Inside China surveillance hell: 'All your life in the record'...Cameras, barbed wire, torture...


Isobel cockerll May 9, 2019 07:00 AM

THE WOMAN REMEMBERS the first time she got a smartphone.

It was 2011, and she was living in Hotan, an oasis town in Xinjiang, in northwest China. The 30-year-old, Nurjamal Atawula, loved to take pictures of her children and exchange strings of emoji with her husband while he was out. In 2013, Atawula downloaded WeChat, the Chinese social messaging app. Not long after, rumors circulated among her friends: The government could track your location through your phone. At first, she didn’t believe them.
In early 2016, police started making routine checks on Atawula’s home. Her husband was regularly called to the police station. The police informed him they were suspicious of his WeChat activity. Atawula’s children began to cower in fear at the sight of a police officer.
The harassment and fear finally reached the point that the family decided to move to Turkey. Atawula’s husband, worried that Atawula would be arrested, sent her ahead while he stayed in Xinjiang and waited for the children’s passports.
“The day I left, my husband was arrested,” Atawula said. When she arrived in Turkey in June 2016, her phone stopped working—and by the time she had it repaired, all her friends and relatives had deleted her from their WeChat accounts. They feared that the government would punish them for communicating with her.
She was alone in Istanbul and her digital connection with life in Xinjiang was over. Apart from a snatched Skype call with her mother for 11 and a half minutes at the end of December 2016, communication with her relatives has been completely cut. “Sometimes I feel like the days I was with my family are just my dreams, as if I have been lonely all my life—ever since I was born,” she said.
Atawula now lives alone in Zeytinburnu, a working-class neighborhood in Istanbul. It’s home to Turkey’s largest population of Uyghurs, the mostly Muslim ethnic minority native to Xinjiang, a vast, resource-rich land of deserts and mountains along China’s ancient Silk Road trade route.
Atawula is one of around 34,000 Uyghurs in Turkey. She is unable to contact any of her relatives—via phone, WeChat, or any other app. “I feel very sad when I see other people video chatting with their families,” she says. “I think, why can’t we even hear the voice of our children?”
For Uyghurs in Xinjiang, any kind of contact from a non-Chinese phone number, though not officially illegal, can result in instant arrest. Most Uyghurs in Turkey have been deleted by their families on social media. And many wouldn’t dare try to make contact, for fear Chinese authorities would punish their relatives. It’s just one of the ways President Xi Jinping’s government maintains a tightly controlled net of surveillance over the Uyghurs in China, and it has a ripple effect on Uyghurs living all over the world.
Zeytinburnu, the Istanbul suburb where Atawula lives, lies behind the city’s winding expressways, and is dotted with restaurants and cafés serving Uyghur cuisine: wide, slippery noodles, lamb kebabs, and green tea. The Uyghur separatist flag—a light blue version of the Turkish flag—is a common sight. It’s a banned image in China, representing East Turkestan, the name for Xinjiang despised by the Chinese government that almost all Uyghurs here give to their homeland.
Xinjiang—meaning “new frontier” in Chinese—was brought under the Communist Party of China’s control in 1949. During the latter half of the 20th century, Uyghur independence was a threat that loomed over the party’s agenda. The government tried to stamp out separatism and “assimilate” the Uyghurs by encouraging mass migration of Han Chinese, China’s dominant ethnic group, to Xinjiang.
During the ’90s, riots erupted between Uyghurs and Chinese police. In a white paper published in March, the Chinese government defined the riots as “inhuman, anti-social and barbaric acts” perpetrated by separatist groups. Amnesty International, meanwhile, described the 1997 protests in Gulja, Xinjiang, as a peaceful demonstration turned massacre, quoting exiled Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer. “I have never seen such viciousness in my life,” she said. “Chinese soldiers were bludgeoning the demonstrators.”
After the 9/11 attacks, the Chinese government took a page from George W. Bush’s war on terror and began targeting separatist groups in Xinjiang. In 2009, bloody ethnic riots broke out between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital. Police put the city on lockdown, enforcing an internet blackout and cutting cell phone service. It was the beginning of a new policy to control the Uyghur population—digitally.

