Constant surveillance, cultural suppression and ‘re-education’ are the day-to-day reality for China’s Muslim minorities. And the technology giants that enable it are closer than we might thinkby Darren Byler / August 28, 2020 / Leave a comment
In the summer of 2017, nearly all the men in Sholpan Amirken’s family were taken to “re-education camps.” Aside from Sholpan’s husband, only the women were spared. In the months that followed, the police regularly inspected Sholpan’s home and the women, children and the solitary man left behind.
The family had been under watch before the men were taken. Since three brothers-in-law were imams in local Kazakh mosques, it was assumed that the family was “extremist.” In Xinjiang, the vast northwest Chinese region where the Turkic Muslim groups—the Uighurs and Kazakhs—make up the bulk of the population, 90,000 surveillance workers had been tasked with carrying out the “re-education” of those deemed devoutly religious. These police contractors, often from China’s majority Han ethnicity, scanned people’s bodies and belongings with a metal detector. They were looking for electronics such as unreported smartphones, SD cards, hard drives, language learning devices—anything that might contain unauthorised religious material, such as oral teachings on Islamic piety or instructions on how to study the Qur’an. According to guidelines enforcing the Chinese state’s religious “de-extremification” policy of 2014, having five or more digital copies of unauthorised teachings could trigger a criminal charge of promoting terrorism and extremism. Possessing fewer than five could result in being labelled a “pre-criminal” in need of re-education at an internment camp. Even smaller numbers of digital texts could be totted up with other missteps to add up to a criminal charge.
I met Sholpan in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where she has now moved. Over the course of a long, snowy afternoon she told me how the police would plug her smartphone into a scanning tool that could recover deleted data. Each time the scan came back with a green code, which meant it did not detect anything “extremist.”
Then one day, Sholpan was taken to the police station. She had anticipated this eventuality, so months earlier had uninstalled everything on her phone in order to hide the religious material she had. But how well this “cleaning” process works depends on the brand. “Before they interrogated me they took my phone,” she said. “They told me after three months I could…