Muharram Muhammad’ali hasn’t spoken with his family since his sister’s mobile went dead last year, but sometimes he calls his parents’ landline in Turpan, a city in the east of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Since the coronavirus pandemic spread to Xinjiang this summer, houses in the area have been sealed up, further isolating residents who were already all but cut off from the outside world. The line is always busy, but, he reasons, the fact that it is still in service means his mother is alive and paying the bill.
He doesn’t have any more information than that. He knows that his father, an imam, was arrested over three years ago and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — a catchall offense that the Chinese government applies to those it considers undesirable — and later convicted in a closed trial. He assumes his father is in jail, if he hasn’t died. That news came from his uncle, but one of the last things Muhammad’ali heard from his sister was that he, too, had been taken into police custody just over a year ago. “He is lost, and now there is no one to give me information,” he says.
Muhammad’ali, a soft-spoken 27-year-old who reaches for Japanese words in the rare moments when his English lets him down, left China for Tokyo two years ago. To return would mean instant incarceration, so Muhammad’ali is building a life in a new city, learning to cook Uighur food with ingredients he sources from gray-market halal butchers and marveling at the obscene prices of watermelons in Japan — fruit for which Turpan is famous.
The last time he was in Turpan, he saw CCTV cameras being installed on the intersection outside his family home, another node in the network of facial recognition devices that sweep the city, perpetually recording the movements of the inhabitants. Thousands of Communist Party cadres and security officials keep constant watch, recording even the most mundane details of inhabitants’ lives — who they talk to, whether they use the front or the back door to leave the house, whether they have recently taken up exercise or given up smoking. Over the past three years, Uighurs have had their DNA collected, their voices recorded, and their walking gaits filmed and put on file. It all feeds into perhaps the most comprehensive dataset covering any population on earth, collected and manipulated by private technology companies working on behalf of the Chinese government.
Together, the state and these companies have built a one-way mirror around Xinjiang, giving the government an unprecedented ability to monitor and control the population, while preventing information from leaking out. Artificial intelligence scours social media and messaging apps in search of sensitive conversations. Simply speaking with a relative overseas is likely to draw the eye of the police and could lead to incarceration in one of the euphemistically named “vocational education and training centers” — internment facilities that, according to estimates by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, held upwards of a million people by 2018.
Cut off from their loved ones, Uighurs in exile are testing the limitations of the firewall. In Japan, Muhammad’ali stays in touch with old school friends via WeChat and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. They communicate in Mandarin — to use Uighur would attract attention — and in code. They are all basketball fans, so they use ciphers based on teams and players to relay information about who is still free and who has been sent to a camp or transferred to a factory. This doesn’t guarantee safety, but they gamble that they can stay ahead of the censors. “We can guess some keywords are monitored by machines, not by people,” Muhammad’ali says. “So we try not to say these keywords and just find other signals.”
Muhammad’ali and his fellow exiles meet in WeChat and WhatsApp groups, where they share and pore over leaked videos, social posts, reports from state media, and propaganda broadcasts, scanning the backgrounds for inconsistencies and absences — anything they can use to determine what is really happening back home. For the most part, they are not activists — or at least they didn’t start out as such. But frustrated with stonewalling and state propaganda, they are doing whatever they can to find out what happened to their loved ones and to relay that information to journalists and human rights organizations.
What they see is often horrifying. Although it is frequently portrayed as an all-knowing, all-seeing panopticon, the techno-state in Xinjiang is either deeply flawed or deliberately genocidal. Rather than functioning as a highly sophisticated system of predictive policing, the technology that has been deployed in Xinjiang is, in practice, a blunt instrument. It has internalized the government’s long-standing suspicion of its ethnic and religious minorities, interpreting normal behaviors as suspicious. It has automated and accelerated repression and funneled people into internment camps and crowded prisons — mass incarceration by database.
“The ubiquitous security, the high-tech police state is the reality, not just for the people in camps,” says Rushan Abbas, executive director of the Washington D.C.–based advocacy group Campaign for Uighurs. “Spy apps monitoring who they talk to on WeChat. QR codes in their homes scanning who’s going in and going out. Facial recognition everywhere. They are being monitored 24/7 from checkpoints to security cameras to listening devices. [The government] is using this advanced technology to collect people for the concentration camps. But even people living regular lives, like you and me, are subject to it every day. The whole Uighur identity is being criminalized.”
