The westernmost region of China, officially known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, has drawn international attention in recent years for the severity of ethnic and religious policies implemented there by the central government of the People’s Republic of China. In particular, the Uyghur ethnic group, Turkic-speaking Muslims who have been native to the land for centuries, face arbitrary detention in “re-education” camps. Estimates vary, but there may be anywhere between one and three million people interned in these education camps, and reports from Xinjiang indicate that these facilities are, in fact, detention and brain-washing centers.
Recently, the full extent of the growing police state has been revealed. On 1 May, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report titled “China’s Algorithms of Repression: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App.” HRW reverse engineered the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) app to uncover what kinds of information the government had been collecting on residents, and discovered that the authorities monitor users’ phone records, location, household energy usage, whether people use the front or back door of their property, and how often they attend mosques. The IJOP app instructs officers of the law to suspect people with foreign links or new phone numbers.
HRW observed in their report: “Many—perhaps all—of the mass surveillance practices described in this report appear to be contrary to Chinese law. They violate the internationally guaranteed rights to privacy, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and to freedom of association and movement. Their impact on other rights, such as freedom of expression and religion, is profound.”
The accusations of human rights abuses and unlawful surveillance have been dismissed by state-owned media. The Global Times justified the use of concentration camps and other practices as essential for “stabilization” in the region. They argued that the label of “concentration camps” is part of “Washington’s growing smear campaign on China’s Xinjiang affairs [which] is clearly part of a broader US policy of suppressing China.”
This is by no means the first time that illegal surveillance of the population of Xinjiang has come to light. Earlier this year, Dutch cybersecurity expert Victor Gevers discovered a huge, unprotected SenseNets Technology database, a facial-recognition technology company. On examining the database he found it had only one purpose: “It’s a ‘Muslim tracker’ funded by Chinese authorities in the province of Xinjiang to keep track of Uyghur Muslims.” The database, which was open and accessible to anyone, had huge amounts of data on residents of Xinjiang and where they had been, including tags such as “cafe” or “mosque.”
The situation in Xinjiang has worsened over recent years, and is now a burgeoning human rights issue. Many Uyghurs have sought refuge in Turkey, Europe, and the United States, and are unable to contact their family in Xinjiang, as doing so could result in their questioning, detention, or even torture. Such infringements on personal dignity and religious freedoms must be condemned by the international community, and the United Nations has a duty to investigate the situation on the ground. Currently, the Chinese position is to deny the nature and the extent of repression in Xinjiang, so the situation remains at the level of a propaganda war. It is imperative that international observers ascertain the facts on the ground so that the plight of the Uyghurs can be alleviated, rather than develop into an international war of narratives.
One complicating factor is that Beijing finds accusations from the West against its human rights record somewhat ironic, after centuries of imperial aggression in Asia by European nations – particularly the British Empire, France, and Germany – and the United States. Those nations that would hold the Chinese government to account for their actions would do well to take stock of their own.