China has long been known to be the worlds largest surveillance state. This has not changed, however recent events have brought it back to the forefront of discourse. One of the largest and most obvious reasons for this is what is happening in Xinjiang (Uyghur: شىنجاڭ ; Chinese: 新疆)
Xinjiang is an “autonomous region in the northwestern part of China, though we know there are no autonomous regions in China. It has a total area of 1,664,897 km2(642,820 sq mi), making it the largest region in China, thus very desirable for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It has around 23 million residents, the majority being ethnic Uyghurs. Though this is an estimate, and now is rapidly changing every day due to people fleeing and Han Chinese being incentivized to move there, an obvious effort by the Chinese government to drown out the local minority populations.
Documented human rights violations have been happening for around a decade in the region, though almost certainly go back much further. These aberrations began around 2009 following riots in the city of Ürümqi.
The riots started as a protest of another incident, the Shaoguan Incident, which occurred in Guangdong in June of the same year. It took place at at a toy factory in the province after Uyghur men were accused of sexual assault against two female employees, though even Chinese state media said this was false and the rumors were started by a disgruntled former worker there. Nonetheless, violence broke out and at least two Uyghurs were brutally murdered, though there are many estimates that put the death toll higher, and over 100 people were injured, most of them minority Uyghurs.
How the Ürümqi protest morphed into riots is contested. The CCP says they were planned by the World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur groups say that it happened because of excessive force by state police. Regardless of how the conflict began, the once peaceful protest quickly devolved into mass violence where many buildings and vehicles were destroyed. More importantly a total of 197 people were killed, according to the PRC most of them were Han Chinese while over 1700 were injured.
Following the violence a reported 1000 Uyghurs were detained, almost the same number who attended the initial protest. Mosques were temporarily closed. Telephone and internet connections were shut down with Xinjiang. Over 400 Uyghurs had charges placed against them and by November nine people had already been executed and over 20 others had been given death sentences. Keep in mind this is roughly five months after the first instances of violence occurred. Human Rights watch has also detailed over 40 cases of disappearances, a favorite tactic of the CCP, though they say that the actual figure is likely much higher. This was the beginning for Xinjiang and its Muslim minority groups.
Between the outbreak of unrest and the CCP has been ramping up control of the region, though the ratcheting up of tensions goes back to the 1950s when the CCP ramped up state sponsored migration to the region. They argue this is in response to violence on the part of radical pockets within the Uyghur community. It is certainly true there has been violence on the part of some, including disgusting attacks with knives and hypodermic needles on civilians. One of the most serious events of such violence occurred in 2014.
In Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, a massive attack took place. In the city’s railway station terrorists streaked through the crowds of people slashing and stabbing. In the end 35 people were dead, including four of the attackers and over 140 others were injured. Immediately after the horrific and brutal attack, the blame for the violence began to be put on Muslims in Xinjiang.
Details about the attackers are a little sparse. Police claim to have confiscated an East Turkestan flag at the scene, the flag is often connected with Xinjiang and those who seek independence there. While no groups stepped forward to take credit for the attacks, state media initially blamed Muslim separatist and compared the attacks to 9-11, though they withdrew these comparisons quickly after the CCP interjected. While the CCP has been meddling in Xinjiang for decades, it does seem that this attack spurred some of the more authoritarian responses in the region.
The first response was to keep the story out of the press and off of social media. Many state media corporations did not report, or buried, the story. Pictures and accounts of the tragedy were pulled from social media sites such as Weibo. Many different strategies were suggested at first ranging from deemphasizing the Uyghur identity of the attackers and instead focusing on the “Chineseness” of the Xinjiang people, to giving the region greater autonomy. In the end Xi and the CCP opted for a more authoritarian approach.
As control began to ramp up, through the use of checkpoints and increased surveillance, the violence did not subside. Both attacks against Muslim minorities and violence from extremest segments of those same minority communities continued. The violence was manifested in brutal beatings, murders, and even bombings.
This continued brutality resulted in many Uyghurs fleeing Xinjiang, though most were returned to China, drawing condemnation from places like the UN, who has continued to be incredibly weak on the current situation in Xinjiang, and the US.