For Uighurs living abroad, the first sign of an impending blackout back home emerged in late 2016. That was when the Chinese government stepped up a broad-spectrum crackdown on the Uighur population, justifying it as an anti-terror operation focused on what the government labeled Islamic extremists and separatists.
When the new campaign began, Mirehmet Ablet, a native of Kashgar, a city close to Xinjiang’s borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, was living in the Netherlands; his younger brother was studying in Canada. Only their older brother, Miradil, had stayed behind in Kashgar, where he visited their parents almost every day. Even as the crackdowns escalated, and more people were sent to reeducation camps, the family felt relatively safe.
Both of Ablet’s parents were Communist Party members. His mother was a director of a hospital and his father a director of a school. Neither were religious or politically active. They did not keep religious books in the house, one of what Chinese authorities consider the “75 signs of religious extremism” — along with giving up smoking and owning boxing gloves. Both sons living abroad were careful to keep a low profile.
“We could never have expected what would happen to our family,” he says.
China’s Uighurs are used to waves of repression. The region, on the country’s western fringes, has long been seen as inconvenient but strategically important. Once a pivot on the ancient Silk Road trading route connecting China to the Middle East, it was occupied by the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It has emerged as an important node in Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, which has sent railway lines and highways snaking west from China’s industrial south and east into Central Asia and beyond.
Today, many Uighurs still call the area “East Turkestan,” a reference to its Turkic culture and language, which, along with the importance of the Islamic faith, set it apart from the country’s Han Chinese core. For the Communist Party, that otherness represents a potential threat to the stability and sovereignty of the country. As in Tibet, the government encouraged Han Chinese from the east to migrate to Xinjiang and change the dominant culture. That migration continues today, and the population of around 19 million people is now about 46% Uighur.
Each Chinese political generation has also brought its own form of repression to Xinjiang. In the past, downward spirals of repression and resistance had tended to burn out in a few years. This time felt different.
In 2009, mass riots had broken out in the regional capital of Ürümqi — the result of a particularly brutal crackdown aimed at suppressing dissent stemmed from the 2008 Olympics. Although officially 197 Uighur and Han Chinese were killed, human rights groups believe the real death toll was far higher. The man sent to manage the fallout was Xi Jinping, the then-vice president who had already been tapped for leadership.
In 2016, two years after Xi’s government launched the so-called Strike Hard campaign, the first scattered reports of detention camps began to leak out of Xinjiang. On the ground, police started to seek signs of “foreign influence” — visiting the families of Uighurs living abroad, pressuring them for information, and encouraging them to summon their relatives back to China.
By 2017, Ablet had acquired Dutch citizenship and was out of reach of the state, but his younger brother in Canada started getting messages asking him to come home. His friends warned him not to — returnees were disappearing — so instead, he sent letters from his university and workplace in Canada to show that he was behaving himself. He even mailed pictures of himself with other Chinese students to prove he was socializing with the right people.
Back in Kashgar, their mother was becoming increasingly frantic. One night, she called Ablet in Holland and told him, “If the police call you, say yes to everything, otherwise we will lose your brother.”
Soon afterwards, Miradil was arrested.
In the following days, whenever he tried to contact his mother, Ablet says, “She couldn’t talk, she was sobbing. And then suddenly, she said, ‘If you call us, call during the daytime, not in the evenings.’ Then after two days, she said, ‘Don’t call us at all, please.’”
Ablet still doesn’t know if his brother was sent to the camps or to jail. In June, he was finally able to reach a relative in Ürümqi. He describes the exchange: “She just said, ‘Oh, I’m good; things are good here. We are fine; we are happy.’” She did not tell Ablet that his father had died in January — which he only found out in July. “So, I thought there’s no point in contacting [anyone],” he says. “One, they will be at risk, and two, they cannot provide me with the right information; they have to lie.”
Many Uighurs have come to the same conclusion. Having relatives abroad automatically draws suspicion; speaking to them leads to even more.
The trauma of such separation and silence is profound. Uighurs overseas talk about suffering from nightmares, depression, and anxiety attacks as they wait for information. For many, the last thing they heard from their families was news of an arrest or a disappearance, followed by a plea: Don’t call again.
Reyhan Ablet, a primary school teacher with no relation to Mirehmet, breaks down in a Tokyo cafe as she recounts one of the final conversations with her mother in Kashgar. “She was crying,” Reyhan says. “She lied to me. She said, ‘I had a fight with your daddy.’ But I didn’t believe her. After that, she told me the truth. She said, ‘Your brother, we can’t find him anywhere.’”
