Big Brother vs China’s Uighurs

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 think
August 28, 2020

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 come and get it. Since it was an iPhone they couldn’t find anything.” Phones that use the Android platform are more susceptible to data recovery tools. “I had heard that they couldn’t check the iPhone… otherwise I would have definitely been sent to the camp because, before I ‘cleaned’ it, I had lots of religious content on my phone.” She continued: “If it was a Huawei phone, they could have found things.” As for the police: “They asked me ‘why are you using this phone?’ They said I should be patriotic and get a Chinese phone.”

A history of half-tolerance

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is an Alaska-sized area in northwest China, bordered by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the west, and the oppressed “autonomous region” of Tibet to the south. Xinjiang makes up approximately one-sixth of the landmass of the People’s Republic, and is also the source of large reserves of coal, natural gas and oil. For three decades, government programmes to extract these resources have drawn millions of Han Chinese to the western frontier of the country. The transformation of financial, legal and educational institutions in support of this Han migration has put increasing strain on the Turkic Muslim population, who farm the desert oases and steppes, and today number around 13.5m. The Han population in the region is around 10m.

“In China today, Islamic religiosity has come to be seen as evidence of a violent ideology”

It is difficult for many Han people to deal with the Uighurs’ cultural difference. Whereas most of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities in China now speak and write Chinese as their first language, the Uighurs and Kazakhs still use their own langauges, practise a different faith, and—to boot—look different. As China developed rapidly in the 1990s, these groups were written off as “backward.” In more recent years they have come to be seen as dangerous, too. Ostensibly the Han panic is about real or imagined Islamist terrorism, but there was deep suspicion long before, because—like the Tibetans—the Uighurs and Kazakhs have long laid claim to a distinctive native homeland within China.

Back in the 1930s, the Muslim populations founded their own state: East Turkestan. When Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chinese leaders named the space the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in a gesture toward Uighur self-determination. But within a decade it became clear there would only be tolerance for those Turkic Muslim traditions that could be slotted into a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist” framework. Mosque attendance, Sufi shrine visitation, master-apprentice religious mentorship and native trades all withered. But venerable practices such as mourning rituals, epic storytelling about Islamic heroes and ecstatic music and dance traditions continued underground. And in Uighur majority areas, life was still conducted in the local language. Uighurs were placed in positions of local government leadership. The few Han people stationed in Southern Xinjiang adapted to a Uighur way of life.

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Borderlands: Xinjiang province has remained culturally autonomous from the rest of China—until now

Only with the roaring growth and tumult of the 2000s did this Uighur world begin to change. The old Uighur demographic dominance—in which life took place in mud-brick cities and poplar-lined hamlets—was suddenly challenged by millions of Han settlers. A large Han-run service sector also developed, along with some of the richest Han cities in China, while the impoverished Uighurs remained locked out of the new prosperity. Before long, ancestral lands were being seized in the name of an “Open the West” campaign, which—after 2013—went hand-in-hand with Beijing’s ambitions to spread its influence into Central Asia, just one part of Xi Jinping’s audacious “Belt and Road” initiative. But for the Uighurs, the new ambition and the new money spelled only rising prices and discrimination in the job market. The community responded with protests that at times became violent.

After the internet arrived in 2011, the Uighurs and Kazakhs also begun to soak in cultural traditions from other parts of the Muslim world. There was increasing adherence to halal standards and abstaining from alcohol, as well as observance of the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. This alarmed Chinese officials and the Han public. The protests were getting more violent and there were suicide attacks against the military and the police. In 2013 and 2014, there were more attacks on Han civilians. The Chinese Communist Party declared a “People’s War on Terror.”

The established discourse of “Muslim terrorism”—that took hold in China after 9/11 as it did in much of the world—was now given a new twist. Islamic religiosity came to be seen as evidence of a violent ideology. In echoes of Cultural Revolution rhetoric that depicted counter-revolutionaries as vermin, the region’s Party Secretary described Uighur terrorists and extremists as rats that needed to be chased and “beaten down.” There are, however, many differences with the late Mao era—one of which is the transformation in the possibilities of mass technological surveillance.

