The order came through a police automation system in Ürümqi, the largest city in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. The system had distributed a report — an “intelligence information judgment,” as local authorities called it — that the female relative of a purported extremist had been offered free travel to Yunnan, a picturesque province to the south.
The woman found the offer on the smartphone messaging app WeChat, in a group known simply as “Travelers.” Authorities homed in on the group because of ethnic and family ties; its members included Muslim minorities like Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, who speak languages beside China’s predominant one, Mandarin. “This group has over 200 ethnic-language people,” the order stated. “Many of them are relatives of incarcerated people. Recently, many intelligence reports revealed that there is a tendency for relatives of [extremist] people to gather. This situation needs major attention. After receiving this information, please investigate immediately. Find out the background of the people who organize ‘free travel,’ their motivation, and the inner details of their activities.”
Police in Ürümqi’s Xiheba Precinct, near the historic city center, received the order and summarized their work in a 2018 report. The one person rounded up as a result of the order, a Uyghur, had no previous criminal record, had never heard of the WeChat group, and never even traveled within China as a tourist. He “has good behavior and we do not have any suspicion,” police wrote. Still, his phone was confiscated and sent to a police “internet safety unit,” and the community was to “control and monitor” him, meaning the government would assign a trusted cadre member to regularly visit and watch over his household. A record about him was entered into the police automation system.
Based on their notes, police appear to have investigated the man and assigned the cadre members to “control and monitor” him entirely because of religious activities, which took place five months earlier, of his eldest sister. She and her husband invited another Uyghur couple in Ürümqi to join a religious discussion group on the messaging app Tencent QQ, according to police records. The other couple bought a laptop and logged onto the group every day from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; the husband stopped smoking and drinking, and the wife began wearing longer clothes. They began listening to “religious extremism information” on their laptop, the report said. Between the two couples, police recovered 168 religious audio files deemed illegal, likely because they were connected to an Islamic movement, Tablighi Jamaat, that advocates practicing Islam as it was practiced when the Prophet Muhammad was alive.
The fate of the eldest sister and her husband is unknown; the report simply states they were transferred to a different police bureau. The other couple was sent to a re-education camp.
Details of the investigations are contained in a massive police database obtained by The Intercept: the product of a reporting tool developed by private defense company Landasoft and used by the Chinese government to facilitate police surveillance of citizens in Xinjiang.
The database, centered on Ürümqi, includes policing reports that confirm and provide additional detail about many elements of the persecution and large-scale internment of Muslims in the area. It sheds further light on a campaign of repression that has reportedly seen cameras installed in the homes of private citizens, the creation of mass detention camps, children forcibly separated from their families and placed in preschools with electric fences, the systematic destruction of Uyghur cemeteries, and a systematic campaign to suppress Uyghur births through forced abortion, sterilization, and birth control.
It offers an inside view into police intelligence files and auxiliary community police meetings, as well as the operation of checkpoints that are pervasive in Ürümqi. It also details phone, online, and financial surveillance of marginalized groups, showing how granular surveillance purportedly on the watch for extremism is often simply looking at religious activity. Additionally, the database spells out how Chinese authorities are analyzing and refining the information they collect, including trying to weed out “filler” intelligence tips submitted by police and citizens to inflate their numbers and using automated policing software to help prompt investigations like the one into the WeChat travel group.
Among the revelations from the database is information on the extensive use of a tool that plugs into phones to download their contents, the “anti-terrorism sword,” deployed so frequently that Chinese authorities worried it was alienating the populace. It shows authorities tracking how their policies succeeded in driving down mosque attendance. It also offers evidence that the “Physicals for All” biometric collection program, which authorities insisted was solely a health initiative, is intended as part of the policing system. And it quantifies and provides details on the extensive electronic monitoring that goes on in Xinjiang, containing millions of text messages, phone call records, and contact lists alongside banking records, phone hardware and subscriber data, and references to WeChat monitoring as well as e-commerce and banking records.
The database also sheds light on the extent of policing and detention in Xinjiang. It details how former residents who went abroad and applied for political asylum were flagged as terrorists. In some cases, it appears as though fixed-term sentences were assigned to people in re-education detention — undercutting the idea, promulgated by the government, that the lengths of such detentions are contingent on rehabilitation or vocational training.
Taken together, the materials provide a broad overview of how the extensive surveillance systems deployed in Xinjiang fit together to repress minority populations and how extensively they impact day-to-day life in the region.
“Overall, this testifies to an incredible police state, one that is quite likely to place suspicions on people who have not really done anything wrong,” said Adrian Zenz, an anthropologist and researcher who focuses on Xinjiang and Tibet.
The investigations stemming from the WeChat travelers group offer a concrete example of this intense policing, said Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “You can see the muddled thinking in here, where people are being jailed for nothing, but also the process is so arbitrary.”