As the CCP was working out how to deal with the situation in the region it seems that by about 2016 they came up with a strategy, one that is also starting to swell up encompassing the whole of China, one of complete control. Around this time the level of oversight and dominance exploded, moving from checkpoints to what could, and has been, described as concentration camps. This is all part of the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” (严厉打击暴力恐怖活动专项行动), a strategy created by the Chinese government to vaporize any modicum of dissent.
Currently estimates of between 1 and 3 million Muslims are being held in these camps. The CCP describes them as “reeducation camps”. There are numerous reports coming out of the region of horrifying conditions. Individuals are reportedly being detained without cause. Inside the camps it gets even more terrifying.
It must be stated that these camps are a blatant violation of both Chinese and international law. Detainees do not go to court or have any charges levied against them. It appears they can be sent to these camps simply for being a Muslim. On its face this is a shocking and disgusting practice, though, it get more insidious.
Recently Human Rights Watch has found and reverse engineered a Chinese app that police and officials use to surveil and determine who should be detained in the camps or watched more closely inside the open air prison that Xinjiang has been turned into.
The app monitors people in many ways, most of which violate Chinese law. It tracks and stores a massive amount of information and meta data, things like car color, movement, height, and even personal relationships and religious activity. The app aggregates this information and informs police and other officials when people do something they consider suspicious. The app helps with the monitoring process that was proliferated through cameras, phone inspections, and checkpoints.
This app and more conventional methods of control have allowed the CCP and its gestapo to control every aspect of Xinjiang resident’s lives. They can determine who they can talk to, where and whether they can worship, or even simply leave their houses. There are multiple reports of control reaching outside of Xinjiang and even China. Many Uyghurs as far away as North America have stated that they have been called by relatives in the camps, almost certainly under the direction of the CCP, and told to stop speaking out. Others who have spoken out have seen their relatives subsequently taken to camps as a way to punish them.
This is a common tactic in China. When someone is saying something the government doesn’t like, the Communist Party will threaten other members of their family. This could be in regards to losing their job or even imprisonment or simply disappearing them. This is an obvious case of blackmail and flies in the face of human rights, unfortunately other countries and organizations that proport to support these rights have not done much, if anything, to curb it. Hopefully this may be changing due to many individuals and organizations calling for action.
Human Rights Watch, as an example, has suggested governments push for visa bans, asset freezes, and other targeted sanction to punish the CCP for its human rights violations. Nations could use legislation such as America’s Magnitsky Act.
The Act which was initially instituted in order to deal with punish Russian officials connected with the death of Sergei Magnitski, a tax accountant in Russia. The act allows for the US to ban those it deems human rights violators from entering America, and also freezes their assets.
This would be a start for the US and other nations to take. It could be used against all those in the CCP. Though I would suggest not stopping there. It seems that putting far more strain on the Chinese economy would also help.
While there are some issues with how US president Donald J. Trump has handled the ongoing US-China trade war, it has been beneficial in hurting the companies that are intertwined with the CCP and create much of the infrastructure that allows China to be the open air prison that it has become.
These companies such as Huawei, have consistently stolen intellectual properties from the US and around the world. There are innumerable stories of stolen trade secrets and technology. One needs only to do a simple internet search to find countless articles regarding these allegations. However, their devilishness does not end there.
Huawei and other top companies in China are also using Xinjiang as a testing ground for new technologies that will allow the CCP to tighten its grip around the throats of its citizens. It should be noted that Huawei is not the only company helping to support the ramping up of social control in China, though they are one of the largest and most identifiable. It must also be stated that Huawei and its ilk are often, if not always, deeply connected to the Chinese Communist Party. In the case of Huawei its founder is a member of the party.
These companies are currently using Xinjiang as a petri dish in order to test new technologies such as facial recognition software and apps that, such as the one mentioned above, to exert more social control over citizens. These technologies can be intertwined with the country’s developing social credit rating to ensure the CCP can complete its Orwellian fantasy of complete control devoid of any dissidence.
Uyghurs both inside and outside of the camps have felt this pressure. There are cameras placed on houses and mosques. Many mosques remain dormant, as their congregants are too fearful to attend. The oppression of religious freedom does not stop there however.
Many mosques are simply being torn down, some of these mosques are hundreds if not thousands of years old. This is also in the infant stages for China’s Christians, who have been instructed to place pictures of Chinese leaders, such as Mao and Xi, along side the cross or pictures of Jesus. Many more have simply had their churches, even home churches, broken up by the government.