The WeChat Lockdown

In recent years, China has carried out its crackdown on Islamic extremism via smartphone. In 2011, Chinese IT giant Tencent holdings launched a new app called WeChat—known as “Undidar” in the Uyghur language. It quickly became a vital communication tool across China.
The launch of WeChat was “a moment of huge relief and freedom,” said Aziz Isa, a Uyghur scholar who has studied Uyghur use of WeChat alongside Rachel Harris at London’s SOAS University. “Never before in Uyghur life had we had the opportunity to use social media in this way,” Isa said, describing how Uyghurs across class divides were openly discussing everything from politics to religion to music.
By 2013, around a million Uyghurs were using the app. Harris and Isa observed a steady rise in Islamic content, “most of it apolitical but some of it openly radical and oppositional.” Isa remembers being worried by some of the more nationalist content he saw, though he believes it accounted for less than 1 percent of all the posts. Most Uyghurs, he said, “didn’t understand the authorities were watching.”
This kind of unrestricted communication on WeChat went on for around a year. But in May 2014, the Chinese government enlisted a taskforce to stamp out “malpractice” on instant messaging apps, in particular “rumors and information leading to violence, terrorism, and pornography.” WeChat, alongside its rival apps, was required to let the government monitor the activity of its users.

Miyesser Mijit, 28, whose name has been changed to protect her family, is a Uyghur master’s student in Istanbul who left Xinjiang in 2014, just before the crackdown. During her undergraduate studies in mainland China, she and her Uyghur peers had already learned to use their laptops and phones with caution. They feared they would be expelled from university if they were caught expressing their religion online.
Mijit’s brother, who was drafted into the Xinjiang police force in the late 2000s, warned her to watch her language while using technology. “He always told me not to share anything about my religion and to take care with my words,” Mijit said. She did not take part in the widespread WeChat conversations about religion. If her friends sent her messages about Islam, she would delete them immediately, and performed a factory reset on her phone before coming home to Xinjiang for the university vacation period. Her precautions turned out to be insufficient.
A Surveillance State Is Born
The monitoring of Uyghurs was not limited to their smartphones. Mijit remembers first encountering facial recognition technology in the summer of 2013. Her brother came home from the police station carrying a device slightly bigger than a cellphone. He scanned her face and entered her age range as roughly between 20 and 30. The device promptly brought up all her information, including her home address. Her brother warned her this technology would soon be rolled out across Xinjiang. “All your life will be in the record,” he told her.
In May 2014, alongside the WeChat crackdown, China announced a wider “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism.” It was a response to several high-profile attacks attributed to Uyghur militants, including a suicide car bombing in Tiananmen Square in 2013 and, in the spring of 2014, a train station stabbing in Kunming followed by a market bombing in Urumqi. Authorities zeroed in on ethnic Uyghurs, alongside Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang.
After being subjected to daily police checks on her home in Urumqi, Mijit decided to leave Xinjiang for Turkey. When she returned to China for a vacation in 2015, she saw devices like the one her brother had shown her being used at police checkpoints every few hundred feet. Her face was scanned by police the moment she arrived at the city gates. “I got off the bus and everyone was checked one by one,” she said. She was also greeted by devices affixed to the entrance of every supermarket, mall, and hospital.

Amina Abduwayit, 38, a businesswoman from Urumqi who now lives in Zeytinburnu, remembers being summoned to the police station and having her face scanned and inputted into the police database.“It was like a monkey show,” she said. “They would ask you to stare like this and that. They would ask you to laugh, and you laugh, and ask you to glare and you glare.”
Abduwayit was also asked to give DNA and blood samples to the police. This was part of a larger, comprehensive campaign by the Chinese government to build a biometric picture of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population and help track those deemed nonconformists. “The police station was full of Uyghurs,” Abduwayit says. “All of them were there to give blood samples.”
Finally, Abduwayit was made to give a voice sample to the police. “They gave me a newspaper to read aloud for one minute. It was a story about a traffic accident, and I had to read it three times. They thought I was faking a low voice.”
The voice-recognition program was powered by Chinese artificial intelligence giant iFlytek, which claims a 70 percent share of China’s speech recognition industry. In August 2017, Human Rights Watch found information indicating iFlytek supplied voiceprint technology to police bureaus in Xinjiang province. The company opened an office in Silicon Valley in 2017 and remains open about working “under the guidance of the Ministry of Public Security” to provide “a new experience for public safety and forensic identification,” according to the Chinese version of its website. The company says it offers a particular focus to creating antiterrorism technology.
Human Rights Watch believes the company has been piloting a system in collaboration with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to monitor telephone conversations. “Many party and state leaders including Xi Jinping have inspected and praised the company’s innovative work,” iFlytek’s website reads.

China’s Uyghur Gulags

Resilience, Resistance, Resolve


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