The revelations underscore how Xinjiang is an early look at the ways recent technology, like smartphones, cheap digital camera systems, and mass online storage of data, can be combined to monitor and repress large groups of people when civil liberties concerns are pushed aside.
“The mass surveillance in Xinjiang is a cautionary tale for all of us,” said Wang. “Xinjiang really shows how privacy is a gateway right, where if you have no privacy, that’s where you see that you have no freedoms as a human being at all. You don’t have the right to practice your religion, you don’t have the right to be who you are, you don’t even have the right to think your own thoughts because your thoughts are being parsed out by these incessant visits and incessantly monitored by surveillance systems, whether they’re human or artificial, and evaluated constantly for your level of loyalty to the government.”
Landasoft and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
Central Storage for the Public Security Bureau in Ürümqi
The database obtained by The Intercept appears to be maintained and used by the Ürümqi City Public Security Bureau and the broader Xinjiang Public Security Bureau. It also contains documents from units of the national Internet Safety and Protection Bureau.
Landasoft has branded the software that appears to be behind the database as “iTap,” a big data system it markets publicly.
The database spans 52 gigabytes and contains close to 250 million rows of data. It is fed by and provides data back to various apps, roughly a dozen of which appear linked to the database. These include:
- Jingwang Weishi, an app for monitoring files on a mobile phone, which police in China have reportedly forced Uyghurs to download.
- Baixing Anquan, which roughly translates to “people’s safety app” or “public safety app” and appears to be used by both citizens and police, including to enable citizens to snitch on one another to the authorities.
- Quzheng Shuju Guanli, or “Evidence Collection Management,” which collects “evidence” from apps like WeChat and Outlook.
- ZhiPu, a graphic interface of people’s relationships and the extent to which authorities are interested in them (the database contains only sparse information on ZhiPu).
One of the database’s major components is an extensive collection of minutes from “community stability” meetings, in which de facto police auxiliaries, or citizen-staffed neighborhood police, discuss what took place the week prior across their area. The database also contains various associated documents outlining policing and intelligence priorities and summaries of intelligence collected, local facilities checked, families of detainees visited, and updates on people of interest in the community. There are also weekly intelligence and detention reports, which include information on investigations of tips and on suspicious people.
The database provides information on numerous other tools used to analyze the digital surveillance it contains. For example, documents in the database reference a Chinese government system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform. IJOP, which has been the subject of extensive interest and discussion by human rights groups, gathers together surveillance about the residents of Xinjiang, stores it centrally, and uses it to make automated policing decisions referred to in the database as “pushes,” or push notifications. IJOP was the platform police said issued the order to investigate the WeChat free travel group.
Other documents give information on the use of the label “three-category people,” who are deemed terrorists or extremists, with three varying degrees of severity.
The database itself repeatedly uses a marker to query for Uyghur people, “iXvWZREN,” which groups them with terrorists and ex-convicts. There is no marker for Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China.
From Checkpoints to Chat Monitoring: Surveillance in Ürümqi
The surveillance in Xinjiang was known to be extensive, creating one of the most watched regions in the world. What the database reveals is how this spying machine is used: what surveillance looks like on the ground (unrelenting) and what specific ends it is intended to serve (often to curb any unsanctioned influence, from the practice of Islam to ideas from foreign countries). People are watched up close and at a distance, with some information directly sucked out of their digital devices, other data collected from taps and sensors, and still more from relatives and informants in the community. The campaign against Uyghurs and their practice of Islam is laid out in stark and aggressive terms in police documents, and paranoia about outside or otherwise malign influence of many sorts manifest repeatedly.
Some of the most invasive data in the database comes from “anti-terrorism sword” phone inspection tools. Police at checkpoints, which pervade the city, make people plug their phones into these devices, which come from various manufacturers. They gather personal data from phones, including contacts and text messages, and also check pictures, videos, audio files, and documents against a list of prohibited items. They can display WeChat and SMS text messages. The data extracted is then integrated into IJOP.
A 2018 report from a neighborhood just northeast of the center of Ürümqi mentions authorities conducting searches on 1,860 people with an anti-terrorism sword in just one week in March. In the same report, detailing a single week in April, 2,057 people in the area had their phones checked. Around 30,000 people live in the area, the Qidaowan neighorhood, according to government statistics.
People are watched up close and at a distance, with some information directly sucked out of their digital devices, other data collected from taps and sensors, and still more from relatives and informants in the community.
This pattern of frequent police stops is seen in other parts of Ürümqi. Documents discuss police checking people’s phones upwards of three or four times in one night, and how this makes it difficult to stay on the good side of the populace, which is clearly becoming annoyed.
For example, an August 2017 police report said that “due to overly frequent phone inspections conducted by certain checkpoints, which caused some people to be inspected over 3 times, people complain about this work.” An October 2017 “social opinion intelligence report” stated that “some people reflected that the current checkpoint is too overpowered. Often they would be checked 3 times during one night. It wastes their time when they are in an emergency.”
