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China: Sophisticated Surveillance Decides Who Gets Sent to Uyghur Camps

The leak of documents from police in Karakax County in Xinjiang reveal the details of everyday life that can send a Uyghur to the camps

New documents known as the Karakax List, leaked by Uyghur journalists, reveal how the government of China determines who will be sent to one of the country’s detention camps in the Xinjiang province (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). For example,

Rozinsa Mamattohti couldn’t sleep or eat for days after she read the detailed records the Chinese government had been keeping on her entire family.

She and her relatives, most of whom live in China’s western Xinjiang region, aren’t dissidents or extremists or well-known. But in a spreadsheet kept by local officials, her entire family’s lives are recorded at length along with their jobs, their religious activity, their trustworthiness and their level of cooperation with the authorities. And this spreadsheet could determine if Mamattohti’s sister remains behind razor wire in a government detention center.

Isaac Watson and Ben Westcott, “Watched, Judged, Detained” at CNN

Reasons a Uyghur might join the estimated two million who have been incarcerated in the “vocational training schools,” as they are called, include having too many children, wearing a veil, “having strong religious traditions in their family (i.e., praying regularly), having a passport (with or without travel abroad), owning “illegal books,” or having a relative in jail.

Last November the New York Times published documents outlining the Chinese Communist Party’s systematic plan to stamp out Uyghur culture, ostensibly in order to provide job training and “de-radicalize” Muslim extremists (“Absolutely no mercy”). Detainees are reportedly beaten and tortured. Reports also indicate that most detainees remain there for months or years with little or no contact with family. They must learn Mandarin and Communist Party doctrine before they can be released. There is also evidence that detainees are subjected to forced labor.

The Karakax List, released on WeChat by exiled Uyghur activists, sheds light on China’s intensive electronic tracking system in Karakax County, which likely reflects the tracking system throughout Xinjiang. It includes tables of information, apparently generated in Excel or Word, on people who have engaged in questionable or risky activities, linking them to their national identification numbers. The tables offer extensive personal details about the subjects’ religious practices (including practices within homes) as well as other private details. The documents include bios of about 311 people but mention at least 2,800 who are part of those subjects’ social, family, and religious networks.

The dossier includes an assessment of whether a person should be detained or released from detention. Examples cited in the CNN report include: “The transformation of his thought was not ideal. It is recommended to continue his training.” and “The detainee’s stay has been less than one year and it is recommended she continue her training to improve her Mandarin.”

Rozinsa Mamattohi, who lives in Turkey, told media that she had not seen or heard from her sister in Xinjiang since 2016. When Rozinsa tried to call family members there, the call would drop and phone numbers were disconnected. Her sister was on the Karakax List. The information it contained was the first Rozinsa had heard of her sister’s whereabouts in over two years. According to the documents, her sister was detained for violating the “family planning policy.” She has more than three children.

Based on previous reports, we can assume that this kind of profiling and surveillance is not happening only in Karakax: “… the leaked document shows that the Chinese government knows in detail what its Xinjiang residents are doing, house by house, street by street. If the 11 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang should fall foul of Beijing again, the Chinese government knows where to find them.” (CNN)

In the Global Times, a state-controlled newspaper, the government dismisses these documents, charging that they are “over-hyped” by an “anti-China scholar,” referring to Adrian Zenz, an anthropologist who studies Xinjiang. The government maintains that the re-education camps are part of a strategy for combating terrorism and extremism and that all anti-terrorism efforts are conducted according to the law. Most China watchers don’t find these claims reassuring.

Tracking by Apps and Punishment by Algorithm

Extensive electronic surveillance is critical to the success of China’s assimilation program for the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Human Rights Watch reported in May 2019 on the tracking app used by police in Xinjiang to collect extensive and detailed amounts of data, from which the charts in the Karakax List likely derive.

The app communicates with the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, a system that aggregates all of the data of people living in Xinjiang. Based on the parameters, or “micro-clues” that police put in the app, an algorithm determines whether a given person could pose a threat. The algorithm then prompts the user to collect additional details or it determines whether that person should be detained.

Apart from the ethical issues that this “predictive policing” raises, the Karakax List provides evidence that detainees need not have violated written laws:

Our analysis also shows that Xinjiang authorities consider many forms of lawful, everyday, non-violent behavior—such as ‘not socializing with neighbors, often avoiding using the front door’—as suspicious. The app also labels the use of 51 network tools as suspicious, including many Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and encrypted communication tools, such as WhatsApp and Viber.

China’s Algorithms of Repression: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App” at Human Rights Watch

Aside from that, the app offers biometric details and location data using the GPS tracking on cell phones. The app will also alert authorities if a resident uses more electricity than usual or travels somewhere out of the ordinary. The Karakax List also shows how the app tracks a Xinjiang resident’s social network:

Another key element of IJOP system is the monitoring of personal relationships. Authorities seem to consider some of these relationships inherently suspicious. For example, the IJOP app instructs officers to investigate people who are related to people who have obtained a new phone number or who have foreign links.

China’s Algorithms of Repression: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App” at Human Rights Watch

Intensification of Digital Surveillance

We can identify three points in the escalation of the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of the Uyghurs:

In 2009 several riots occurred in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. These riots were motivated by racial discrimination and hostilities between the Uyghurs and the Han, China’s largest ethnic group. After the 2009 riots, the province was put under an internet blackout (Wired). Commentators generally consider this episode to be the beginning of the construction of the Xinjiang digital surveillance state.

Then in 2014, after three Uyghur men killed thirty-three people at a train station an injured many more, the Chinese government launched its “Strike Hard against Extremism” campaign Thus began the construction of detention centers and the destruction of mosques and graveyards in the Xinjiang region. Uyghurs, Hui, Kazakhs, and other minorities living in Xinjiang were targets of surveillance, biometric data collection, and internment. The November 2019 leak of documents by the New York Times included transcripts of a speech by President Xi in 2014 calling for an all-out “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism” using the “organs of dictatorship,” and showing “absolutely no mercy,” which made clear that the policy came right from the top.

Then in December 2016, several Uyghur men allegedly attacked the Karakax Communist Party offices. In August 2016 Chen Quango, formerly the Communist Party Secretary for Tibet and known there for extreme measures, was appointed Secretary for Xinjiang. After he took office, construction of detention centers increased and the police force was greatly expanded.

Which brings us back to the Karakax List. The earliest time period mentioned in the papers is January 2017, a month after the December attack. In the extreme surveillance measures, we see both old and new playing out. Tensions in China’s western region date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). But detailed, systematic surveillance of the minutiae of daily life to detect possible disloyalty has only been possible in the last ten years. It will prove a significant test of the extent to which surveillance technology can in fact cement totalitarian government.


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In China, high-tech racial profiling is social policy. For an ethnic minority, a physical checkup includes blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recordings. The Chinese government seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law.

and

The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself. China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uyghurs, a strategically critical minority.


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.

China: Sophisticated Surveillance Decides Who Gets Sent to Uyghur Camps