That was in June 2017. Her brother Eysajan, also a teacher, went to work in the morning and never came home. It was a year before the family found out that he had been sent to an internment camp. As far as she knows, he is still there. Her older sister was taken a month after her brother and was released in the summer of 2019. Reyhan has photos of her sister from before, a healthy young woman, and after, withered and hollow-eyed. They have never spoken about her experiences. “I can’t ask her what happened in the concentration camp, and she can’t tell me,” Reyhan says.
Her father-in-law and brother-in-law have also both been detained. The government released a video of her father-in-law, in which he said that conditions in the internment camps were good and that his son should cooperate with the Chinese authorities. Later, a government official contacted Reyhan’s husband and asked him to inform on Uighurs in Japan. He declined.
To steady herself, Reyhan flicks through photos of the last time she was in Kashgar, in 2014. Her son was born there, but they left when he was less than two months old and have never been back. She is still periodically able to get pictures of her family via a contact in Beijing, but she has barely spoken to anyone directly in the last three years.
One of the cruelest things, she says, is that she could, if she really wanted to, just call home. Every day she makes the almost unbearable decision not to. Many Uighurs have chosen to cut off contact with their families, rather than take the risk.
“Fear,” Reyhan says. “It’s fear.”
The police state in Xinjiang is so effective at controlling the flow of information that even those inside it were initially unaware of what was going on.
In early 2016, Rushan Abbas’ sister came to the United States for the birth of her granddaughter. As she prepared to return to Ürümqi in August, there were rumors of new crackdowns in the south, but the region’s capital still felt safe.
“We had heard that China was tightening security, but we didn’t know the scale,” Abbas says. “I tried to convince her; her daughters tried to convince her [not to go back]. She was not a political person; she’s very quiet, introverted — she was a retired medical doctor living a very normal life. She felt safe. But as soon as she went back, they cancelled her passport.”
Just over two years later, in September 2018, she disappeared.
The surveillance operations being mounted in Xinjiang are, in many ways, simply another expression of Beijing’s long-standing suspicion of its own population. The Chinese government has always collected huge quantities of information about its citizens. Throughout the 20th century, they built networks of informants who were incentivized or intimidated into spying on their neighbors and colleagues.
For the Golden Shield project, initiated in the late 1990s, authorities constructed large databases to collate the information being gathered by the security services and implemented the automated online monitoring and censoring mechanisms that collectively became known as the Great Firewall. However, the information they collected was patchy, highly subjective, and unreliable.
After the Ürümqi riots in 2009, intelligence gathering became much more systematic. By the early 2010s, the presence of security personnel on the streets had ramped up significantly, and Uighurs were routinely subjected to stop and search. Later, thousands of Communist Party members were moved into communities — ostensibly as part of education or social welfare programs, but, in reality, to collect information on individuals’ behavior.
To fill in the missing pieces of its surveillance apparatus, the state turned to the private sector. Over the past half decade, Chinese artificial intelligence companies SenseTime, Hikvision, CloudWalk, and iFlytek have become market leaders in face and voice recognition. Tech giants Huawei and Alibaba specialize in telecoms and cloud computing infrastructure for the collection and analysis of data. The government integrated these companies into its security architecture, handing over billions of dollars in research subsidies and contracts to maintain its lead in artificial intelligence.
Chinese AI companies were keen to bid on public contracts including in Xinjiang. The money was good, but more importantly, the massive projects envisioned by the government offered an unprecedented opportunity to train their algorithms with real-world data. Starting in around 2015, Uighurs were asked to provide DNA samples, fingerprints, and iris scans. High school and college students were required to submit their phones for inspection. People were recorded reading out passages from newspapers; others were filmed walking so that the artificial intelligence could be trained to identify them based on the unique way in which they moved.
“The key for these companies is to develop huge datasets and to use tools to fine-tune their algorithms,” says Darren Byler, a researcher at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who specializes in China’s techno-politics in Xinjiang. “A public project like [Xinjiang] will produce infinitely more images, infinitely more data than a private, bounded project.”
For the companies, there was yet another advantage: They could experiment freely, as data would be collected from a population that had no legal wherewithal or means to complain.
