Data-driven dystopia: How China harnesses advanced tech to monitor, detain and brainwash its Uighur population

Data-driven dystopia: How China harnesses advanced tech to monitor, detain and brainwash its Uighur population
Comment: The Chinese government is conducting mass surveillance, imprisonment and brainwashing of Uighurs under the guise of 'education and counter-terrorism', writes James Snell.
6 min read
28 Nov, 2019
Chinese military police attend an 'anti-terrorist oath-taking rally' in China's Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region [AFP]
Despite its vast power, Chinese communism apparently feels itself dogged by enemies, both internal and external.

Some of these are the states who do not conform to China's economic and geographic ambitions. Others are portions of China's population, notably the inhabitants of Hong Kong, who protest and, who this week voted for their right to remain uninfringed by Beijing. 

Others still, are less real than imagined. They include millions of people who the state perceives as enemies, simply by dint of who they are and what they believe. In Xinjiang province, where many Uighurs reside, enemy status is increasingly predicated on race and faith.

Despite the size of its territory and the internal diversity within its country, China's authorities have a narrow vision for what a citizen should be and how one should behave. Faith in anything other than the party and the state is an obstacle. Being of an ethnic group which has historic ties to Islam and to non-Chinese identities - that's another.

The scale of China's problem with ethnic and religious minorities is vast and serious.

But what separates Chinese persecution of Uighurs and those who profess Islam, from historic examples such as those described by Roland Elliott Brown in his newly published look at Soviet atheism 'Godless Utopia' - is the allying of the hyper-precision of technology with the ordinary tools and intents of autocracy.

An investigation conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in concert with dozens of global newspapers and media organisations, has put flesh on the bones of China's persecution, which have been long visible.

Many hundreds of thousands, likely millions, have been sent to camps which the Chinese state claims are 'reform schools' and 'centres for re-education'. That they are sent there as punishment, is clear. 

It's clear from the chain fences and guards which surround these institutions, and a series of legal documents collected by investigators.

China's authorities have a narrow vision for what a citizen should be and how one should behave

For crimes which include mildly proselytising his religious morality, one Muslim Uighur was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. The sentence was designed - so the judgement document implies - to improve the "low legal awareness" cited in his defence. This is accompanied by a restriction of his "political rights" for five years. 

China maintains that its mass incarceration is the only response to "political ignorance" from which it wants to rescue the local population, but also, and more pressingly, a just reply to "terrorism" present in Xinjiang and its surrounds.

a regional briefingthe authors call for the continued mass surveillance of Uighurs and the collection of lists of "unauthorised imams". It mentions the ongoing spectre of Islamic State (IS) and the Turkistan Islamic Party, members of which have fought in Syria.

 Increasingly strict curbs imposed on the mostly Muslim Uighur population have stifled
life in the tense Xinjiang region [AFP]

The documents suggest that a popular app - Zapya, known in Chinese as Kuai Ya (fast tooth) - whose creators encourage users to "download the Quran and share religious teachings with loved ones" - is routinely used by the Chinese state to collect data on its users, and to serve as a basis for state investigations into individuals' characters and activities.

Another note stresses mundane aspects of investigative work, and the importance of integrating the efforts of local and regional authorities. But hovering overhead is the mission - one of mass surveillance and ideological programming hidden under claims of a purely educative and counter-terrorist ambition.  

"If the target is a student, they [the authorities] should conduct criticism and education guidance", the document reads. "And if they have problems", it continues, "they must also be dealt with according to law."

Those either possessing or pursuing foreign nationality would find themselves under investigation, with euphemistic "education and training" an option available to officials. According to the document, any Uighur abroad who requested a replacement of legitimate documents from Chinese embassies or consulates would also experience extensive investigation.

They show the fruits of modernity which China autocratically employs to reach these ends

In the system China has constructed, inhabitants of Xinjiang are flagged for investigation and possible arrest on the basis of "seemingly innocuous criteria", including such banalities as "daily prayer, travel abroad, or frequently using the back door of their home". 

This highly integrated system includes the data gathered by extensive networks of cameras equipped with facial recognition, which feed dossiers that compile evidence of "poor" behaviour. 

Hence the need for proper organisation in police work, as other documents stress. The database must be carefully maintained. Profiles must be merged if they discuss the same person. Those denoting people who do not exist, or false names, or the names of the deceased, must be purged to aid the monitoring of the living.

The documents and the investigation show what China is doing, and the objectives it is trying to achieve in the process.

They show the fruits of modernity which China autocratically employs to reach these ends.

But the result of the investigation shows another side of China's high-tech autocracy: how it embraces the language of the moment to dispute the truthfulness, and the reality of the accusations levelled against the Chinese state.

Read more: Leaked documents reveal how China ensures 'no escape' for Uighur from Xinjiang camps

The Chinese government and its embassies, including the Chinese embassy in the United Kingdom, insist that the camps are not prison camps, but rather educational in nature; and ambassadors have called reporting on the subject "fake news" and the documents "fabrications".

Among China's Arab and Muslim allies, there is little debating all of this. Many have seemingly vouchsafed either that the camps are not real or are justified in dealing with the "terror threat" in Xinjiang.

In Pakistan, China has sought to 
spy on Uighurs. Pakistan has also pointedly refused to condemn China's policies in Xinjiang, so has Saudi Arabia. Despite pressure from Uighur activists and domestic opposition politicians, Malaysia and Indonesia mull their options, having not yet decided whether to condemn or to condone.

And as ever, on western social media, a diverse crew seeks newer and more inventive ways to defend the actions of the Chinese state. 

Even with all the evidence these leaks have brought forward, straightforward condemnation, or even a rest from disputing the realities of what so many see before their eyes, seem very far from possible. 

And all the while, China's algorithmic autocracy trundles on.

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The TelegraphProspectNational ReviewNOW NewsMiddle East Eye and History Today.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.