How China uses technology to repress Uyghurs

Uyghurs at a mosque in Kashgar Xinjiang China Sept 2010 Credit Preston Rhea via Flickr CC BY SA 20 CNA Uyghurs at a mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, September 2010. | Preston Rhea via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Government-run social media and facial recognition technology are being used to help monitor and detain Muslims in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

This technology has been around China since 2016, but it has been a growing concern in regards to violations of religious freedom and human rights.

Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority that mainly inhabit Xinjiang The advocacy group Uyghur Human Rights Project estimates that approximately ten percent of the Uyghur population, or some 1 million individuals, are being extrajudicially detained in a system of internment camps.

According to Darren Byler writing in Logic magazine, Chinese authorities monitor people through government-run social media platforms, which take the place of blocked websites like Twitter and Facebook. If flagged, the individual will then be a target for artificial intelligence recognition software and possible detainment.

A target's actions online, or even lack of presence on the web, are monitored. Members of religious minorities could be registered as dangerous for posting ideologies contrary to that of the communist state, as when Muslims who share Islamic teachings or religious pictures.

Meanwhile, a facial recognition program will run through high-resolution video cameras capable of working in low-lighting and with a variety of different angles and facial expressions. The AI system, known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, collects data from a variety of sources.

After an individual has been flagged, officials will be notified through IJOP if that person crosses one of the many checkpoints placed in ocations throughout Xinjiang's cities, or enter public buildings like banks or hospitals.

Uyghur Muslims could be arrested and detained under vague anti-terrorism laws. Hundreds of thousands of these people have been brought to detention centers. These centers have included torture, isolation, interrogation, and reeducation.

The Logic reported on a Muslim man from Xinjiang, known by the pseudonym Alim, who was arrested in 2017 after returning from studying abroad. When he re-entered China, he had been blacklisted and marked as a potential terrorist threat every time he passed a check point, which put him at the risk of detainment.

In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the "People's War on Terror" – a campaign to restrict and monitor protests in Xinjiang. The government has claimed that the crackdown is based on violent terrorism and not religious grounds.  

The United Nation issued a detailed report last August stating that minority groups in Xinjiang were "being treated as enemies of the State based on nothing more than their ethno-religious identity."

"In the name of combating 'religious extremism' and maintaining 'social stability'...China had turned the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region into something that resembled a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy, a 'no rights zone'," the report states.

The technology is supposedly used to curb religious extremism and terrorism, but fears have been expressed that the technology would also extend to other religious minorities in China. At a March 2018 panel on PEN America's report on social media censorship, experts decried China's use of social media platforms.  

"All of the trends are pointing in a negative direction. …We know enough now about both the censorship machine as well as Xi Jinping's intentions – I think that's been made quite clear," said Shanthi Kalathil, the director of the International Forum for Democracy Studies.

In China, people talk about how "it used to be that we afraid that our account would be closed or our posts would be deleted. Now we are afraid that we are just going to be taken away. Some are sentenced to administration detention for a few days, but there are a good number of people who have been sentenced to very long prison terms," said Freedom House's Senior Research Analyst for East Asia, Sarah Cook.

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