Since reports of widespread human rights abuses against the Uighurs have made international news and attracted the attention of U.S. regulators, some corporations have scrubbed mentions of Xinjiang from their marketing or otherwise distanced themselves from projects in the region. One of the largest, SenseTime — whose international investors include the U.S. tech company Qualcomm and Fidelity International based in Bermuda— reportedly sold out of a so-called smart-policing joint venture in Xinjiang in 2019, as it prepared to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. But even as they tried to hide their involvement, many continued to work on the state’s grand vision in Xinjiang.
In late 2016 or early 2017, these efforts came to fruition when the government unveiled the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), an elaborate digital surveillance network underpinned by an enormous database of the Xinjiang population.
Within Xinjiang, the IJOP is linked to the thousands of facial recognition cameras that are ubiquitous on city streets and to the many checkpoints and police posts around the region. It connects to gas stations, which have their own facial and number-plate recognition systems, and can tell if a person is driving a car that isn’t registered to them. It connects to the electricity utility’s records and can detect if a household is suddenly consuming more energy. Authorities can also draw on financial records and health care data. IJOP can also detect whether people are using virtual private networks to access foreign messaging services and websites — for which they can be jailed. Some researchers also believe that the network connects to Wi-Fi sniffers that can identify individual devices via their IMEI numbers. The IJOP is an expression of the government’s desire to impose the same control over physical spaces as it does in online ones.
As the IJOP was being built and tested, the first camps were being established. One of the earliest and still most prolific sources of evidence of their construction was Adrian Zenz, a Minnesota-based German researcher who specializes in scouring regional and provincial government websites and connecting the dots to understand what is happening in otherwise inaccessible parts of China.
In 2014, Zenz started finding documents referring to the concept of “reeducation” in Xinjiang. Toward the end of the year, he discovered specifications for an actual facility based on state media reports. That was just a pilot, to house what were referred to as “focus persons.” By 2018, it was clear that the program was being operationalized on a large scale.
In addition to notices summoning individuals to reeducation camps, Zenz also surfaced detailed budgets and construction plans for several sites. These reports showed clearly that the “vocational training” facilities being built were not simple schools — they were securitized compounds, complete with barbed wire fences, security doors, watchtowers, and barracks for armed police. Much of this information was in the public domain, awaiting discovery by those willing to put in the work.
“I think much of this is simply [to fulfill] documentation requirements,” Zenz says. “They didn’t realize that someone would take the trouble to dig through it.” But, he added, authorities might be taking things more seriously now that “reputational damage is growing exponentially.” After Zenz republished official documents showing that the government was using cash incentives and threats of internment to force Uighur women to undergo sterilization, certain demographic statistics were abruptly deleted from public websites.
Even though the Chinese government has done all it can to hide what is happening in Xinjiang, a project of this scale requires enormous bureaucracy, which inevitably leaves a paper trail. The fragments of information that researchers like Zenz have been able to extract have helped others pinpoint where camps are, and, with satellite imagery, enabled them to map their expansion.
“Because it’s digital, it opens itself up to a sort of sousveillance, or reversal of the gaze,” says Byler, the researcher in China’s techno-politics. “You can hack the system. That’s how we found out a lot of what we know, from people who know how to access documents. The system can be turned against itself.”
By early 2018, the Xinjiang Communist Youth League’s WeChat account started to post what looked like awkward family photographs. In them, Uighur household members stood or sat for selfies with party cadres — all Han Chinese. The captions referred to the interlopers as “mothers” and “fathers,” sent to the region under a program called Pair Up and Become Family. Under this and similar initiatives, hundreds of thousands of party loyalists have been sent to Xinjiang and embedded in the communities, often living in Uighur homes. Officially, they are there to educate the population; in reality, they are there to inform on their hosts.
It is these “family members,” alongside “Fanghuiju,” teams from a number of agencies and party committees who conduct routine surveys of Uighur households, who actually form the backbone of the state’s intelligence gathering in Xinjiang. Despite the billions spent on sophisticated artificial intelligence, the police state is still heavily reliant on unproven technologies and a huge ground game of spies and informants, just as it always has been.
“One of the dangers is that you make the system out to be fully automated,” Byler says. “It is dystopian, but there’s still a lot of human drivers.”
According to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report based on data gleaned from an internal government smartphone app, these informants feed information — including details about the “religious atmosphere” of a household, whether people use the back door or the front, and whether they socialize with neighbors — into the IJOP database.