The surveillance-industrial complex

The Chinese private technology industry was flooded with state capital to build data-intensive surveillance systems across northwest China. This in turn produced a market structure—a kind of terror surveillance capitalism—in which the majority of profits and company growth in large segments of the Chinese tech sector came not from consumer products, but from state-driven techno-political infrastructure projects. (For a western analogy, think of the US “military-industrial complex” of the Cold War, or contemporary digital surveillance by Google and Amazon.)

In 2016, approximately $52bn of the security technology market across China was structured around such projects. For private companies in the burgeoning “computer-vision” sector—which harnesses AI to interpret the visual world—the digital enclosure projects of Xinjiang are invaluable because they generate far more data than systems in private environments. Indeed, Martin Beraja, David Y Yang and Noam Yuchtman—economists and social scientists at western universities—have shown that Xinjiang surveillance schemes have been indispensable for the astronomical growth of some firms. And the surveillance-industrial complex is, in turn, central to Xi Jinping’s ambitions for China’s global tech markets.

The police who checked Sholpan’s phone did so with AI-enabled auto-recovery tools, built by companies such as the Chinese tech giant Meiya Pico. The information received from her and others was fed—sometimes manually, sometimes automatically—into a region-wide Integrated Joint Operations Platform, serviced by the China Electronics Technology Corporation, the parent company of Hikvision, the world’s largest camera manufacturer. As Human Rights Watch has shown, the platform, along with data collected through interrogations, was then used by the police to determine which Muslims were “untrustworthy” and therefore sent to re-education camps and prisons.

You may have seen the images on the news: spooky pictures of adults sitting behind desks like schoolchildren, performing for foreign journalists; or perhaps the more truthful images of blindfolded and shackled men being bundled onto trains with the name of their detention centre stencilled on their uniforms. Between 2017 and 2019 over 340,000 people in the region were convicted and given prison terms. An additional 900,000 to 1.5m others were sent to the detainee camp system as “pre-criminals” in need of re-education.

But less attention has been paid to the remaining 85 to 90 per cent of the population outside the detention system, whose lives have also been dramatically affected, particularly their daily use of technology. As Sholpan told me: “I am a witness too.”

Fear and your phone

From the moment the Chinese state declared the People’s War on Terror in May 2014 and drew up 75 official signs of Islamic extremism, it listed possession of religious and political digital files, WhatsApp and VPNs (virtual private networks, which facilitate private browsing) as signs of suspicion. Initially, however, the regulations were hardly enforced: using such technologies in this way was commonplace and went unpunished throughout China, including in Xinjiang.

Only in 2017, when the Muslim re-education campaign began in earnest, did things change. That year Sholpan was among the many who began to develop fears about their mobile phone. Many of the dozens of others I have interviewed who lived through the re-education process said that they were detained because of the texts, audio or video clips they had shared on smartphones. Many were accused by police of having “extreme thoughts” because they had been abroad to Turkey or Kazakhstan, and during their travels had installed Facebook or WhatsApp on their phones. Erbaqyt Otarbai, a former detainee who has fled to Kazakhstan, told me: “The police said I had Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp on my phone. They asked why I was using these illegal apps. I said I have many friends who use these apps so that is why I had them. I said, you can check my accounts and see that I haven’t sent any illegal content.” Others were detained because they had used VPNs to circumvent China’s great firewall and access their Gmail accounts or read the New York Times.

Deleting data or forbidden software did not necessarily help. Just like Sholpan, many others “cleaned” the specific files they had shared in religious study groups on WeChat and hoped for the best. But the police’s tools could detect the Turkic Muslim content of deleted files on phones with Android operating systems; and some Uighurs were detained for having unhackable iPhones. Just as with the medieval witch-ducking stool, either you are deemed guilty by the evidence on your phone, or you are condemned by the suspicious absence of it.

A Uighur walks past a bazaar selling portraits of Party leaders alongside traditional textiles A Uighur walks past a bazaar selling portraits of Party leaders alongside traditional textiles

A Uighur walks past a bazaar selling portraits of Party leaders alongside traditional textiles

Although Sholpan was let go from interrogation, her family continued to be subject to what internal Chinese policing documents refer to as “targeted” surveillance. Cameras were installed at the front gate of the home she shared with her husband and mother-in-law. All visitors had to register their names and ID numbers in a ledger. “Our home became like a government office,” Sholpan said. Neighbours began to avoid her family.

