The young Uyghur man, whom I’ll refer to as Qeyser, saw a phone for the first time in 2005, when he was 15 years old. In his village in southern Xinjiang — a Muslim-majority region in northwest China — mobile phones arrived before landlines. “The first phone I ever saw was the flip phone of the vice secretary of our village’s work brigade,” he recalled. “It was pretty simple but looked really complicated to me. It had all these numbers and letters. I thought, ‘How could he call and write at the same time?’” He and the other young people followed the Communist Party official as he searched for a signal. “He would speak in a loud voice to whoever was on the other end of the phone, making a big show of it. It was like magic.” The future was coming to Uyghur villages, a storm on the horizon.
It took some time for 3G networks and social media to arrive, but when they did, in 2010, Uyghurs embraced the transformation to their world brought about by the internet. This process of becoming digital persons was dramatically accelerated by a new smartphone-specific app, built by the Chinese company Tencent, called WeChat. Since Facebook and Twitter had been blocked across the entire country in 2009, Uyghur internet users focused their online communication on that one app. In the space of only a couple of years, millions of Uyghurs had purchased a smart phone and were using the app every day to build networks of friends. They also discovered that using the voice memo function allowed them to have Uyghur conversations at least partially outside of the censorship capacities of Chinese state authorities.
They began to use WeChat forums to discuss religious and cultural knowledge, political events, and economic opportunities outside their local communities. Over the course of only a few years, online Islamic teachers based in the region and elsewhere in the Islamic world, in places like Turkey and Uzbekistan, became influential throughout Uyghur WeChat. The majority of those who began to study Islam by smartphone were simply interested in instruction on what it might mean to be a contemporary Muslim, something they felt was lacking in government-censored state-run mosques. Many young Uyghurs I spoke with at the time did not realize that their relative freedom online was primarily a product of the inability of state authorities and the Chinese tech industry to assess Uyghur oral and written speech, not an invitation to greater self-determination. They were hacking the Chinese internet without even trying.
Chinese authorities, and many non-Muslim citizens, took a different view of this digital phenomenon. They regarded changes in Islamic appearance, such as young men growing beards and praying five times per day, as signs of the “extremification” of the Uyghur population. State authorities began to link violent incidents, such as a suicide attack in the city of Kunming, in Southwest China in March 2014, to what government officials told me was a process of “Talibanization.” In response to this, Chinese authorities declared what they called a “People’s War on Terror.” They began to use techniques of counterinsurgency, a mode of military engagement that stresses mass intelligence gathering, to assess the Muslim populations for signs of untrustworthiness. They began to turn phones into tracking devices.
In 2017, in Xinjiang, the state awarded an estimated $65 billion in private contracts to build infrastructure and $160 billion more to government entities in the region — an increase of 50% from 2016. This new investment made it one of the largest receivers of capital in the country. While some of this increase in construction spending was centered on non-security-related projects, significant portions of state spending in Xinjiang centered on the building of detention facilities and related infrastructure. State contractors also used these funds to develop new tools in the region’s surveillance system and the Muslim “re-education” campaign. By 2018, the market for security and information technology in Xinjiang grew to an estimated $8 billion, with close to 1,400 private firms competing for lucrative contracts. Some of these companies drew directly from the techniques of U.S. government contractors such as Palantir — a data analysis company that scrapes and assesses social media data to surveille people in real time — adapting this approach to diagnose past “extremism and terrorism crimes that were not serious.” These tools of automated digital assessment and control would be used to produce the largest internment of a religious minority since World War II.
For young Uyghurs like Qeyser, at first it seemed as though the People’s War would have nothing to do with him. But in the fall of 2014, administrators in Qeyser’s school called a general assembly and asked all the students to turn over their phones. Since he had shared a news article on WeChat about Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur intellectual who was sentenced to life in prison because he had published policy recommendations critical of the Chinese colonization of the Uyghur homeland, Qeyser was terrified. “I just pretended to be so calm. But my heart was beating through my chest. Fortunately the teacher who checked my WeChat did not look closely. But another friend was detained. He spent nine months in a detention center.”
By 2016, the smartphone checks had become much more sophisticated. “The police would order us to get out of the bus,” Qeyser told me. “Residents of Xinjiang would line up in front of the checkpoint and have our faces scanned, and then the police would ask for our phones and plug them into a scanner.” Qeyser said that the first time this happened, he pretended that his phone didn’t have any power. Perhaps because he looked like a sophisticated nonreligious college student, the police officer let him go without a check. Just months before all Uyghurs were forced to return their passports to authorities for “safekeeping” and the mass detention of “pre-terrorists” began in early 2017, I assisted Qeyser in making plans to leave China.
The next year, from the safety of North America, Qeyser learned that his brother had been sent to one of the newly built reeducation camps, along with dozens of his relatives. “Many of my neighbors were detained because they listened to Islamic messages on their phones or shared stories that the machines deemed ‘separatists,’” he told me. “My mother calls this the ‘phone disaster.’”
This story is an edited excerpt from In The Camps: China’s High-tech Penal Colony, by Darren Byler (Columbia Global Reports, 2021).