The documents discuss people who switched to older phones to prevent the inconvenience of these phone checks.
Rune Steenberg, an anthropologist in Denmark focusing on Xinjiang and Uyghurs, who spent time in Kashgar as a researcher as late as 2016, said he switched to using a simple phone rather than a smartphone in 2014 and that many Uyghurs did the same. “It’s not just about them discovering stuff on your phone,” he said. “They can place stuff on your phone in order to incriminate you. And there’s no way you can afterwards prove that that was placed on your phone and it wasn’t from you. So it became really dangerous, actually, to have a smartphone.”
And, Steenberg said, police would often scam people into giving up their smartphones, falsely stating the phone had religious content and asking people if it was theirs, knowing they would disown the device. “They would be like, ‘No, that’s not my phone, no, I didn’t bring my phone here,’” said Steenberg. Then, he said, the police would hold onto the phones and sell them afterward.
The database also helps quantify how broadly phone surveillance was deployed around Ürümqi. For example, in the space of one year and 11 months, Chinese authorities collected close to 11 million SMS messages. In one year and 10 months, they gathered 11.8 million records on phone call duration and parties involved in the call. And in a one-year, 11-month period, they gathered seven million contacts and around 255,000 records on phone hardware, including the IMSI number that identifies phones on cellular networks; phone model and manufacturer; a computer network identifier known as a MAC address; and another cellular network identifier, the IMEI number.
Phone call information that is tracked in the database includes people on the calls, name of the recipient, and the start and stop times of each conversation. Fields in the database indicate that online dating information, e-commerce purchases, and email contacts may also be extracted from phones.
“You cannot feel safe anywhere because of your cellphone,” said Abduweli Ayup, a linguist and poet who lived in Kashgar, Xinjiang. “You have to turn your cellphone on 24 hours, and you have to answer the phone at any time if police call you.” He said that with chat apps also monitored, Uyghurs can never experience privacy, even at home.
Beyond passively watching phones, the government worked to coerce people to participate in a biometrics program purported to be a health initiative. Under the “Physicals for All” program, citizens were required to go have their faces scanned and voice signatures analyzed, as well as give DNA. Documents describing the program indicate it is part of the policing system.
Darren Byler, an anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said that while the “Physicals for All” program has long been known about and suspected to be a form of surveillance, authorities have always denied it and said it was simply a public health initiative. “How clearly this is part of the policing system is made clear in the documents,” Byler said. “It’s very clear, it’s obvious that that’s a part of how they want to control the population.”
Reports in the database show “Physicals for All” work is routinely conducted through the police “convenience stations,” leading to complaints from citizens about sanitary conditions. (The convenience stations purportedly bring the community and police closer together, featuring amenities like public Wi-Fi and phone-charging, but are hubs for surveillance.) They also discuss how citizens who fail to submit biometric and biographical information are reported to police, face fines, and are sometimes made to formally renounce their behavior. Some documents about the program focus on migrants or the “ethnic-language people.” One indicates that physical exams conducted on students are used for policing:
(2) Houbo Institute, which is part of the second hospital of Xinjiang Medical University, is going to start a new semester soon. The list of names of returning students is not known to us.
Method: After the semester begins, we will immediately conduct “physical checkup” work on the returning students using the IJOP platform. We will report to the national security team immediately if we find any suspicious labels.
Documents in the database also show heightened surveillance of people as they move about in public through the growing use of facial recognition, directed by the IJOP system. The police report on use of the anti-terrorism sword also details the use of facial recognition, showing that over 900 people were checked using facial recognition across 40 police convenience stations in Qidaowan Precinct.
(FOUR) Convenience Police Station Operational Notes:
There are 40 convenience stations in Qidaowan Precinct in total. … This week we searched 2,057 people with the anti-terrorism sword and did facial recognition on 935 people. No suspects. We sent 237 intelligence reports using the Intelligence Reporting System.
It’s clear, Byler said after reviewing the numbers, that “face recognition has become an increasingly important aspect of the surveillance system.”
Some of the most intriguing evidence of personal data surveillance comes from computer programming code stored in the database and seemingly designed to generate reports. This reporting code references a good deal of material not included in the database obtained by The Intercept, making it impossible to confirm how much of it is actually collected by authorities or how it would be used.
Still, these so-called tactic or evidence collection reports give clues as to what information the database, on its own or as part of a broader collection, is intended to include. The report code contains references to data on online services like Facebook, QQ, Momo, Weibo, Taobao’s Aliwangwang, as well as actual phone call recordings, photos, GPS locations, and a list of “high-risk words.”
Documents in the database also confirm police access to information on people’s use of WeChat. Discussion of WeChat surveillance appears in records of auxiliary community police meetings and accounts of police investigations.