Alongside the rest of the community, she was forced to attend weekly national flag-raising ceremonies held across Xinjiang, where she and her family were often publicly admonished. There are echoes here of Maoist “struggle sessions,” public courts where villagers were tasked with demonstrating their “trustworthiness” by “brandishing their sword” of loyalty to the Chinese state. Yet these new forms of thought-work didn’t focus on denouncing landlords but Turkic Muslims, their faith and traditions. Class struggle has been replaced by racism.

Sholpan’s family, like hundreds of thousands of others whose men have been imprisoned, was assigned a Han “older brother” who came to the home on regular overnight visits. Luckily, Sholpan’s family were able to work out a deal with him. Many other of these Big Brothers slept in rooms with their hosts to demonstrate, in the state’s sinister vernacular, “ethnic harmony,” with the attendant risks of sexual and other forms of abuse. But in Sholpan’s home, the allocated monitor agreed to sleep in the guest room. Sometimes, when Sholpan’s husband was away, their enforced guest and Sholpan agreed to pretend that he had visited; Sholpan would repost old pictures of a previous visit on WeChat. In return, he wouldn’t have to pay the 100 yuan (£11) that he was mandated to give them towards food and housing.

Around this time, the authorities ordered everyone in the village to go for a “health check.” Sholpan had her irises, face and fingerprints scanned and her voice signature recorded at a mobile clinic. They took her blood and a DNA sample. She said: “The village government leader told us openly that those who refused would be taken to the re-education camps.”

This biometric data was then added to citizenship files that were linked with ID cards. Once the system was fully implemented in late 2017, it was impossible for Sholpan to enter a bank or shopping mall without having her face scanned and matched to her photo ID. She said: “On average, over the span of a single day, I had my ID and face scanned more than 10 times.”

Virtue signalling

On the advice of a police contact, Sholpan and her husband started going to dance parties and drinking alcohol in order to show they were not religious. Once, on their way home from a party, the police pulled them over and breathalysed them. They asked why Sholpan’s husband had not been drinking. He said he didn’t want to drink and drive. When the police found that Sholpan had been drinking, they let them go. “We had to perform the way they wanted us to perform,” said Sholpan. “If they said drink, we drank.”

Sholpan’s brother-in-law Nurlan Pioner was sentenced in July 2018, a year after his initial detention. She and Nurlan’s aunt went to the hearing. When they entered the building the authorities took away her iPhone. What she saw in the court shocked her. Nurlan, only 51, had aged dramatically. He was gaunt and could no longer walk. His trousers were stained with urine. He trembled, barely able to sit. When she shouted his name, she didn’t see any recognition on his face. The two women cried silently as the judge sentenced Nurlan to 17 years. When the proceedings were over, Sholpan whispered to Nurlan’s aunt: “it would be better if they just killed him.”

“When the police breathalysed Sholpan’s husband, they asked why he had not been drinking”

Many other Turkic Muslims I have interviewed over the past two years explained to me how the continual surveillance, whether it comes in the form of an all-seeing technological eye or an assigned Big Brother, combine to produce profound feelings of depression. They had to become proactive about posting social media content that reflected the talking points of the re-education campaign. Posts were in Chinese, rather than Kazakh and Uighur mother tongues. People pretended everything was OK. They made public displays of cultural loyalty.

Otarbai, a former detainee, told me that after he was released on probation he was effusive in greeting officials and passionate when singing patriotic Chinese songs. When government workers asked him to do something he would smile and say, “Good, good! Thank you.” Even in January, after he had arrived safely back in Kazakhstan, the shame still gnawed at him. “I will never be completely free of them,” he said. “I’ll always remember that I felt like I was a criminal. Like I was not a full person.” Mimicking the obsequious “re-educated” smile he put on in Xinjiang, he recalls how “I could only say ‘OK, OK! Good, good!” He burst into song, his rich baritone filling the room with the soundtrack of re-education: “Without the Communist Party, there is no New China.”

