Millions of leaked police files detail suffocating surveillance of China's Uyghur minority.
A police officer stands guard as Muslims arrive for the Eid al-Fitr morning prayer at the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, a city in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, on June 26, 2017. Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images
The order came through a police automation system in Ürümqi, the largest city in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. The system had distributed a report — an “intelligence information judgment,” as local authorities called it — that the female relative of a purported extremist had been offered free travel to Yunnan, a picturesque province to the south.
The woman found the offer on the smartphone messaging app WeChat, in a group known simply as “Travelers.” Authorities homed in on the group because of ethnic and family ties; its members included Muslim minorities like Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, who speak languages beside China’s predominant one, Mandarin. “This group has over 200 ethnic-language people,” the order stated. “Many of them are relatives of incarcerated people. Recently, many intelligence reports revealed that there is a tendency for relatives of [extremist] people to gather. This situation needs major attention. After receiving this information, please investigate immediately. Find out the background of the people who organize ‘free travel,’ their motivation, and the inner details of their activities.”
Police in Ürümqi’s Xiheba Precinct, near the historic city center, received the order and summarized their work in a 2018 report. The one person rounded up as a result of the order, a Uyghur, had no previous criminal record, had never heard of the WeChat group, and never even traveled within China as a tourist. He “has good behavior and we do not have any suspicion,” police wrote. Still, his phone was confiscated and sent to a police “internet safety unit,” and the community was to “control and monitor” him, meaning the government would assign a trusted cadre member to regularly visit and watch over his household. A record about him was entered into the police automation system.
Based on their notes, police appear to have investigated the man and assigned the cadre members to “control and monitor” him entirely because of religious activities, which took place five months earlier, of his eldest sister. She and her husband invited another Uyghur couple in Ürümqi to join a religious discussion group on the messaging app Tencent QQ, according to police records. The other couple bought a laptop and logged onto the group every day from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; the husband stopped smoking and drinking, and the wife began wearing longer clothes. They began listening to “religious extremism information” on their laptop, the report said. Between the two couples, police recovered 168 religious audio files deemed illegal, likely because they were connected to an Islamic movement, Tablighi Jamaat, that advocates practicing Islam as it was practiced when the Prophet Muhammad was alive.
The fate of the eldest sister and her husband is unknown; the report simply states they were transferred to a different police bureau. The other couple was sent to a re-education camp.
Details of the investigations are contained in a massive police database obtained by The Intercept: the product of a reporting tool developed by private defense company Landasoft and used by the Chinese government to facilitate police surveillance of citizens in Xinjiang.
The database, centered on Ürümqi, includes policing reports that confirm and provide additional detail about many elements of the persecution and large-scale internment of Muslims in the area. It sheds further light on a campaign of repression that has reportedly seen cameras installed in the homes of private citizens, the creation of mass detention camps, children forcibly separated from their families and placed in preschools with electric fences, the systematic destruction of Uyghur cemeteries, and a systematic campaign to suppress Uyghur births through forced abortion, sterilization, and birth control.
The database obtained by The Intercept contains police reports from Ürümqi, the capital and largest city in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Map: Soohee Cho/The Intercept
It offers an inside view into police intelligence files and auxiliary community police meetings, as well as the operation of checkpoints that are pervasive in Ürümqi. It also details phone, online, and financial surveillance of marginalized groups, showing how granular surveillance purportedly on the watch for extremism is often simply looking at religious activity. Additionally, the database spells out how Chinese authorities are analyzing and refining the information they collect, including trying to weed out “filler” intelligence tips submitted by police and citizens to inflate their numbers and using automated policing software to help prompt investigations like the one into the WeChat travel group.
Among the revelations from the database is information on the extensive use of a tool that plugs into phones to download their contents, the “anti-terrorism sword,” deployed so frequently that Chinese authorities worried it was alienating the populace. It shows authorities tracking how their policies succeeded in driving down mosque attendance. It also offers evidence that the “Physicals for All” biometric collection program, which authorities insisted was solely a health initiative, is intended as part of the policing system. And it quantifies and provides details on the extensive electronic monitoring that goes on in Xinjiang, containing millions of text messages, phone call records, and contact lists alongside banking records, phone hardware and subscriber data, and references to WeChat monitoring as well as e-commerce and banking records.
The database also sheds light on the extent of policing and detention in Xinjiang. It details how former residents who went abroad and applied for political asylum were flagged as terrorists. In some cases, it appears as though fixed-term sentences were assigned to people in re-education detention — undercutting the idea, promulgated by the government, that the lengths of such detentions are contingent on rehabilitation or vocational training.
Surveillance cameras are mounted to the exterior of a mosque in the main bazaar in Ürümqi, Xinjiang, on Nov. 6, 2018. Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images
Taken together, the materials provide a broad overview of how the extensive surveillance systems deployed in Xinjiang fit together to repress minority populations and how extensively they impact day-to-day life in the region.
“Overall, this testifies to an incredible police state, one that is quite likely to place suspicions on people who have not really done anything wrong,” said Adrian Zenz, an anthropologist and researcher who focuses on Xinjiang and Tibet.
The investigations stemming from the WeChat travelers group offer a concrete example of this intense policing, said Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “You can see the muddled thinking in here, where people are being jailed for nothing, but also the process is so arbitrary.”
The revelations underscore how Xinjiang is an early look at the ways recent technology, like smartphones, cheap digital camera systems, and mass online storage of data, can be combined to monitor and repress large groups of people when civil liberties concerns are pushed aside.
“The mass surveillance in Xinjiang is a cautionary tale for all of us,” said Wang. “Xinjiang really shows how privacy is a gateway right, where if you have no privacy, that’s where you see that you have no freedoms as a human being at all. You don’t have the right to practice your religion, you don’t have the right to be who you are, you don’t even have the right to think your own thoughts because your thoughts are being parsed out by these incessant visits and incessantly monitored by surveillance systems, whether they’re human or artificial, and evaluated constantly for your level of loyalty to the government.”
Landasoft and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
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