In an example of how police document their WeChat capabilities, one document — from the national Internet Safety Bureau — demonstrates a police search drill in which a police officer was marked as a suspect for the purpose of the exercise. He drove throughout the city while other police traced his vehicle using his WeChat history and location data. Authorities appeared to read the mock suspect’s WeChat texts, with one “WeChat Analysis” reading, “He said he’s having lunch at the petrol area.”
The aim of much of the surveillance is to curb any influence that could conceivably lead to a desire for greater freedom or autonomy among Uyghur and other minority groups in Xinjiang.
For example, the material corroborates reports that Uyghurs are monitored outside of China and that it’s not just people who travel abroad and then return who are surveilled, but also their relatives and friends.
Police in the Shuimogou district of Ürümqi investigated a young woman because her high school friend went to study at Stanford University and because the woman sometimes talked to her on WeChat. “According to the investigation, we did not find any violation of rules or laws while she resided and worked in our area,” read a 2018 report from the neighborhood of Weihuliang. “While she resided in the area she actively participated in community works and actively participated in other activities in the community, and actively participated in the raising of the flag ceremony in the community. We do not see any abnormality and she is cleared from suspicion.” Byler called the incident “important confirmation on the way people outside the country are being monitored by those in the country, and the way these connections produce ‘micro-clues’ of suspicion.”
In another example of how outside influence is grounds for suspicion, a document from the community of Anping, also in Shuimogou, mentions that all phones and computers of workers who have visited family outside of the city should be inspected for unauthorized content.
Clearing violent and terrorist audio and video has always been a very important part of stability work. Our community pays a lot of attention to this work. Because the Chinese New Year break is coming to an end, people will increasingly come back to work, therefore our community decided to conduct a large-scale computer and cellphone inspection for workers who are coming back. We inspect stored information on every household and every person’s cellphone and computer. To date, we did not discover violent and terrorist audio and video among the residents in the area. We will continue this work later and will record the results.
Chinese authorities’ fear of outside influence on citizens of Xinjiang is connected to an initiative called “backflow prevention,” or fanghuiliu. The idea is to prevent the “backflow” of extremism or other malign ideas from abroad.
A possible example of this initiative is the 2018 imprisonment of Feng Siyu, a Chinese academic who came to Xinjiang University’s Folklore Research Center as a translator the previous February. Feng is part of China’s Han ethnic majority and is originally from Hangzhou in eastern China, far from Xinjiang. But she studied abroad — including at Amherst College, SOAS University of London, and Indiana University — and came under police attention in Ürümqi, according to an October 2017 police intelligence note in the database. The note recorded that Feng had “foreign obscure software” on her OnePlus smartphone. The note further stated that the software came with the smartphone and that Feng did not use it.
Feng is believed to have been sentenced to two years in prison in February 2018. Her imprisonment is tracked on shahit.biz, the Xinjiang Victim’s Database, a website that documents instances of incarceration in the region.
Steenberg, the anthropologist, said he believes Feng was under scrutiny because she traveled between the U.S. and Ürümqi and spoke good Uyghur, and because of her work at the folk research center and with its founder Rahile Dawut. A celebrated academic, Dawut collected ethnographic data, including folktales and oral literature in southern Xinjiang and information on Sufi Islamic practices. Dawut disappeared in December 2017 and is believed to be in detention.
The drive for “backflow prevention” is also reflected in the identification of those who leave China as security threats. One report from Saimachang, a Uyghur stronghold in the historic center of Ürümqi, discusses former residents who have gone abroad and applied for political asylum as terrorists, corroborating reports that Uyghurs are monitored outside of China.
“It’s really clear evidence that charges of terrorism or extremism don’t meet international standards of terrorism or extremism,” said Byler. “Applying for political asylum is not a sign of terrorism by most definitions, but in this context it is.” This also demonstrates the amount of detailed information Chinese authorities keep about Uyghurs abroad.
Ayup has experience with this sort of monitoring. While in Kashgar, Ayup operated a Uyghur-language kindergarten and promoted Uyghur-language education. He fled China after 15 months of detention, during which he said he was interrogated and tortured. After leaving, Ayup said at one point he joined a WeChat group for the Chinese embassy. “When I went to the Chinese embassy, they asked me to join their WeChat group, and when I joined, a Chinese spy in Ürümqi found me; he talked to me and he threatened me,” he said.
Even holding a passport is considered suspicious. Documents in the database indicate Uyghur passport holders are checked on by authorities more frequently than those without passports.
Indeed, any knowledge of life outside of Xinjiang can be flagged as suspicious. For example, police in Weihuliang took note in one weekly report, among “people who need special attention,” of four people who had traveled to Beijing “to reflect local issues.” “The rest have never left the region, so they’re seen as safer,” Byler said.
