By Peter Apps
May 16th, 2018
In China’s northwest Xinjiang province, the
predominantly Muslim Uighur minority have nowhere to hide.
Facial recognition software reportedly
alerts authorities if targeted individuals stray more than 1,000 feet from
their homes and workplaces. Residents face arrest if they fail to download
Smartphone software that allows them to be tracked, according to social media
Simply wishing to travel outside China can
be cause for arrest, with Beijing detaining family members and using its
political clout to force extradition of those abroad.
At least 120,000 Uighurs have been
imprisoned in so-called “re-education camps” in the last two years, according
to the US government-funded Radio Free Asia. Other reports put that number as
high as one million, which a group of US Congress members last month described
as the largest current mass incarceration of a minority population anywhere.
Any foreign contact is suspect, with those
sent to camps reportedly including a leading footballer as well as the Uighur
wives of Pakistani merchants trading across the border.
The Chinese government has refused to
comment on reports of mass detention. And it denies repression of the
Turkic-speaking Uighurs, some of whom have been engaged in a low-level
separatist movement for years. Beijing says it faces Islamist insurgency in
Xinjiang, and blames Uighur militants for a number of knife and bomb attacks
across the country. It has labelled a group of Uighur leaders as terrorists.
Outside experts agree China faces a threat.
Several hundred Uighurs were reported to have fought for IS, some vowing to
return to spill Chinese blood “in rivers.” Still, what is happening in Xinjiang
appears beyond any reasonable response to the danger.
Indeed, it looks much more like a
deliberate testbed for techniques that, some human rights specialists worry,
could become a model for elsewhere in China and beyond.
The world’s most populous nation has become
notably more repressive since the rise of President Xi Jinping. Anti-corruption
drives have seen hundreds of Xi’s political foes arrested, including foreigners
and senior officials, while the government has increased its investment in
cutting-edge surveillance technology such as facial recognition software,
allowing police this month to identify a single suspect in a crowd of 50,000.
Meanwhile, Beijing has become ever more
open to using its growing global political clout to intimidate opponents and
stymie criticism, both within and outside the country. No group has felt this
more than China’s estimated 11 to 15 million Uighurs.
They face many of the same pressures as
those in nearby Tibet, another semi-autonomous region in which Beijing holds
sway. Unlike the Tibetans, however -- with their celebrity supporters and
high-profile exiled leader the Dalai Lama -- the Uighurs’ challenges have gone
frequently unnoticed by the outside world. Two aspects make this clampdown
particularly insidious: Its technological sophistication and global reach.
While China’s Uighurs have long faced persecution, Beijing’s recent escalation
has been dramatic.
As early as 2015, Chinese officials were
using a range of techniques to intimidate and infiltrate Uighur communities
overseas, threatening individuals that their families at home would suffer if
they did not help Beijing gather information on Uighurs whom they consider
hostile to the Chinese state.
Last year, China began a worldwide campaign
to persuade multiple countries to deport Uighur students, with dozens rounded
up and sent home from Egypt alone.
Within Xinjiang, Beijing has created what
experts say appears the most comprehensive system of high-tech state
surveillance anywhere on the planet. Even more than elsewhere in China,
infrastructure development in Xinjiang is explicitly linked to bolstering that
A new Metro system opening later this year
will require all passengers to show their ID for every ride, while residents
were last year ordered to turn in all smartphones and electronic devices for
official checks for “terrorist videos” and other illicit content. Such
technology will become more sophisticated as China aims to become a global
leader in both artificial intelligence and wider monitoring techniques.
What Beijing hopes to gain from this isn’t
hard to guess. The sheer depth and range of monitoring makes it easier to
track, find and stop the small number of militants. But the scope of Beijing’s
actions in Xinjiang also sends a powerful signal to all China’s citizens --
both Uighur and otherwise -- of the strength of the state and the costs of
straying out of line.
Beyond the periodic US reports and activity
by pro-Uighur groups and media outlets, the rest of the world shows little interest
in events in Xinjiang. For Washington, the treatment of the Uighurs doesn’t
compete with issues such as trade and North Korea when it comes to handling
China. European states, with their own desperation for trade with Beijing, have
shown even less appetite to criticize Xi’s administration.
China’s Uighurs now has little chance that
those outside the country will support them. Even the Gulf States and Turkey,
which might have once seemed a potential source of support, appear ever less
That’s a pity. If this kind of high-tech
suppression of minorities and dissent becomes widespread in years to come, we
may regret not paying more attention.
Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs,
globalization, conflict and other issues.