Today Xinjiang, tomorrow Hong Kong

At the opposite end of China, a fear of surveillance has been one of the inspirations of vast protests in Hong Kong. College campuses across the city have been plastered with images of Xinjiang re-education camps and checkpoints. The slogan is “Today Xinjiang, tomorrow Hong Kong.” In November 2019, a group of Hong Kong high school students organised a Xinjiang solidarity protest. Tens of thousands of people came waving light blue East Turkestan flags—the symbol of the 20th-century independent Turkic Muslim republic. Some Hong Kong residents spoke of the way face recognition equipment was being used to track their movements, and aired the fear that, just as the Uighurs’ past behaviour is being used against them, their current behaviour might be used as evidence against them. An activist I met in Hong Kong in January told me that many of the police posing as Hong Kong officers were in fact special forces from the mainland who had trained in Xinjiang.

People in Hong Kong have started to use the Dubai-based encrypted social media app Telegram to communicate, hoping that their messages won’t be intercepted. But what the example of Xinjiang shows is that simply installing a non-Chinese app can be reason enough to suspect you are conspiring to “separate” the country.

Unlike Muslims in Xinjiang, those in Hong Kong have not yet been forced to have their faces and irises scanned or their voice signatures recorded. And Hong Kong still looks like it should be a very different case—not only because it is much wealthier and connected to the world than Xinjiang, but also because the “one country, two systems” agreed with the UK in 1997 has not yet been entirely eroded (unlike the autonomy protections that were given to Turkic Muslims in 1949). Yet the new 2020 security law Beijing has foisted on the city brings a great deal of uncertainty.

The image of premier Xi Jinping looms over the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang. © Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images The image of premier Xi Jinping looms over the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang. © Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

The image of premier Xi Jinping looms over the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang © Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Who is next?

It is far from obvious what effective digital protection Hong Kongers really have—or indeed, what protections any population deemed suspect has, and not only in China. In 2019, reports began to emerge of surveillance systems that are similar to the Xinjiang system being used in spaces around the world, even in ostensibly democratic states. In the West Bank, a Microsoft-backed company called AnyVision developed a system for Israel that tracked the movement of Palestinians using their phones’ GPS units, their social media activity and facial recognition camera systems. This allows Israel to Google any Palestinian and find their location in real time.

A so-called preventative policing paradigm is developing all over the world. A central inspiration has been Britain’s own “Prevent” programme, which treats Islamic religiosity as an early indicator of the possibility of violent action. One of the key catalysts of this type of thinking in China was a book called Policing Terrorism by David Lowe, a former British police officer turned academic who is currently involved in Prevent. According to the publisher of the Chinese translation, the book provided an “empirical basis” from which to expand Chinese anti-terrorism techniques. Lowe stressed critical methods of gathering intelligence, including community informants and preventative policing infrastructure.

In China, such surveillance technologies warp daily behaviour: religious and cultural customs have to be “cleaned,” making way for scripted actions, like joyless and unwanted consumption of alcohol, and a pre-programmed “yes, yes” response to every demand.

Dismissing Xinjiang as “a far away land of which we know little” is dangerous. Around the world, private corporations are tracking anyone who uses a smartphone, and—as Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations laid bare—western governments are accessing data in audacious ways as well. For protected, middle-class citizens this may seem harmless: a trade-off worth making for convenience and security. But more vulnerable people are much more liable to be victimised.

As the journalist Megha Rajagopalan has noted, there are some aspects of the system in northwest China that will be difficult to replicate in other places, where there are more checks on political abuse. But dozens of other nations have also hired Chinese companies to build national-level surveillance systems, which if they are modelled on those built at home will, at the least, open up possibilities for abuse. In June it was reported that Donald Trump, who tried to institute his own “Muslim ban,” told President Xi that building the camps was “exactly the right thing to do.”

In Xinjiang surveillance technologies are inculcating fear and neuroses that could settle into lasting habits; they are separating families and fracturing communities. “There are so many times when I have to cry, so many,” Sholpan told me. “Our family has been through many, many things. So every night I think through many things. Every day I think about this when I can’t sleep.” She hopes that telling her story might mean that her suffering has not been in vain.