Even phone calls or text chats involving outside countries invite scrutiny from authorities in Xinjiang. In Tianshan, the historic and majority-Uyghur center of Ürümqi, authorities reported sending a professional driver to re-education following an unusual phone call to a “key country.” Zenz believes the “key country” is one in a group of 26 largely Muslim “focus” countries watched by authorities. Xinjiang authorities have targeted people with connections to these countries for interrogation, detention and even imprisonment, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. The countries include Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.
2. While doing home visits, a community worker learned that [name redacted], who lives in [address], national ID number [redacted], female, Uyghur, has no job and stays home to care for her young children. … Community police searched on the police net and found out that the person was arrested in [hometown] on September 21, 2017. The reason for arrest: Cellphone contains obscure chat program. …
3. Social workers learned while doing home visits that [name redacted], who lives in [address redacted], Uyghur, national ID number [redacted] … his mother, [name redacted], female, Uyghur, national ID number [redacted], has been detained in Tianshan District on September 20, 2017. Reason for arrest: face covering. …
4. Community workers learned during home visits that [name redacted], who lives in [address], male, Uyghur … driver … has strange phone call behaviors during the night, and communicates with key countries. He has been detained in his hometown and is currently educated and converted (Shule County). … Mother: [name redacted], female, Uyghur. … Currently the community is monitoring her husband and children according to the detainee relative conditions.
The database also shows increased use of artificial intelligence, coupled with human intelligence, in directing surveillance in recent years. Documents from authorities in the Ürümqi districts of Tianshan and Shuimogou show IJOP sending push notifications directing investigations by local police. In 2018, one police precinct alone received 40 such notifications, according to one document.
While news reports in recent years have depicted Chinese police automation systems like IJOP as rudimentary, relying heavily on human intelligence, evidence in the database indicates use of machine-learning technology is growing, said Byler, who received his Ph.D. in Uyghur technopolitics in Chinese cities of Central Asia.
“What your data shows is that it’s beginning to automate in some ways, especially around face surveillance,” Byler said. “If they’re using 900 checkpoint [scans] around face surveillance, they are using AI to a significant extent now,” he added, referring to the 935 facial scans in one week in Qidaowan Precinct.
Documents show police are also adding into IJOP a significant amount of checkpoint data, including phone downloads from anti-terrorism swords. Documents from 2018 and 2019 show mounting push notifications from IJOP. “It’s clear that that system is beginning to alert them and direct their policing in new ways, and so it is starting to come online,” said Byler.
The documents also make clear the extent to which authorities try to assess the psychology of people under suspicion, with a keen eye in particular toward loyalty and even fervor. This is exhibited at so-called flag-raising ceremonies: community events in which participants proclaim their loyalty to China and the ruling regime. Documents show that these events are extensively monitored by police and their proxies. Authorities watch not just former detainees but their relatives as well, to confirm they are participating and to determine how passionate they are about doing so.
Authorities used participation in these weekly ceremonies as a way to monitor three people, likely Uyghurs, on a community watchlist, according to one of the documents. Participants are asked to perform a vow of loyalty involving the phrase “Voice your opinion, raise your sword” (or “Show your voice, show your sword”). If their participation is not wholehearted and patriotic, employers and others inform on them to police, Byler said. Also scrutinized at the ceremonies are “surplus laborers,” people on a coercive labor track that blends work on community projects with re-education. The surplus labor program has ramped up sharply over the last four years.
The documents make clear the extent to which authorities try to assess the psychology of people under suspicion, with a keen eye in particular toward loyalty and even fervor.
Documents show that the police officers and neighbors doing this monitoring at flag-raising ceremonies are also making recommendations about who should be sent to re-education camps.
Although China has insisted its policing in Xinjiang is directed at stopping terrorism and extremism rather than persecuting the practice of any religion, the database confirms and details how surveillance homes in on many common expressions of Islamic faith, and even on curiosity about the religion, leading in many cases to investigations. The government considers it a potential sign of religious extremism to grow a beard, have a prayer rug, own Uyghur books, or even quit smoking or drinking.
Surveillance directed at Islamic practice in the region also involves watching mosques. Authorities surveil mosque attendance, tally which worshippers are migrants and which are residents, and monitor whether prayers are conducted in an orderly way, according to police reports in the database.
Ayup said mosques have cameras inside too, and people are surveilled for the way in which they pray.
“If people use a different style of praying … the camera takes a picture,” he said, adding that a friend was arrested for this. Ayup said that some Uyghurs pray in very old styles, and some use new styles. “In the Chinese government’s eyes, the new style is threatening, is extremism,” he said.
Even the use of natural gas in a neighborhood mosque was monitored, according to a document from Quingcui, a community in the Liudaowan neighborhood in the district of Shuimogou.
