An investigation carried out by The Guardian, New York Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, and Motherboard (VICE News) has revealed the extreme measures Chinese border officials are taking in the western region of Xinjiang. Tourists must hand over their unlocked phones to officials who then install an app called Fengcai on Android phones, and plug iPhones into a device whose function is not yet known. According to the app’s code it looks for content related to Daesh in a bid to prevent terrorist attacks. However the code revealed that the app also looks for material that has no relation to the terrorist group, such as verses from the Quran, an Arabic dictionary, photos of the Dalai Lama and music by Japanese metal band Unholy Grave.
Unsurprisingly, rights groups have been quick to denounce and condemn the intrusive measures. Edin Omanovic, from Privacy International, described the investigation’s findings as “highly alarming in a country where downloading the wrong app or news article could land you in a detention camp.” China Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch Maya Wang told The Guardian that the app is an indication that the “round-the-clock and multidimensional surveillance” that Xinjiang’s residents experience is being extended to foreigners.
The Chinese government has not commented on the findings but its defence of the region’s ‘re-education camps’ would suggest that it sees the app as a necessary in preventing terrorist attacks. After filming a documentary on the camps, VICE News Correspondent Isobel Yeung described Xinjiang as “the strictest surveillance state in the world right now” but according to the Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, the camps’ “vocational education ensures there are no terrorist attacks.”
The methods that the Chinese government are deploying in the name of security are extreme and manage to be both highly discriminatory and indiscriminate. The amount of content related to Islam in the app’s code indicates the Chinese government’s hostility towards Islam and how it is unable to distinguish between religious practice and religious extremism. Extending the repressive security measures to foreign visitors would suggest that Beijing wants to carefully manage the relationship between Xinjiang and the outside world, and monitor what goes on in the remote region.
Over the past few years, Uighur Muslims have been interned in Xinjiang’s re-education camps in an attempt to combat separatism. A number of separatist acts have taken place in the past few decades, particularly in the capital Ürümqi. These include the 1997 bus bombings and 2009 violent riots in which almost 200 people were killed and 1,700 were injured according to officials. This is what the camps aim to combat and prevent by ‘re-educating’ prisoners through repressive means, including torture, sexual abuse and the forced consumption of pork and alcohol according to a 2018 U.S. State Department Human Rights report. The UN currently estimates that over a million people are detained in the camps but some estimates are far higher. Outside the camps, cameras equipped with facial recognition software have been installed on streets and outside mosques.
These severely repressive measures will not eradicate separatist sentiment entirely. In fact, it is more likely that Beijing’s policies will cause resentment and force the movement underground, therefore storing up problems for another time. If the Chinese government is really interested in integrating Xinjiang into the rest of China, it should consider a more conciliatory approach to its own people. However, the extension of restrictions to foreigners suggests that Beijing is tightening its grip on Xinjiang.