Imams and government officials pass under security cameras as they leave the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, in January 2019. (© Ben Blanchard/Reuters)
China’s surveillance state: An open-air prison in Xinjiang
  • Mon, 04/22/2019 - 22:08

By Leigh Hartman
Apr 22, 2019

Security cameras with facial-recognition technology, police stations watching your every move, restrictions on freedom of worship, strangers living in your home.

This is life in China’s Xinjiang province.

China has an ongoing campaign to suppress the ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identities of its Muslim minorities. More than 1 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other Muslim minority groups have been detained since April 2017 in the camps, where many are reportedly beaten, tortured, forced to renounce Islam and made to memorize Chinese Communist Party propaganda.

But even for those who have avoided the internment camps, Xinjiang has effectively become an open-air prison, using a combination of high- and low-tech surveillance and intimidation tactics.

High-tech surveillance

Uighurs and ethnic minorities are under constant surveillance. The State Department’s recent Human Rights Report describes the many ways the Chinese government monitors and tracks their citizens in Xinjiang:

  • Cameras: a vast network of security cameras that monitor streets, stores and mosques.
  • Databases: artificial intelligence software that uses facial-recognition, voice-recognition and walk-recognition technology to create a database of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
  • Communications: pervasive control and monitoring of phone calls, text messages, email, social media and other digital communications.
  • Checkpoints: Every 500 meters, the inhabitants of Xinjiang are required to show their identity cards, submit to facial recognition cameras and turn over their cellphones to be scanned by special software.
  • Biometrics: Minorities are required to undergo physical examinations during which government officials collect their DNA, scan their eyes and take their fingerprints.

Chinese technology companies have made billions monitoring Uighurs. Companies like SenseTime, Yitu, Megvii, Hikvision and CloudWalk developed special software to monitor Uighurs and track their movements, according to a New York Times report on the issue.