Citizens Integrated Into System of “Hyperpolicing”
The relentless surveillance in Xinjiang has been the best understood component of the repressive environment in the region. More difficult to study and understand, particularly for human rights groups abroad, has been how and to what extent it drives enforcement. As it turns out, the intensity of policing in Xinjiang matches the hyperaggression of the surveillance: closely integrated and every bit as pervasive. The database obtained by The Intercept reveals evidence of a deeply invasive police state, concerned with people’s thoughts and enthusiasms, entering their homes, interfering with their daily movements, and even seeking out crimes in activities perfectly legal at the time they were undertaken. Authorities in the region direct investigations and other police work using an approach one expert, after examining portions of the database, described as “hyperpolicing,” cracking down on any aberrant behavior. The tactics used are all-encompassing, involving civilian brigades, home visits, and frequent checkpoints. As extensive as this work is, it is also conducted in a way that targets people according to perceived danger. Minorities of all sorts — be they linguistic, religious, or ethnic — are disproportionately patrolled.
Discrimination against so-called ethnic-language people, or Muslim minorities with their own languages, is a key component of policing in Xinjiang.
Many detainees and former detainees are referred to as “three-category people.” The label, applied very liberally, refers to purported extremists and terrorists of three levels of severity, ranked according to the government’s perception of their mindset and potential to cause harm. Relatives of detainees and former detainees are also labeled, ranked, and tracked by police. Another system categorizes people as trustworthy, normal, or untrustworthy.
Police categories and rankings implicitly draw attention to minority groups, but in some contexts, this focus is made explicit. For example, minutes from the community stability meetings show that these meetings specifically put a focus on “ethnic-language people,” who are under stronger surveillance than Chinese-speaking Hui Muslims. The meetings also focus on relatives of primarily Uyghur detainees.
Uyghurs are also policed in their practice of Islam. Documents show that police at times conduct security checks on everyone attending a given mosque.
Indeed, the government tightly controls who is allowed into mosques. One police document detailed an incident in which three students tried to go to a funeral for a friend’s father at a mosque. As Byler described it, the three students “were just hanging around the entrance trying to find a way to walk in because they had to scan their ID cards to go inside, but they were worried that [the front gate checkpoint] would contact the police and they didn’t know what to do.” The police questioned the students, held them for hours, and put them on a watchlist at school, “even though they explained everything they were trying to do,” Byler said.
More recent reports indicate that authorities set a goal of lowering mosque attendance and met it. Many police documents mention that mosque attendance is lower, and some explicitly describe this as indicating success. One report indicated that at one mosque, total visits in a four-month period declined by 80,000, compared to the same period in the prior year: more than a 96 percent decrease. This appears to be partly due to the departure of an imam and temporary closure of the mosque, but the report states that “there has been a drastic lowering of religious practitioners” over two years. It adds that this is partly because visitors left the city, were sent to camps, or were afraid to practice Islam.
There are 167 religious practitioners in the jurisdiction. … In the past two years, there has been a drastic lowering of religious practitioners. … The remaining practitioners are by and large long-term residents of advanced age.
Reasons for changes in believer numbers and composition: …
The jurisdiction strictly followed the anti-extremism work ordered by the regional officer. …
The mosque has a strict real-name policy and conducts religious activities following the law. People who work in the public sector and some young people no longer enter the premises. …
Since the beginning of the 2017 Strike Down and Detain operation, the problematic people in the jurisdiction have either been detained or re-educated. The total population has decreased.
Mosque activity that the Chinese government views as signs of extremism, said Ayup, can include praying without a Uyghur doppa, wearing perfume in the mosque, or even being relaxed while praying. Anybody who doesn’t praise the Chinese Communist Party after their prayer is also considered suspicious, he said.
One system categorizes people as trustworthy, normal, or untrustworthy.
In police notes, Byler said, “it’s interesting that they’re describing citizens as enemies, and it makes it clear that they see this as a sort of counterinsurgency, when really they’re just trying to detect who practices Islam or not.”
Notes from a police station in Weihuliang describe a “large-scale investigation … focused on areas where migrant populations congregate,” concentrating on people from predominately Uyghur southern Xinjiang. The notes said that in one week, police had registered 605 people from southern Xinjiang, investigating 383 of them and people they lived with. In the same sweeps, authorities inspected 367 phones and nine computers.
Xinjiang authorities’ policing of Islam is particularly zealous in its hunt for “wild imams” or “illegal preaching.” The terms refer to Islamic preachers whose work is not sanctioned by the Chinese government; rights groups have said Chinese authorities draw this legal line arbitrarily, to serve political needs. These imams can be prosecuted for sermons delivered either online and in mosques.
The Weihuliang police station notes list 60 people involved in so-called illegal preaching, 50 of whom are in custody. The same document said that “illegal preaching” in the WeChat group “Group 1 teach (Qur’an ABCs)” led to the capture of a 41-year-old Hui woman and the administrative detention of a 62-year-old Hui man.
