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Last Sunday, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained and released a collection of documents divulging the operations manual and surveillance plans for China’s Xinjiang mass detainment camps that now hold hundreds of thousands of detained Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. For the first time, the Communist Party of China’s operational plans for the largest civilian mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since World War II is pushed into the public limelight, earning widespread repudiation from the international community.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahiman, lead reporter for ICIJ’s China Cables investigation, reveals that the leak includes intelligence in the Chinese government’s own words. They disclose China’s “predictive policy” and mass surveillance program, which aggregates individuals’ data, and then allows authorities to flag and detain whoever it deems “suspicious” or potentially-threatening. According to Human Rights Watch, this information is raked from a range of sources, including WiFi sniffers, national identification documents, checkpoints in Xinjiang, and closed-circuit cameras with facial recognition, among many.
One by one, Chinese authorities target Uyghurs through Zapya, a mobile file-sharing app in which users can download the Qur’an and share the content with loved ones. By closely monitoring the app on some phones, Chinese authorities can flag users for further investigation. According to some Uyghur refugees, police often seized their phones to inspect whether Zepya was installed. “If anyone had downloaded some kind of religious content from the Qur’an or any word like ‘Allah’, they would be detained,” Zumrat Dawut, a Uyghur woman who was detained for three months, shares with ICIJ.
However, foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang vehemently denied this information during a 26 November press briefing as nothing more than “fake news.” He insists that the Chinese government protects the freedom of religious beliefs of all Chinese nationals, and emphasized that “Xinjiang affairs are China’s internal affairs that allow no foreign interference under the pretext of Xinjiang or other related issues.” Despite widespread international pressure, China will “continue to implement the Xinjiang policy and ensure the region’s sound development.”
On 25 November, the U.K.’s Foreign Office expressed serious concerns over the escalating crackdown, calling for United Nations observers to be granted unfettered and immediate access to the detention camps. Germany, Ireland, Japan, and the European Commission mirrored these responses. A European Commission spokeswoman restated the European Union’s expectation of China “to uphold its international obligations and to respect humans rights, including when it comes to the rights of persons belonging to minorities especially in Xinjiang, but also in Tibet” – and that it will continue to affirm these positions.
Ferkat Jawdat, Uyghur refugee and software engineer living in the U.S., shared with ICIJ that Uyghurs abroad have cut communication with their loved ones back home, out of fear that authorities could use their own conversations against them. Building mistrust and fear among the Uyghur community, the surveillance has rendered what was before a safe space for religious expression, to evidence for “religious extremism.” Where these apps are supposed to be a liberating environment, they have become nothing more than an imperiling flag of cultural separatism branding its users.
International pressure and deeper scrutiny must escalate even as the human rights violations in Xinjiang are already condemned. Beijing’s constantly-shifting narrative on these camps prove Chinese leaders’ sensitivity to criticism – a loophole for positive influence. Notably-silent Muslim nations who have ignored the human rights abuses in favour of their continued strategic and economic relationship in China must reconsider their stance. As Human Rights Watch has suggested previously, other countries must increase pressure on President Xi, deny exports of technologies from Xinjiang that facilitate abuse, and urge China against targeting Uyghurs. If possible, Uyghurs fleeing Xinjiang must be granted asylum. State-sanctioned violence, western economic involvement, and oppression of minorities must be addressed to truly combat these violations.