China’s Uyghurs face an Orwellian future
18 Jul 2018|

China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang autonomous region has garnered increased attention in recent months, due to Beijing’s policy of mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in ‘political re-education centres’. In April, the chairs of the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China called the detention program the ‘largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today’, and raised the prospect of sanctions against those responsible for the policies.

The Chinese government has long had a fractious relationship with its Uyghur minority, elements of which have demonstrated separatist tendencies and agitation in the face of pervasive religious and cultural discrimination and repression by Han Chinese in the Uyghurs’ historical homeland of Xinjiang. Since 11 September 2001, when China recast its ongoing campaign against separatism in Xinjiang as part of the global ‘war on terror’, the Chinese security apparatus has proven remarkably effective in suppressing Uyghur militants. That’s partly because Uyghur violence in China is generally low-tech, using knives and basic homemade explosives.

Over the past two years, China has dramatically intensified its targeting of Uyghurs and other Muslim Turkic groups in an apparent strategy of using terrorist threats as a pretext to culturally cleanse its western provinces. The campaign has been driven by Chen Quanguo, who was appointed Xinjiang party secretary in August 2016 after ‘pacifying’ Tibet through a combination of intense securitisation and penetrating social control mechanisms. Under Chen’s stewardship, security spending in Xinjiang rose 50% between 2016 and 2017 to US$6.8 billion, with nearly 100,000 new security positions advertised in the 12 months to September 2017.

Beijing’s policy towards it Muslim Turkic minority populations has two distinct elements: the implementation of oppressive and pervasive surveillance infrastructure, and the institutionalisation of a comprehensive social re-engineering and indoctrination program.

China’s rollout of biometrically enabled mass surveillance infrastructure, coupled with artificial intelligence designed to predict behaviour, has attracted significant attention from Western media in recent months. What is being implemented in Xinjiang, however, is even more invasive and comprehensive than in other parts of China. The ‘integrated joint operations platform’ collates data from biometrically enabled CCTV camera networks, WiFi sniffers targeting networked devices, security checkpoints collecting citizen ID card numbers, and biometric visitor management systems in access-controlled communities.

Xinjiang residents are required to install government spyware on their mobile phones, enforced by police spot checks that can result in up to 10 days in detention for those who haven’t complied. Residents are also required to fit their vehicles with a satellite navigation system that allows government tracking.

China’s electronic surveillance is complemented by a program called fanghuiju (‘Visit the People, Benefit the People and Get together the Hearts of the People’) in which officials visit homes in Uyghur communities to collect data on family composition and ideology that is then used to inform assessments on trustworthiness.

Regional authorities have also initiated a program to collect DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans and blood types from all Xinjiang residents between the ages of 12 and 65. The data is stored centrally and linked to an individual’s national identification number.

The second element of Beijing’s policy involves the internment of ethnic Muslim minorities—including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz—in re-education camps. Internees can be held indefinitely and without recourse to a court. Local authorities maintain that the camps are schools for eradicating extremism within the Muslim population. Residents are assigned a label of either ‘safe’, ‘normal’ or ‘unsafe’, which is based on metrics such as age, faith, religious practices, foreign contacts, experiences abroad and behavioural insights gleaned from data collected through physical and electronic surveillance.

Citizens identified as ‘unsafe’ and requiring re-education are then assigned an additional designation that determines the program to which they are subjected. Those assessed as the most recalcitrant are assigned to the most severe category of ‘strike hard detainees’. The two categories below that are ‘stubborn of thinking’ and ‘unstable thinking’. Re-education programs typically involve intensive study of communist ideology and propaganda and of the dangers of illegal religious practices and separatism.

A document reportedly leaked from the region’s public security agencies outlined figures for the number of detainees in ‘re-education’ centres in 69 of Xinjiang’s counties, which placed the number at 892,000. Extrapolated for all of Xinjiang, that number suggests that around 11% of the entire Uyghur and Kazakh population of Xinjiang is, or has been, interned in re-education centres. Anecdotal accounts from ex-detainees paint a picture of a brutal life in the centres. Detainees are subjected to extended interrogation, torture and political indoctrination, and some serve sentences of up to seven years.

Reporting on the extent of the Xinjiang crackdown, which has been largely anecdotal, is now being confirmed by leaked reports from regional administrations and analysis of publicly available information on procurements and government recruitment. There is now no doubt about the scale and ambition of what Beijing is pursuing in Xinjiang, which is possibly the most intensive campaign of coercive social re-engineering since the end of the Cultural Revolution.

China is pursuing a national program of mass surveillance of its citizens, and Uyghurs are facing a more extreme version than that endured by most Chinese. In Xinjiang, the government’s program of mass surveillance is also linked to a system of coercive indoctrination centres that are structured to deprive Uyghurs of their liberty and cultural, linguistic and religious identity, and aimed at making the Orwellian concept of Groupthink a reality.