Some of the characteristics that officials look for to determine if you should be surveilled or put into a camp are simple adherence to Islamic law. These include abstaining from meat, alcohol, and tobacco, fasting during Ramadan, praying, wearing a head covering, and the list goes on. The Islamic minority groups know this and try to do their best to show they are in compliance and distance themselves from their religion, see the video below where an official questions a man about whether he is fasting and celebrating Ramadan, he replies that he is not, if he happened to answer incorrectly he would likely have found himself in a camp.
#Ramadan Ban – A Chinese official interrogating an elderly Uyghur Muslim man to check if he’s fasting.
— DOAM (@doamuslims) June 2, 2019
For the unfortunate souls who do find themselves within these camps, the situation is much worse. They are not allowed to fast during Ramadan, the last day of which is today. They are also forced to eat pork, forbidden under Islam. Uyghurs and other minority groups, are not allowed to speak their native languages and are instead forced to learn and speak Mandarin, speaking native languages is seen as suspicious.
There are also multiple reports from those who escaped the camps or custody, and China. One mother was sent to a camp and separated from her 3 children. When she was finally able to get out of detainment she was blankly told that one of her children had died in a local hospital. When the children came under CCP custody they were healthy. The woman was given no explanation as to why one of her triplets was killed while under the watch of Chinese authorities.
The woman also gave accounts of being placed in crowded facilities with no freedom of movement. She alleges that while she was there the minority prisoners were packed so tight that they had to sleep in shifts because there was not enough room. She also states that many died in CCP detainment, and that others seem to have been denied medical treatment. In fact, it seems the only treatment they received was that of subhumans. You can read the full report by CNN here.
There is a video of this strong, young Uyghurs woman testifying before US lawmakers. The video is heart-wrenching, as the woman fights through tears to describer her interment and torture in Xinjiang. She details being repeatedly subjected to electric shocks and begging to be killed by her captors.
There are numerous heart breaking videos of those both inside and outside of China showing and detailing the horrific details of both the open air prison that is Xinjiang specifically, and China more broadly, and the concentration camps set up there.
One such video is that of a young Uyghurs who traveled to America to study. Subsequently both of his parents were taken to camps, leaving him without money, or any relatives to help him. In the video he pleads for the international community to do something about China:
Video of journalist being denied access to film Xinjiang:
#China’s defence minister at #SLD19 just welcomed all to #Xinjiang to observe their ‘successful’ counter-terrorism policies. I was in #Kashgar v recently during Ramadan & this was our welcome caravan. Spot the internment camp watchtower halfway through. Also kidnapped, harassed pic.twitter.com/dX2MwZlvWo
— Sophia Yan (@sophia_yan) June 2, 2019
China has essentially refused to address the issue and continues to obfuscate. They either claim that these camps are needed to prevent terrorism or they simply ignore inquisitions into their blatant violations of human rights.
China’s ambassador to Kazakhstan denies camps then walks away angrily:
#China‘s ambassador to #Kazakhstan, Zhang Xiao, reacted angrily and then walked off, when asked by our journalists about Beijing’s reported crackdown against mostly Muslim ethnic groups in #Xinjiang Province. Ethnic Kazakhs are reported to be among the victims of the repression. pic.twitter.com/4QqoIbk4ZF
— Torokul Doorov (@Torokul) May 28, 2019
The control has already grown so great that there are reports of young political activists essentially penning their last words to loved ones and the world. All of this goes to show how complete the dominance of its citizens the CCP currently has.
This is why the time to act for all of those who espouse desire for greater human rights protection around the world is now. There can be no time wasted hand wringing or debating. Even if your heart is made of stone and you care nothing for Muslims, Christians, and the Chinese citizens under attack, it is likely that wherever you live you are in the cross hairs of the Chinese government as well.
China, through Huawei, is currently trying to expand 5G around the world. This would give them access to not only your data, but also control of infrastructure that could include self driving cars and other forms of transportation in the future. At the same time, they are pushing for the Belt and Road Initiative across much of the world. It is essentially a giant scheme to force countries into debt and then twist their arms to get them to acquiesce to China’s political ambitions.
If we don’t start now it will soon be too late. This is not a liberal or conservative issue. This is a freedom and democratic issue. If we do not stop the CCP and its brutal human rights abuses, there will be Xinjiangs throughout and outside of China.
Photo credit: Ari B.