In China’s northwest Xinjiang province, the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority have nowhere to hide. Facial recognition software reportedly alerts authorities if targeted individuals stray more than 1000 feet from their homes and workplaces. Residents face arrest if they fail to download smartphone software that allows them to be tracked, according to social media users. Simply wishing to travel outside China can be cause for arrest, with Beijing detaining family members and using its political clout to force extradition of those abroad.
At least 120,000 Uighurs have been imprisoned in so-called “re-education camps” in the last two years, according to the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia. Other reports put that number as high as one million, which a group of U.S. Congress members last month described as the largest current mass incarceration of a minority population anywhere. Any foreign contact is suspect, with those sent to camps reportedly including a leading footballer as well as the Uighur wives of Pakistani merchants trading across the border.
The Chinese government has refused to comment on reports of mass detention. And it denies repression of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, some of whom have been engaged in a low-level separatist movement for years. Beijing says it faces Islamist insurgency in Xinjiang, and blames Uighur militants for a number of knife and bomb attacks across the country. It has labeled a group of Uighur leaders as terrorists.
Outside experts agree China faces a threat. Several hundred Uighurs were reported to have fought for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, some vowing to return to spill Chinese blood “in rivers.” Still, what is happening in Xinjiang appears beyond any reasonable response to the danger. Indeed, it looks much more like a deliberate testbed for techniques that, some human rights specialists worry, could become a model for elsewhere in China and beyond.
The world’s most populous nation has become notably more repressive since the rise of President Xi Jinping. Anticorruption drives have seen hundreds of Xi’s political foes arrested, including foreigners and senior officials, while the government has increased its investment in cutting-edge surveillance technology such as facial recognition software, allowing police this month to identify a single suspect in a crowd of 50,000. Meanwhile, Beijing has become ever more open to using its growing global political clout to intimidate opponents and stymie criticism, both within and outside the country.
No group has felt this more than China’s estimated 11 to 15 million Uighurs. They face many of the same pressures as those in nearby Tibet, another semi-autonomous region in which Beijing holds sway. Unlike the Tibetans, however – with their celebrity supporters and high-profile exiled leader the Dalai Lama – the Uighurs’ challenges have gone frequently unnoticed by the outside world.
Two aspects make this clampdown particularly insidious: its technological sophistication and global reach. While China’s Uighurs have long faced persecution, Beijing’s recent escalation has been dramatic.
As early as 2015, Chinese officials were using a range of techniques to intimidate and infiltrate Uighur communities overseas, threatening individuals that their families at home would suffer if they did not help Beijing gather information on Uighurs whom they consider hostile to the Chinese state. Last year, China began a worldwide campaign to persuade multiple countries to deport Uighur students, with dozens rounded up and sent home from Egypt alone.
Within Xinjiang, Beijing has created what experts say appears the most comprehensive system of high-tech state surveillance anywhere on the planet. Even more than elsewhere in China, infrastructure development in Xinjiang is explicitly linked to bolstering that program. A new Metro system opening later this year will require all passengers to show their ID for every ride, while residents were last year ordered to turn in all smartphones and electronic devices for official checks for “terrorist videos” and other illicit content.
Such technology will become more sophisticated as China aims to become a global leader in both artificial intelligence and wider monitoring techniques.
What Beijing hopes to gain from this isn’t hard to guess. The sheer depth and range of monitoring makes it easier to track, find and stop the small number of militants. But the scope of Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang also sends a powerful signal to all China’s citizens – both Uighur and otherwise – of the strength of the state and the costs of straying out of line.
Beyond the periodic U.S. reports and activity by pro-Uighur groups and media outlets, the rest of the world shows little interest in events in Xinjiang. For Washington, the treatment of the Uighurs doesn’t compete with issues such as trade and North Korea when it comes to handling China. European states, with their own desperation for trade with Beijing, have shown even less appetite to criticize Xi’s administration.
China’s Uighurs now have little chance that those outside the country will support them. Even the Gulf States and Turkey, which might have once seemed a potential source of support, appear ever less interested.
That’s a pity. If this kind of high-tech suppression of minorities and dissent becomes widespread in years to come, we may regret not paying more attention.
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. The opinions expressed are his own.