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Young man (backpacker, hitchhiker) on the high-speed highway not far from Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in China’s far west
Featured Image: High Speed Road in Xinjiang Iryna Adobe Stock

The Internet Doesn’t Free Anyone by Itself

China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uighurs, a strategically critical minority

The Uyghur people in Xinjiang province in northwest China spend their lives in a digital panopticon. Over 2.5 million Muslims are tracked via facial recognition software and cameras, and their cell phone monitored for any language that could be construed as religious. Over a million have been placed in so-called “vocational training centers” that are widely described as detention camps.

Even when not detained, they live like prisoners:

For Uyghurs in Xinjiang, any kind of contact from a non-Chinese phone number, though not officially illegal, can result in instant arrest. Most Uyghurs in Turkey have been deleted by their families on social media. And many wouldn’t dare try to make contact, for fear Chinese authorities would punish their relatives.

Isobel Cockerell, “Inside China’s massive surveillance operation” at Wired

Xinjiang is considered “one of the most tightly controlled surveillance states in the world” (Wired). Everyone living in the province is under high-tech surveillance, which includes one hundred percent camera coverage of the capital, Urumqi.

Under current Chinese president Xi Jinping, the government’s main target is the Uyghur people although other religious minorities, as well as Han Chinese, live in the region. The Uyghur are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority that makes up about half of the population. Since the Chinese Communist party’s takeover of the region in 1949, the Uyghur have had a tumultuous relationship with the police and with the Han Chinese. The government began to use high-tech to control them in response to riots triggered by news of an attack in the Guangdong province online:

In 2009, bloody ethnic riots broke out between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital. Police put the city on lockdown, enforcing an internet blackout and cutting cell phone service. It was the beginning of a new policy to control the Uyghur population—digitally.

Isobel Cockerell, “Inside China’s massive surveillance operation” at Wired
Uyghurs in Hotan XinJiang Colegota (CC-BY-SA-2.5 es)

Tensions had been mounting for some time between the Uyghur and the Han when in 2009, an ethnically motivated fight broke out between Uyghur and Han workers at a factory in Guangdong in southern China, resulting in the deaths of two Uyghur people.

As word of the incident spread on the internet, about 1,000 Uyghurs protested in Urumqi. The protests turned violent, resulting in almost two hundred deaths and over fifteen hundred injuries. During the riots, cell phone and internet access was cut off and was not fully restored until a year later. Control of the internet was soon to become a key weapon of the state.

By 2013, about a million Uyghurs were on WeChat, the Chinese all-in-one social media app but few of them were aware at the time that their conversations were being monitored. In May 2014, WeChat and rival apps were required to let the government monitor users, to stamp out “rumors and information leading to violence, terrorism, and pornography” (Wired)

One key to government control is advanced facial recognition, used by Chinese companies SenseTime and Megvii across the country for widespread surveillance:

For China’s government, that means not only being able to identify any of its 1.4 billion citizens within a matter of seconds but also having the ability to record an individual’s behavior to predict who might become a threat—a real-world version of the “precrime” in Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report.

Eamon Barrett, “In China, Facial Recognition Tech Is Watching You” at Fortune

The Chinese government initially denied tracking and detaining the Uyghurs; then, in the face of evidence, it admitted using high-tech surveillance to monitor them and send people they believed to be radicals to “vocational training centers.” where an estimated one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are being held.

As one writer described it:

It’s cameras on every street corner, which are equipped with facial recognition software that allows machines to process the images, rather than having people watch them. It’s checkpoints every time you cross a jurisdictional line, where Uighurs have to show their IDs and get their faces scanned. It’s GPS units on cars, required spyware apps on your phones. You cannot move without the authorities knowing where you are and what you’re doing.

Chris Hayes and Rian Thum, “ Why Is This Happening? Uncovering China’s secret internment camps with Rian Thum” at NBC News

The government’s war on the Muslim faith is explicit:

A report from Amnesty International in 2018 claimed that public expressions of faith in Xinjiang were now deemed “extremist” by authorities, including growing a beard, praying or fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“We have seen many ways in which Uyghur identity has been suppressed in recent years,” Ms Pearson said, noting that China has also banned names deemed too Islamic.

Max Walden, “Xinjiang’s Uyghurs were enslaved and forced to convert to Islam, Chinese white paper claims” at ABC News

China’s response is to claim that “‘Conversion to Islam was not a voluntary choice made by the common people, but a result of religious wars and imposition by the ruling class,’ it said, declaring that the Government nevertheless respects “the Muslims’ right to their beliefs.”’” (ABC News)

Is it really about security?

The Chinese government justifies its surveillance and human rights violations as a necessary measure to prevent another violent attack by religious extremists. But a closer look at the circumstances surrounding the Uyghur, particularly the internment and oppression of those who have not shown religious extremism or violence and the separation of children from their parents suggests other motives as well.

For one, Xinjiang province may serve as a testing ground for China’s 2020 goal of having 100% video coverage of “key public areas” in the country. Furthermore, the government seems more concerned about separatists than terrorists.

The stepped-up Sinification (forced adoption or aggressive promotion of Chinese culture) in Xinjiang, which is officially an “autonomous” region, and other far western lands is designed to prevent any separatist movement from gaining traction. The success of any independence movement would encourage Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and possibly other areas to agitate for further autonomy.

The government also has a vested interest in maintaining control over the Xinjiang region for its natural resources and because its strategic location connects eastern Asia and Europe:

Moreover, control of China’s Muslim population is also seen as important to the success of the One Belt One Road policy, which passes through Islamic lands on its way to western Europe. Any effective resistance to Beijing’s increased presence as it strives to build infrastructure links throughout Eurasia could call into question the viability of the larger project.

Michael Auslin, “China’s war on Islam” at The Spectator

The Belt and Road Initiative is a modern-day Silk Road connecting key technological and economic hubs in Europe and Asia through billion-dollar infrastructure investments and high-speed railways. An important component of the BRI is the connection through the border of Xinjiang as part of the New Eurasian Land Bridge.

While China certainly persecutes religious minorities, the attempt to stamp out Islam in Xinjiang by total high-tech surveillance and detention is aimed at reducing resistance to Belt and Road. But the government is in the process of expanding the technique. In another article, we’ll look at how the surveillance state is moving beyond the country’s borders.

Further reading:

A chilling snippet from mass surveillance in China China is helping other countries restrict their citizens’ internet, while shunning the U.S.

Senior Google scientist quits over Google’s censorship in China. He believes it “contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights”


Chinese Technocracy Surges Ahead with AI Surveillance. So what do the reservations expressed, about “the soul” and “love,” really mean?

Featured image: High Speed Road in Xinjiang/Iryna, Adobe Stock

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

The Internet Doesn’t Free Anyone by Itself