Uighurs, a Muslim minority ethnic group of around 12 million in northwest
China, are required by the police to carry their smartphones and IDs listing
pass through one of the thousands of newly built digital media and face
surveillance checkpoints located at jurisdictional boundaries, entrances to
religious spaces and transportation hubs, the image on their ID is matched to
If they try
to pass without these items, a digital device scanner alerts the police.
complying with the rules won’t necessarily keep them out of trouble. During
random spot-checks the police at times demand that an individual hands over
their unlocked phone which the police then examine manually or plug into a
ethnographic research with Han and Uighur migrants for more than 24 months
between 2011 and 2018 in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in northwest China.
During this period, I was affiliated with the Xinjiang Arts Institute. My
position allowed me to interview hundreds of Han and Uighur people. I read and
speak both Uighur and Chinese so I was able to communicate with people in their
first began my research in the region, smartphone use was not that tightly
controlled by the police. But by 2018 it had became common knowledge among my
Uighur interviewees that if they did not carry their phone with them or failed
to produce it they could be detained.
majority areas on the border of Central Asia only became a fully integrated
part of China in the 2000s. They were effectively colonized when millions of
non-Muslim Han settlers moved into their community in the 1990s and 2000s to
extract natural resources such as oil and natural gas.
they lived much more autonomously in desert oasis towns and villages much like
the Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, a group that shares a similar history and language as
the Chinese government built 3-G networks in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous
Region. Cheap smartphones soon became available in local markets of this region
and Uighurs began to use the new social media app WeChat.
which is owned by the Chinese company Tencent, was put into general use across
the whole country in 2012 after Facebook and Twitter were banned in 2009.
became a common feature of daily life for millions of Uighur villagers. At the
time, the way Uighurs used them was unique. In other parts of China, the
Chinese language was used in social media communication. Uighur uses Arabic
script – radically different from the character based Chinese – and acted as a
form of coded speech that state censors couldn’t understand.
began my research project, I was interested in the way online culture produced
forms of Islamic, Chinese and Western identity and the way it brought people of
different ethnicities together.
that Uighurs used smartphones differently than other internet users. On
traditional internet sites that required text-based communication, Uighur web
users faced tighter forms of censorship since state authorities viewed them as
potential terrorists. They were viewed this way since Uighurs had long
protested the way their briefly independent nation had been subsumed by China
and their religious practices were restricted, lashing out violently at times.
WeChat on smartphones gave Uighurs the ability to circulate short audio
messages, videos and images. Beginning in 2012 this allowed Uighurs to develop
semi-autonomous forums in Uighur spoken language.
Chinese state authorities did not have the technical capabilities to monitor
and control Uighur oral speech or Uighur text embedded in images as memes. They
could turn the Uighur internet on and off, but they could not fully regulate
what Uighurs said because they spoke in another language.
hundreds of interviews and my own observations Uighurs used these forums to
discuss cultural knowledge, political events and economic opportunities outside
their local communities.
course of only a few years, online Islamic teachers based in the region and
elsewhere in the Islamic world, in places like Turkey and Uzbekistan, became
influential throughout Uighur social media. Their messages focused primarily on
Islamic piety. They described what types of practices were halal, and how
people should dress and pray.
to scholars Rachel Harris and Aziz Isa the vast majority of those who began to
study Islam by Smartphone were simply interested in instruction on what it
might mean to be a contemporary Muslim, something they felt was lacking in
government-censored state-run mosques.
internet as a space of surveillance
state authorities interpreted it differently.
regarded the Islamic appearance and practice of Uighurs, such as young men
growing beards and praying five times per day, as signs of what state
authorities described as the “extremification” of the Uighur population.
to link violent incidents, such as a suicide attack in the city of Kunming in
Eastern China, to what government officials told me was the “Talibanisation” of
to this Chinese authorities declared what they called a “People’s War on
Terror.” They began to use techniques of counterinsurgency, a mode of military
engagement that stresses mass intelligence gathering, to assess the Uighur
As part of
this process, in 2016, they began to collect biometric data, such as DNA,
high-fidelity voice recordings and face scans, from the entire population of
the region in order to track the activities of people on WeChat and in their
daily lives using their voice signature and faceprint.
began a process of interviewing millions of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities
to determine who could be categorized as trustworthy or “normal” as stated on
official population assessment forms. In order to determine this, state
authorities mapped out the person’s social network and history of Islamic
practice, both in their local community and online.
total Muslim population of the region, including other Muslim groups such as
the Kazakhs, Hui, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and others, is around 15 million, these
assessments and activity checkpoints required the deployment of more than
90,000 police officers and more than 1.1 million civil servants.
majority of the security forces are of Han ethnicity. Han people are settlers
in the Uighur region. They are not Muslim, they do not speak Uighur, and many
of my Han interviewees described the Uighur culture as “backward,” “primitive,”
or even “dangerous.”
In order to
aid in this assessment process, state authorities also contracted with Chinese
private technology firms to develop software programs and hardware that could
comb through the images, videos and speech recordings in the WeChat histories
of a targeted person in a matter of seconds.
Uighur Internet as A Trap
this process around 1.5 million Uighurs and other Muslims were determined
“untrustworthy” and scheduled for detention and re-education in a massive
internment camp system.
procurement records show that the camp facilities have “no blank spots” outside
the vision of surveillance cameras and that the camp workers are often armed
with tasers and other weapons.
prison-like camps the detainees were held in crowded dormitory cells where they
studied Chinese, learned the political thought of Xi Jinping, the General
Secretary of China’s ruling political party and confessed their past crimes. In
many cases, these crimes were related to their internet use.
than 10% of the adult population has been removed to these camps, hundreds of
thousands of children have been separated from one or more of their parents.
Many children throughout the region are now held in boarding schools or
orphanages which are run by non-Muslim state workers.
Uighur internet has begun to merge with the Chinese internet. Uighurs are
discouraged from writing or speaking in Uighur or celebrating Uighur culture.
Uighurs often post statements written in Chinese attesting to their loyalty to
the Chinese state.
research shows, the Uighur internet has been transformed from a space that
fostered a cultural flourishing for Uighurs into a space that controls many
aspects of their lives.
In the past,
it was a place where Uighurs published short films, poetry, art and music. They
critiqued police brutality and defended the social mores of Uighur society
against conspicuous consumption and economic corruption.
last trip to the region in 2018, my Uighur interlocutors told me that the
Uighur internet had become a “trap,” or a “qapqan” that they cannot escape.
Headline: I researched Uighur society in China for 8 years and watched how
technology opened new opportunities – then became a trap
Source: The Conversation