More recent documents, from 2017 through 2019, reflect mounting difficulty by the police in continuing to find violations to enforce and people to place in detention or re-education camps. That’s because in 2017, the first wave of detentions swept Xinjiang, leading to the expulsion of a large portion of the population from Ürümqi. Xinjiang party leader Chen Quanguo told officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up,” extending a hard-line approach Chinese President Xi Jinping began organizing after a mass stabbing at a train station and an attack on an outdoor market with cars and explosives, both in 2014.
Police documents from this period, after the first wave of repression, reflect an intent to hunt down suspicious behavior of any kind.
“You’re being policed on a micro level, both by human policing and by the application of the technology to you and your life.”
“The system is set up in a way that’s producing hyperpolicing,” Byler said, “where any strange or any kind of aberrant behavior is reported, and if you’re a minority, you’re ‘ethnic,’ which is how they refer to Uyghurs and Kazakhs, then you’re very susceptible to this kind of stuff and you’re being policed on a micro level, both by human policing and by the application of the technology to you and your life.”
In some instances, people are being persecuted for violating laws before the laws were even instituted.
One police document describes how Hui women were detained because of evidence they had studied the Quran in an online group — which was legal at the time they did it but became illegal prior to their detention. They had been inactive in the group for at least a year before they were detained.
Such uncertainty about laws in Xinjiang, and when one might run afoul of police, echoes Ayup’s experience. “After people get arrested, then they will find out that ‘Oh, that [activity] is dangerous,’” he explained.
Wang said the hyperpolicing has become more pervasive over time.
“It’s basically a crackdown of everything,” Wang said, spreading from repression of Islamic practices to drug abuse and mental illness. “They just want to make sure they have such control over that region, general overall control.”
One illustration of how policing became increasingly aggressive and ubiquitous in Xinjiang is a police report discussing how one knife at a dumpling shop was not chained to a secure post, as per regulation. The report said the violation needed to be rectified within a day. Laws in Xinjiang require not only the chaining of knives, the document indicated, but that knives also have QR codes identifying their owners. “It’s just a way of showing how tightly everything is controlled, that even knives that are used in cooking have to be thought of as potential weapons,” said Byler.
To maintain the maximal vigilance entailed in “hyperpolicing,” authorities in Xinjiang enlisted ordinary citizens to inform on one another — not unheard of in China but practiced in the region more extensively, particularly against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.
Helping to enable this, citizens are rewarded for reporting on one another. The documents in the database include some details on this previously reported fact. Informants are rewarded for passing along information, but people are also rewarded for more specific actions. Linking their WeChat account, passing a verification, and posting an image can all result in a cash reward. All of this is tracked and reflected in the database.
This type of policing, bubbling up from the grassroots of the populace, “is about recruiting and considering ordinary people as part of these surveillance teams.”
One document, a public announcement from police, indicates that police and auxiliaries faced pressure to submit large quantities of intelligence to authorities. It chastised citizens in the high-tech zone within Ürümqi’s Xinshi district for sending in tips that are “filler created just to make report numbers seem large, and cannot be used, and occupy a large amount of manpower and time to process.” For example, “residents reported that there are often kids urinating in the elevator” of one building. Also: “A few citizens reported that they are scammed while buying crabs or mooncakes online. Quantities lost are generally not big.”
The announcement then went on to extensively detail 10 “categories of intelligence that are forbidden to report,” including tips having nothing to do with “policy about anti-terrorism, minority policy,” or with something called the “Xinjiang Management Agenda,” or with “policies that benefits citizens.”
Essentially, as Byler put it, authorities “were like, ‘That’s not the intelligence we want, we want intelligence about the Muslims.’”
This type of policing, bubbling up from the grassroots of the populace, “is about recruiting and considering ordinary people as part of these surveillance teams,” Wang said. “And in that way, it spells out quite an interesting philosophy of surveillance and society and engineering that I don’t think a lot of people understand outside of China.”
When Ayup lived in Xinjiang, he said, groups of 10 families were required to report somebody once a week in a feedback box, which existed before the app. “The problem is, if you cannot find something to write, you have to make it up to avoid being sent to the camps and to the center, so it’s obligatory. That’s the problem, but you cannot blame someone who reports because it’s his or her obligation,” he said.
In addition to drafting ordinary citizens individually to report on neighbors, authorities in Xinjiang also organized them through more formal community groups known as “safety units” or “brigades.” These units are segmented into groups of 10, according to documents in the database. For example, 10 households or 10 businesses might be organized as a brigade, with one volunteer from each group responding to calls like an emergency medical technician and doing drills in opposition to “terrorism.”
The safety brigades hark back to a historical Chinese tradition known as the Baojia system, in which 10 households formed a bao (or later a jia, 10 of which in turn formed a bao). This fractal structure formed a social safety system and is heavily associated with policing and the militarization of the population.
In modern times, similar systems have been branded as “grid management.” Several years ago, the Chinese government rolled out grid management nationwide; the density of citizen watch units in Xinjiang, however, has remained much higher than in other parts of the country, and safety units there are used for different purposes.
