Amid scant media coverage of the ongoing persecution of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, when was the last time you read about or saw a TV report on their plight? One could well say that such reports are episodic. Writing in the Toronto Star Michael Levitt says that world attention on the plight of the Uyghur has somewhat reduced. He also finishes his argument by stating that Uyghur persecution in China is one of the most egregious and appalling crimes against humanity. However, even as we read Levitt’s Canadian perspective on the plight of the Uyghur, one would do well to draw attention to the latest Al Jazeera report (Erin Hale, 4 May 2023) which cites a Human Rights Watch (HRW) forensic investigation which reveals that Chinese authorities have monitored the phones of the ethnic minority Uyghur for the presence of 50,000 known multimedia files that were used to flag what China views as extremism, with the mere possession of the Quran reason enough to trigger a police interrogation. If mere possession of the Quran can lead to a police interrogation, one can well imagine what else could happen for other related offences!
The HRW search found more than 1,000 unique files on about 1,400 Urumqi residents’ phones that matched those on the master list of the police. Analysis of these files has revealed that 57 per cent appeared to be common Islamic religious materials, including readings of every surah (chapter) of the Quran. Chinese security services have a long list of “violent and terrorist” content which includes violent audio, video and images produced by armed groups such as ISIS. It also includes material from organisations that promote the identity or self-determination of Uyghur, including the separatist East Turkestan Independence Movement, World Uyghur Congress, and the United States government-funded news outlet Radio Free Asia. The files also include information about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which is heavily censored in China. Al Jazeera reports that the master list analysed by HRW is part of a wider 52GB trove of documents from a Xinjiang police database that was leaked to the Intercept, a US-based media outlet in 2019, but not made public until now.
In recent years, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has increased its repression of the Uyghur that includes state-imposed restrictions on religious freedom, language rights, cultural expression, and freedom of movement. Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained more than a million Uyghur in what it calls “re-education camps” and subjected those not detained to extensive surveillance, religious restrictions, forced labour and involuntary sterilization. Researchers in the West have described it as “the largest incarceration of a minority group since the holocaust”. Last year, a UN Human Rights office report revealed “patterns of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” in the camps. Most people detained in the camps were never charged and had no legal avenue to challenge their detentions. Often, their only alleged crime is being Muslim, with many denounced by the CPC as extremists or terrorists for simply practicing their religion. Intimidation of Uyghur abroad by China is also common place, including efforts to detain and deport them back to China. It has also pressurised other governments to repatriate those who have fled China.
Notably, China continues to use its vast influence to manipulate UN processes and to ensure that its allies avoid public acknowledgement of the persecution of the Uyghur. Following the release of the OHCHR report, the UN Human Rights Council voted down a motion in October 2022 by the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to hold a debate on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, marking only the second time in sixteen years that the council rejected a motion. The rejection was condemned by Uyghur activist groups, many of whom helped lead advocacy efforts around the resolution who called it a major setback for accountability efforts and the credibility of the Human Rights Council. That the repression of the Uyghur continues in one way or the other is therefore worrisome. The list of content being monitored by the CPC according to HRW, also includes non-political material such as the Chinese travel show filmed in Syria called “On the Road”, readings from the Quran and Islamic songs.
While the police officially monitor Uyghur phones for “extremist” material, HRW says that in many cases, ethnic Muslims are flagged as supporters of violent extremism for simply practising Islam. Chinese police in Urumqi also require residents to download an app called JingwangWeishi. This app gives Chinese authorities the ability to monitor the contents of their mobile phones. Visitors to Xinjiang are also required to download a similar app called Fengcai .The HRW forensic investigation shows that only 9 per cent of the flagged files contained violent content and 4 per cent contained content calling for violence. An investigation by HRW into the metadata of this master list found that during nine months from 2017 to 2018, police conducted nearly 11 million searches of a total of 1.2 million mobile phones in Xinjiang’s capital city Urumqi. Xinjiang’s automated police mass surveillance systems enabled this phone search.
Similarly, a leaked list of 2,000 detainees at a re-education facility in Aksu prefecture in 2018 showed that 10 per cent had been detained for downloading “violent and terrorist” multimedia or having a connection to someone who downloaded it. Uyghur Muslims are thus subject to heavy surveillance as part of the CPC’s efforts to eliminate cultural, linguistic, and religious differences from the country’s majority Han culture. Michael Levitt correctly sums up the need to stand up for the Uyghur now. He argues that the post-Holocaust vow of “Never Again” should be updated to “Never Again Now.” That means the world must use all means at their disposal to step up pressure against China to end its genocidal persecution of the Uyghurs, “Now”.