Life on Camera: China’s Surveillance of The Uyghurs

The Chinese government has its eyes on their citizens. Movements are monitored, conversations are tracked and behaviour is tightly kept in check. In an attempt to stamp out religious radicalism, separatism and perceived terrorist threats to the country, they have elevated security measures and dramatically heightened their surveillance of the population in Northwest China. The government has cracked down on the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, putting them under constant watch and detaining over one million Muslims in internment camps throughout the area. The price of security comes at the expense of the Uyghur’s civil liberties.

This authoritarian reign means that a simple phone call from outside of China can lead to an arrest. Having religious content on their mobile can lead to an arrest. Openly, or privately, recognising Islam can lead to an arrest. Even having a long beard or wearing a veil can lead to an arrest. With government monitoring on Smartphones and laptops, facial and voice recognition technology tracking the Uyghur’s movements and daily police checks of homes and public spaces, nothing is kept private for the Muslim population of Xinjiang.

More than 173 million cameras were installed to watch over the people of China and with constant police observation, there is not a single move these people can make without the government begin aware. The Chinese government has also launched a biometric tracking campaign throughout the region, taking DNA and blood samples from the Uyghur population under the guise of a mandatory health check. These oppressive surveillance methods are all a part of what the Chinese government would call “the people’s war on terror” but in reality, it is President Xi Jinping’s war on China’s Muslim minority.

WeChat, They Listen

Everyone in China uses WeChat. The social media and messaging app lets you chat with friends, share pictures and videos, read interesting articles and is basically a combination of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google and Apple pay. It has also made the government control of the Uyghurs very simple.

At first, WeChat provided the Uyghur people with a way to connect with Islam and share cultural knowledge throughout their community. Social media helped their community flourish by giving them access to Islamic teachings, providing them with an understanding of halal practices and spreading the importance of prayer throughout China’s northwest. The people were finding out what it meant to be a modern Muslim, they were happy. The government was not. The Chinese government interpreted their growth of faith as a threat. Piety and religious extremism were now considered to be one and the same. They began to use WeChat as a way of tracking the Uyghur’s behaviour and activity.

What once brought the Uyghur people closer to their Islamic roots and provided them with new forms of freedom, has now imprisoned them. In 2017, the government issued a new wave of surveillance throughout Xinjiang with the help of Chinese tech firms. Smart security systems were put into place throughout the northwest region of China; these systems were designed to detect the Uyghur language and Islamic images, transcribe and translate voice messages and preform automated searches of Uyghur’s internet and WeChat activity. They were designed to oppress the Uyghur.

An Uyghur Spy, Under Chinese Rule

The government’s surveillance of the Uyghur doesn’t just stop with looking through their online activity or patrolling their digital conversations. It doesn’t even stop with them taking DNA to profile the entire Uyghur community; the Chinese government has used fear mongering and force to make members of the Uyghur community spy on their brothers and sisters.

Yusuf Amat, an Uyghur living in Turkey, was coerced into working as a spy for the Chinese government through intimidation and threats against his family. He started spying on his community in 2012, when Chinese officials arrested and tortured his mother. He was told that unless he agreed to work for them, his mother would be kept in detention. Yusuf told Al Jazeera, “My role was to feed information to officials. I reported on everything people did – what they ate, drank, what they did in private in their homes, whether it was friends or relatives, I shared it all.”

Yusuf’s testimony was used by authorities in China to arrest and imprison numerous Uyghurs for a handful of innocuous reasons. He shared, “you could have a long beard or some religious text on your phone, or maybe you studied abroad or had a long-distance phone call with someone overseas. It could all land you in detention.” It pained Yusuf and filled him with guilt each time he was made to deliver information on his peers but to keep his family safe, he continued to do so for quite some time.

In addition to spying on his neighbours in Xinjiang, Yusuf and dozens of other Uyghurs have been forced to spy on their global diaspora as well. Yusuf was sent to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey in order to report information back to the Chinese government on the Uyghur communities there, from 2012 till 2018. The Uyghur communities in the Middle East and Europe are being kept under vigilant surveillance and being intimidated by Uyghurs who have been forced to spy or by Chinese authorities themselves.

Despite cooperating with the government and spying on his community, Yusuf’s whole family has ended up imprisoned in the “re-education” camps that are dotted throughout the Xinjiang region. It is because of this and the atrocities being committed against the Uyghur people that he has decided to break his silence and speak up against the Chinese government and their Orwellian control tactics. “This is not just about my immediate family,” Yusuf said, “this is about taking a stand for every Uighur. They’re all my family. My own life doesn’t matter. Whatever happens, happens. I’ve lived enough.”

Speaking out against China’s harsh treatment of the Uyghur and disclosing their surveillance tactics, surely means trouble for Yusuf in the future but he is ready to face whatever comes his way for the sake of his people.

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