Based on this and other indicators, the IJOP automatically identifies people to monitor: A leaked document from 2017, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, says that the data should be used to investigate Uighurs “one by one.” Once alerted to a breach, the app generates a ticket, which can be closed only when police resolve the investigation. Because the government is worried about corruption, the system also watches the watchmen.
While the goal of all this is to create a predictive policing system, the reality is that it criminalizes huge swathes of the Uighur population. The presumption of innocence does not apply in Xinjiang, and, as more and more people come under scrutiny from security services, many will end up in internment camps.
“You can see that, because of the criteria the IJOP is designed around, it’s picking out a lot of people who arguably are just doing what normal people do,” says Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch who has studied the IJOP in depth. “The idea is to create a system that finds people who are threatening to the regime, but I think, at some point, it just breaks down. How does one make a list of people who are actually anti-regime? In a place like Xinjiang, that could be anyone. It’s meaningless, essentially.”
Whether this is a feature of the system or a bug is a question that the Chinese government will not answer. For those who are detained, the distinction may not matter. In the past three years, the rollout of the technology has coincided with a huge expansion of the camp network. Analysis of satellite imagery by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimated that the camp network grew by more than 450% between 2016 and 2018. The widely quoted number of 1 million people being held in internment camps is now more than two years old. Since then, satellite images show that camp capacity has continued to grow. In September 2020, Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified 380 detention centers using satellite imagery, and signs that several more were still under construction.
“The repression has just gone through the roof in terms of intensity,” says Anna Hayes, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at James Cook University and an expert on Xinjiang. “Without this surveillance capacity, I don’t think it could have happened this fast.”
Beijing used to deny the existence of the camps entirely. Then, it acknowledged that they were real but insisted that they were “vocational training” centers. It has never publicly admitted how many people are incarcerated.
Even as more and more evidence emerges, the government is sticking to its story, stepping up its propaganda campaigns. State media pump out social media–friendly videos — often featuring spontaneous dancing — that portray the Communist Party as a welcome guest in prosperous Xinjiang. As “evidence” of willing cultural integration, videos are released of Uighur brides marrying Han men (always that way around). Others show Han tourists participating in cultural displays or giving gifts to grateful Uighur families. Anybody who questions this rosy narrative is denounced as a “splittist” or terrorist.
That the government feels it has to more aggressively push its own messaging is largely a result of the activism of the Uighur diaspora, many of whom have had to learn how to perform their own surveillance and intelligence gathering — at first in search of their families, and then as part of a desperate campaign to bring the world’s gaze to Xinjiang.
Memet Tohti Atawulla, a Uighur living in Turkey, recalls how, after he went public about his mother’s detention in Xinjiang, Chinese state media released a video in which his two brothers accused him of being a terrorist. “In it, they were talking to me: ‘We sent you to Turkey to study, why did you attend illegal organizations? We hope you stop these activities and study well,’” Tohti says. “From this I was able to learn they are alive and are under the control of the government.” That was in late 2019. He still has heard nothing about his mother.
No one is making light of the decision to speak out. “People have this glimmer of hope that, if they don’t come out and name and shame [the authorities], if they don’t speak, then their family members will be released. That’s why they hesitate. Even having been an activist all my life, I did that,” says Abbas, who quit her job on the anniversary of her sister’s detention to focus full-time on advocacy.
In the Netherlands, Ablet began to lobby human rights organizations and post about his brother’s situation several months ago. “I thought maybe they’ll release my brother. I was waiting,” he says. “It didn’t happen, so eventually I decided to make it public, because otherwise, he might get killed in prison, and nobody will notice.”
After he began to post on social media last year about his father’s detention, Muhammad’ali was contacted over WeChat by someone he believes worked for the national security services. “He called me and said, ‘We know what you’ve done on the internet, so it’s better you stop your campaign. Stop spreading this kind of message.’,” Mumammad’ali recalls. “So I just said, when my father and uncle are released, I’ll stop.”
Though desperate for news, people still cling to hope. In Tokyo, Reyhan spent the first year of her brother’s detention trying to convince herself that the reeducation camps were simply what the government said they were. Then, she stayed quiet because she thought her brother would be released once his time was up, and, after that, because she thought no one would listen to her.
She breaks down again as she recalls the agonizing decision to speak up, knowing that, if she didn’t do so, no one else would. “I didn’t know who to tell. I thought I couldn’t do anything. But it’s already been three years, and I can’t bear it,” she says. “I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it. There hasn’t been any result. I must do something for my brother.”