Since April 2017, up to two million Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained in re-education camps in Xinjiang, where they are reportedly forced to memorise Communist Party propaganda and renounce their religion.

Yet, even after rejoining society as “reformed citizens”, Uighurs are still closely surveilled and controlled by the Chinese state.

The Uighurs in China

The world’s largest population of Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group, live in Xinjiang. They see themselves as culturally and ethnically closer to the people who live in Central Asia, rather than the Han Chinese who are China’s ethnic majority.

In 1933, the Uighur leaders declared an independent Republic of East Turkestan, but it was reabsorbed into Communist China in 1949. The region then saw a mass migration of Han Chinese, which led to a build-up of anti-Han and separatist sentiment.

In 2009, a violent dispute between migrant Uighurs and Han Chinese workers in Guangdong, triggered by an accusation of sexual assault, left at least two Uighurs dead. It subsequently incited a series of anti-Chinese rioting in Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital. The riot killed around 200 people, believed to be mostly Han Chinese.

This incident marked a turning point in Beijing’s attitude towards Uighurs. Since then, thousands of security personnel have been recruited to routinely stop and search Uighurs at checkpoints, and artificial intelligence (AI) has been employed to shore up China’s burgeoning surveillance apparatus.

China’s algorithms of repression

Oppressive surveillance technology systems collect data and send them to a centralised database, the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). The authorities can then use this data to profile and control the Uighurs more insidiously.

Explore China's surveillance systems

"Physicals for All" Biometric Collection Programme

In 2016, Chinese authorities introduced a mandatory Xinjiang-wide public health programme called “Physicals for All” for residents between 12 and 65. Their biometric information is collected and stored in the IJOP.

Face signatures are created by scanning individuals from a variety of angles as they make a range of facial expressions.

Status: Registered

The data obtained allows authorities to classify “suspicious” individuals by matching faces on surveillance footage to a police watchlist.

Sources: The Guardian, Human Rights Watch, The Intercept

"Biometrics 3.0" Surveillance Cameras

China uses surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology to identify Uighurs based on their facial features. The system can also recognise emotions and flag “suspicious” behaviour, such as religious enthusiasm or resentment against Chinese patriotic activities.

These cameras are installed in streets, doorways, shops, and mosques.

SUSPICIOUS

95% similarity: Uighur Muslim

The Chinese tech giant Huawei has tested an AI camera system that could identify Uighur minorities and trigger a “Uighur alarm” to alert police.

Sources: The Guardian (1, 2), The Intercept, The New York Times, Reuters, Time, The Washington Post

"Anti-terrorism Sword" Phone Inspection Tools

In 2017, police in Xinjiang started using a handheld phone inspection device named the “anti-terrorism sword” tool. It plugs into people’s phones and downloads their data into the IJOP. “Suspicious” content is flagged and its owner subjected to questioning and detention.

Checks are also carried 
out to ensure Uighurs 
have installed the compulsory spyware app Jingwang Weishi on their phones. It gives the authorities access to a phone’s content.

Contains suspicious content!

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

Whatsapp

Religious content

Delete All

When “dangerous” content is identified, the app notifies the owner of the phone to delete them.

Sources: Buzzfeed News (1, 2), The Intercept, Noema Magazine, RFA (1, 2)

"Physicals for All" Biometric Collection Programme

In 2016, Chinese authorities introduced a mandatory Xinjiang-wide public health programme called “Physicals for All” for residents between 12 and 65. Their biometric information is collected and stored in the IJOP.

Face signatures are created by scanning individuals from a variety of angles as they make a range of facial expressions.

The data obtained allows authorities to classify “suspicious” individuals by matching faces on surveillance footage to a police watchlist.

Status: Registered

Sources: The Guardian, Human Rights Watch, The Intercept

"Biometrics 3.0" Surveillance Cameras

China uses surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology to identify Uighurs based on their facial features. The system can also recognise emotions and flag “suspicious” behaviour, such as religious enthusiasm or resentment against Chinese patriotic activities.

SUSPICIOUS

The Chinese tech giant Huawei has tested an AI camera system that could identify Uighur minorities and trigger a “Uighur alarm” to alert police.

These cameras are installed in streets, doorways, shops, and mosques.

95% similarity: Uighur Muslim

Sources: The Guardian (1, 2), The Intercept, The New York Times, Reuters, Time, The Washington Post

"Anti-terrorism Sword" Phone Inspection Tools

In 2017, police in Xinjiang started using a handheld phone inspection device named the “anti-terrorism sword” tool. It plugs into people’s phones and downloads their data into the IJOP. “Suspicious” content is flagged and its owner subjected to questioning and detention.

Checks are also carried 
out to ensure Uighurs 
have installed the compulsory spyware app Jingwang Weishi on their phones. It gives the authorities access to a phone’s content.

When “dangerous” content is identified, the app notifies the owner of the phone to delete them.

Contains suspicious content!

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

Whatsapp

Religious content

Delete All

Sources: Buzzfeed News (1, 2), The Intercept, Noema Magazine, RFA (1, 2)

Sources: Buzzfeed News (1, 2), The Guardian (1, 2), Human Rights Watch, The Intercept, The New York Times, Noema Magazine, Reuters, RFA (1, 2), Time, The Washington Post

Using tech to fight back

However, while technology has been used by China as a tool of oppression, it can potentially be used to agitate for liberation and express dissent at China’s policies.

In 2019, videos of Uighurs started making their rounds on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. In these videos, Uighurs pose or cry in front of pictures of detained relatives while the mournful song “Donmek” — meaning “return” in Turkish — played. This was seen as a silent protest against China’s detention of Uighurs and a way for these Muslim minorities to connect with the outside world.

Later that year, American teenager Feroza Aziz raised awareness of the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang through her viral TikTok “makeup tutorial”, which has since racked up 5.1 million views. To gain the attention of trend-obsessed users and to evade censorship by Chinese-owned TikTok, Aziz cleverly bookended her comments on Uighurs with tips on how to make eyelashes look longer.

Such instances of activism seem to be paying off, as seen from the increasingly unified pressure by the international community. Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States have all imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for the rights abuses in Xinjiang. Earlier this year, a coalition of more than 180 human rights organisations called for a boycott of Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics.

Returning the gaze of Big Brother

China’s deployment of surveillance in Xinjiang has shown that technology’s impact on our lives depends on the intentions of its users.

In the hands of an authoritarian police state, high-tech surveillance systems have enabled the repression of millions of people in Xinjiang. But in the hands of freedom fighters, social media has empowered them to reach multitudes outside the region, who are defiantly returning China’s steely gaze.

Sources: Associated Press, Bloomberg, Brookings, CBC, Council on Foreign Relations, The Diplomat, The Guardian (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), The New York Times, Reuters, Time (1, 2), Wired