. “The data show that the Chinese government targeted individuals based on activities such as praying or going to mosque or even growing a beard. People with relatives who are already detained are much more likely to be detained themselves, the database also shows.” The China Cables reveal how the system is able to amass vast amounts of intimate personal data through warrantless manual searches, facial recognition cameras, and other means to identify candidates for detention, flagging for investigation hundreds of thousands merely for using certain popular mobile phone apps. The documents detail explicit directives to arrest Uighurs with foreign citizenship and to track Xinjiang Uighurs living abroad, some of whom have been deported back to China by authoritarian governments. Among those implicated as taking part in the global dragnet are Chinese embassies and consulates.
Intelligence agencies in many countries use methods that are not always legitimate to single out individuals for greater scrutiny. However, in Xi’s China nothing is off limits, a Muslim from Xinjiang is treated as a suspect from the start until proven otherwise. “The goal here is instilling fear — fear that their surveillance technology can see into every corner of your life,” said Wang Lixiong, a Chinese author who has written about Xinjiang. The Chinese surveillance system and internment camps marginalize Muslims in general and Uighurs in particular. These measures, according to Dr. Imtiyaz, are, fundamentally racist, because they target a particular community for being who they are–their way of life and value system.
Furthermore, as Dr. Imtiyaz and I have argued in our earlier papers, the Chinese authority’s political agenda to make Muslims in China to embrace Han-Chinese culture is both problematic and dangerous. It is problematic because it expects Muslims, who have distinct cultural and social values to accept Han-Chinese culture and value system and it is dangerous because such political programs constitute part of genocide tactics.
Ironically, Xi Jinping’s regime has been a major investor in many developing state economies to promote its so-called belt and road initiative (BRI), which have also drawn criticism for facilitating corruption, nontransparent loan agreements, and noncompetitive contracts that require the use of Chinese companies. Amid inflated project costs, several BRI recipient countries, such as Djibouti, Pakistan, and the Maldives, are at high risk of debt crisis, potentially diverting limited government resources away from essential services to debt servicing.
However, Xi’s policies at home show that his government has no respect for human rights, esp. Islam and its values. Hundreds of mosques have been demolished in many parts of China, esp. in Xinjiang where credible reports show that the authorities had destroyed some 70 percent of the mosques there. Worse yet, as a slap to Muslims, many of these historic mosques have been turned into toilets. For instance, in Suntagh village, two miles from Atush (in Chinese, Atushi), a city of about 270,000 people, the construction of the public toilet on the former site of the Tokul mosque comes days after the authorities had razed two of the three mosques there. (The authorities have left only the smallest mosque which was already in poor state intact.) Azna mosque—had been replaced with “a convenience store” that sells alcohol and cigarettes, the use of which is frowned upon in Islam.
Some observers believe such a demolition campaign is aimed at breaking the spirit of Uighur Muslims. Xi Jinping’s Han supremacist policies are intolerant of Islam and its people and culture. It is important not only to condemn such a hostile policy but also to intensify the maximum global pressure campaign against its all-intrusive surveillance policy that is marginalizing millions of Muslims. Both the UN and China’s trading partners, including Muslim majority countries, should pressure Beijing to abandon its surveillance programs on Chinese Muslims and to map out an acceptable political solution to the Uighur national question. As recently noted by Dr. Imtiyaz (Chinese Law & Religion Monitor, July-December 2020), for Uighur national question, the longer the international community ignores the unfathomable suffering and persecution faced by the Uighurs without adopting any measures to seek justice for them, the stronger the polarization would happen along ethnic and religious fault-lines, particularly among the poor Uighurs – who already find themselves marginalized and abused in all aspects, and the nastier may be the consequences for global peace, because such a global indifference and/or impotence may persuade some Uighurs to further radicalize along powerful Islamic symbols, further swelling the links, which have hitherto been weak, with transnational extremists. Such an outcome is not desirable for anyone.
Succinctly put, Xi Jinping’s policies epitomize hypocrisy. He can’t be a true benefactor overseas with a dagger in one hand that threatens Muslim minorities at home and a bomb in the other hand that demolishes everything that is dear to the Uighur nation in their national homeland of East Turkestan.