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March 30, 2023

Sinicisation through technology: the Uyghur nightmare in China

Sinicisation (noun) refers to the process by which traditionally non-Chinese peoples are placed under the influence of  Han Chinese (the dominant ethnicity in the country) in order to adopt the latter’s culture, customs and way of life.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnicity who have historically lived largely in Central Asia and in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). They speak the Uyghur language, and are predominantly Muslims.

Although the schism between Uyghurs and Han-dominated China dates back centuries, it worsened following the terror attacks in the United States on 11 September, 2001, as China began to perceive Uyghurs as being disposed to the three evils defined by the state: terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.

This subsequently led to a comprehensive and repressive campaign to sinicise Uyghurs, and the Chinese government has since spent billions of dollars in erecting a state-of-the-art surveillance empire at the expense of the 12 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP)

In 2016, the Chinese state began implementing an advanced system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). This invasive surveillance apparatus collects data on people through various sources, such as (but not limited to):

  1. Wi-Fi Sniffers, which are used to harvest unique identification addresses of smartphones, computers and other devices.
  2. Facial recognition CCTV cameras that monitor the day-to-day lives of Uyghurs. Many of these cameras feature a facial recognition software, as well as night-vision capabilities. Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is laden with 'Convenience Police Stations' that are equipped with face-recognition cameras and stand guard every 200 meters.
  3. Checkpoints whose purpose is to gather data. There is a myriad of such checkpoints that Uyghurs must pass through when navigating their daily lives; they are present at gas stations, schools, mosque, etc. Using data doors, checkpoints collect "information from people, such as IMEI numbers," as well as citizen ID numbers and license plate numbers. 

The IJOP also has complete information on one’s banking records, health status, family planning information, etc. One of the ways in which the app is utilised is by alerting the police of even a remotely suspicious activity or behaviour.

A person could be deemed suspicious for the tamest of reasons, such as having too many books, using social media to learn about Islam or returning from another country. The state can then send that person to any of its detention camps, where captives are taught, or re-taught, how to integrate and truly "become Chinese." Detainees are given classes on Chinese history, language and culture, and are forced to sing Chinese Communist Party anthems. 

Millions of Uyghurs have reportedly suffered at these camps so far. And although China claims these camps are but 're-education centres' and involve nothing sinister, there are innumerable reports of rape, sexual harassment, and violence taking place there - with women being the most vulnerable. 

A Tech-Driven Surveillance Nightmare

Uyghurs are routinely subjected to biometric scans and have to provide DNA samples to local officials. Nearly every movement they make in public is scrutinised via cameras.

According to a 2022 Comparitech study that ranked the most surveilled cities in the world, Chinese cities dominated, as was the case in previous years. The study highlighted that Chinese cities had 372.8 cameras per 1,000 people.

Uyghurs are also forced to install an app that collects data on their contacts, text messages and other information, and so no part of aspect of their life remains private. 

Continually making dangerous strides, China has even begun using cameras that detect emotions. A software engineer has previously claimed to have installed such cameras in police stations in Xinjiang, stating, "We placed the emotion detection camera 3-meter from the subject. It is similar to a lie detector but with a far more advanced technology."

The system detects vicissitudes in facial expressions and skin pores, and has been 'trained' to detect Uyghurs and other "sensitive groups" using mass visual data, algorithms and machine learning.

A New York Times article aptly called this practice of using technology to identify Uyghurs based on their appearance as "automated racism."

Islamophobia through Technology

China’s battle with its so-called three evils has led it to enforce an Islamophobic Sinicisation project. Mosques are perennially monitored and security personnel make Muslim worshipers pass through face-scanning tech before entering the compound.

China has even gone as far as cracking down on the architecture of mosques, and has barred domes and other Islamic architectural characteristics from being built.

Using its advanced surveillance system, among other mechanisms, the state has imprisoned over 600 imams and other religious figures since 2014. And while China maintains that these figures were involved in inciting unrest or promoting extremism, evidence shows that "the state has worked to tie ordinary religious expression in Xinjiang to extremism or political separatism."

The surveillance system also keeps an eye out for the most mundane of behavious, such as the use of Islamic phrases like Inshallah (god willing) and Asalam-u-Alaikum (Peace be upon you).

Even Uyghurs living abroad are not spared. Chinese embassies regularly monitor their activities, and foreign governments are pressured by China to deport Uyghurs back.

It has been reported that Chinese embassies also "blackmail students or workers by holding their families hostage back in the Uyghur Region." 

Chinese Muslims - Uyghur and others - cannot even peacefully perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. These Muslims must carry GPS-enabled 'smart cards' that the government proclaims are designed to ensure Muslims' safety; rights activists, however, view this move as additional government overreach.

The state handpicks only a small number of Muslims to perform the Hajj - a practice which, combined with the growing security apparatus, has seen has Chinese Hajj pilgrims declining since 2016. 

Chinese Companies and Surveillance Capitalism

China has used Xinjiang as an experimental surveillance region - a veritable police lab, using Uyghurs to test new predictive technologies, which the government later sells to countries and agencies.

While the production and selling of such tech is symptomatic of China’s growth as a global economic power, it also showcases a dangerous precedent as "countries from Uganda to Myanmar have purchased Chinese surveillance equipment to support their repressive agendas."

Companies such as CloudWalk, Yitu, Megvii and SenseTime have become billion dollar entities. Thousands of Chinese firms are now offering facial recognition tech, smartphone surveillance equipment, application filtering, and deep-packet inspection gear.

All such companies must provide data to the Chinese government without question. For example, Eyecool Shenzhen Technology have been known to add 2 million facial images daily to a huge police system called Skynet - China’s monolithic video surveillance network.

China has become an Orwellian nightmare for Uyghur Muslims, as well as other minorities.

The precarious path of Sinicisation is paved with high-tech cameras, advanced AI, powerful algorithms and facial/emotion recognition software.

Through The Belt & Road Initiative, loans to developing nations, strong diplomacy and the export of tech to other regimes China has managed to evade any real accountability for its transgressions against perhaps the most surveilled people in the world, the Uyghurs.

Image by Kuzzat Altay