‘Security state’ China is using QR codes, big data to track, monitor Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, claims Human Rights Watch

China is using latest biometric and surveillance technology including installing QR codes on homes of the Uighur ethnic community to track their movement and get instant access to the personal details in Xinjiang province, a report in the Human Rights Watch said.

Though authorities claim that the QR codes — featured in locales other than Uighur homes as well — help with population control and delivery of services, according to the charity, it’s being used to monitor Turkic Muslims and repress the expression of “Uighur identity including the community’s religion, language and culture” in daily life.

Human Rights Watch between March and August 2018 interviewed 58 people affected by the Strike Hard Campaign living outside China as part of the report.

Beijing, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping sees religion as something that must be “Sinicised”, it says, adding that the increased repression of the Uighur identity is part of China’s plan to achieve “ethnic unity” and suppress threat from “Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tensions between Uighurs who call the region home and the ethnic Han Chinese majority”.

According to the Human Rights Watch, “Officials scan the ‘smart’ door plates with mobile devices before entering homes to monitor the inhabitants,” it said.

Nurmuhemmet, a local, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said, “Starting from spring 2017, every… home, where one enters, there’s a QR code. Then every two days or every day, the cadres come and scan the QR code, so they know how many people live here, and starting around then, they would ask (our) visitors ‘Why are you here?’… In the evenings the cadres would check as well.”

The charity informs that QR codes are also installed on certain types of knives, including kitchen and craft knives, which are then linked the codes to their ID card numbers in the Xinjiang province, home to most of the Turkic Muslims. In Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, all liquids — including water — lighters, and powders are also banned from public transport, it said.

According to the report, besides QR codes, China is also using a predictive policing programme based on big data and machine learning analysis, in Xinjiang. Known as the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” (IJOP), the “tool aggregates data about people, often without their knowledge, and detects deviations from what authorities deem ‘normal’, such as the failure to pay phone bills, and treats them as indicators that a person may be politically ‘untrustworthy'”.

The IJOP generates lists of people considered threatening to the authorities; the police then apprehend them, interrogate them, and detain some of them, it adds.

Interviewees also told Human Rights Watch that the police and neighborhood officers often check people’s phones for “problematic” content, messages, or apps, without explanation or any official documentation. Some interviewees also said that people were forced to record their gait in police stations.

The Human Rights Watch  also says that it has documented “Xinjiang authorities’ directive to authorities to collect biometrics, including DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents between the age of 12 and 65”.

“These biometrics, as well as ‘voice samples’, are collected as part of the passport application process; in addition, DNA and blood types are being collected through a free annual physical exams program called Physicals for All,” the report added.

Though Human Rights Watch said that it’s unclear how Beijing might be using the biometrics , it said that the amount of information that the authorities have on people is “enough to frighten many from that region”.

The increased surveillance is part of the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” that the government launched in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in 2014 to promote “ethnic unity”, the report claims.

According to a United Nations Human Rights Panel report released in August this year, China is running a secretive system of “internment camps” in Xinjiang, where Uighurs undergo political education. China, has denied those claims an termed them as centres for vocational training.

Interestingly, the Xinjiang province, which Turkic Muslims, refer to as East Turkestan, is “the fulcrum of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative policy”, and therefore, finding a solution to the problem of the Uighurs’ distinctive belief in Islam and Turkic identity, is not just culturally but also economically.

HRW claims that repression in Xinjiang has reached new heights after party secretary Chen Quanquo was transferred from Tibet to Xinjiang in August 2016, and since Xi came to power in March 2013. Besides, China has often said that “sincising” religion is important to combat hostile forces  in China.

Terming China a “security state”, HRW accused China of committing massive human rights abuses in Xinjiang, not seen in decades in China. Sophie Richardson, China director at HRW, said that “the campaign of repression in Xinjiang is a key test of whether the United Nations and concerned governments will sanction an increasingly powerful China to end this abuse”.

Xinjiang is home to Turkic Muslim ethnic minorities: the two biggest groups being the 11 million Uighurs and the 1.6 million Kazakhs. Once in the majority, Turkic Muslims now comprise only about half of Xinjiang’s population, and have never enjoyed the autonomy promised to them under Chinese law, it claims.

According to the report, China sees the Turkic Muslims, particularly the Uighurs, as a threat to the Chinese state especially because of their demand for greater freedoms and autonomy under the current government; a section of the community also demands a separate state.

The report says that the use of modern technology has helped the government tightened its net of surveillance around the community. The community’s affinity to protect the Uighur identity including their religion, culture, and language as well as autonomy is seen against China’s plan for “ethnic unity”.

Since the 1990s, Chinese authorities have been using different methods such as prioritising Mandarin over Uighur language in education to banning baby names with religious connotations such as Medina, to “minimise, if not eradicate”, the “Uighur identity, including religion, culture, language, and aspirations of independence”, the report says.

The government runs several other programmes under it including sending fanghuiju teams to villages — some 200,000 cadres were employed under it — regularly visit and surveil people, and subject them to political propaganda, and its latest avatar Becoming Family — a homestay programme where more than a million cadres spend at least five days every two months in the homes of Xinjiang residents primarily in the countryside.

Use of technology like facial recognition was also witnessed in some security checkpoints, the report said.

Quoting domestic Chinese tourists, it added that Turkic Muslims in the area are seen as “terrorists” and “separatists” and made to go through more stringent security controls as compared to Hans, the ethnic majority in China.

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