The Xinjiang safety units have not been seen in previous government documents, Byler said, but are pretty obvious if you’re in the region, where you’ll see drills, people marching in formation, and business owners wearing red armbands to show their affiliation.
“It’s the militarization of the population as a whole,” Byler said. “To this point we haven’t had a full description of what it’s supposed to do.”
Hyperpolicing also reaches into people’s homes through regular visits by authorities; those deemed at risk for extremist, terrorist, or separatist influence receive frequent visits. This typically means Uyghurs, dissidents, and those who have gone through re-education camps, as well as anyone related to any of those people.
Minutes from community stability meetings give a granular look at the type of information recorded in these home visits. They include professions, place of employment, former jobs, relatives (and relatives’ national ID numbers), travel, location of children, schools the children are attending, and what the community is still monitoring.
Some residents are discussed as being monitored or controlled by the community; that means a neighborhood watch unit is assigned to monitor them. This can include visits as often as every day, or once or twice a week, from one or more cadre members living in close proximity.
Some relatives of detainees are visited daily by local police. Even those considered trustworthy are visited, “to show them warmth and pull them into the Chinese patriotic fold,” as Byler put it. “It’s like winning hearts and minds.”
In one account from a police document, an older woman whose son was held by authorities befriended a police officer who visited her. Police claimed that the woman had become like a mother to the officer. She treated him like her son and opened up about all of her actual son’s activities. She was the ideal type of person who has been re-educated through the system, the document indicated.
Some home visits are for inspection purposes, to find religious items. Documents show police searching for religious books and removing prayer mats and even, as mentioned in a July 2018 police document, a picture of the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The documents indicate this effort originates from 2018 and is connected to a government initiative known as the “three cleanups” to encourage people to purge material considered extremist from their homes. “This is one of the first times I’ve seen that mentioned explicitly, that they’re going through people’s homes,” Byler said.
A document from October 2018 described how these home inspections unfold:
First, the personnel from the police station should gather all the people in the house into the living room in order to verify their identities one by one. Second, the cadres responsible for the household and members of the patrol team will conduct a careful inspection of all rooms of the house, especially under the carpet, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, and under the bed. Suspicious areas such as corners of the sofas, etc., are to be inspected one by one using a “turning over the boxes, emptying out the cabinets” approach, and the house number where the suspicious objects were found and photo of the owner of the objects are to be taken as evidence.
The authorities also monitor phone calls between detainees and their family members back home. One document detailed such a call that lasted four minutes and 20 seconds, describing the contents of the conversation and how grateful the relatives were that the government allowed it. “It’s an inflection point documenting how people are receiving the re-education,” Byler explained. “If they cry or act angry that their relative can’t be released, that’s a sign that the re-education hasn’t been received.”
In many cases, relatives were asked to record their call and share it with the police, or they were interviewed immediately after to see how they were doing after the call.
Citizens in Xinjiang are also routinely stopped outside their homes by authorities. The database contains records from more than two million checkpoint stops in Ürümqi (population 3.5 million) and the surrounding area in a two-year period. It includes a list of nearly three dozen categories of people to stop, such as “intelligence national security important person.” When a person is stopped at a checkpoint, they go through an ID check, typically including processing via facial recognition. Facial recognition is sometimes performed through automatic scanning by a fixed surveillance camera. It can also be performed through a manual scan using a smartphone camera; these are often used on people deemed to need the extra scrutiny of an up-close facial scan, for example, because they lack ID. If a person’s face is displayed with a yellow, orange, or red indicator on a computer, showing the system has deemed them suspicious or criminal, they are questioned and may be arrested.
Categories of people often stopped at checkpoints include relatives of offenders and relatives of detainees.
Data retained from these stops include photos of those stopped, the latitude and longitude of the stop, the name of the collection point, vehicle and license plate if applicable, the search time, the search level, whether the person was released, and the result of the search. Those who were stopped are categorized in the database as people who were immediately arrested, those who were returned to their original residence, psychiatric patients, relatives of detainees, relatives of offenders, and individuals who were listed as participants of the July 2009 Ürümqi riots, in which Uyghur–Han violence at a toy factory in southeast China led to a broader outbreak of civil unrest involving attacks against largely ethnically Han residents.
A Detention System Built on Uncertainty and Inconsistencies
Beyond surveillance and policing, the database provides a close-up look at how various forms of incarceration are used to control the population, particularly minority groups and perceived dissidents in Xinjiang. It reveals a system moving to adapt its rhetoric and policies to a reality in which the length of incarceration, even under the guise of “training” or “re-education,” is often so uncertain that relatives of the imprisoned are grateful when detainees are granted fixed-term sentences.
Documents illustrate Xinjiang’s complex system of prison-like facilities, which roughly speaking break down into four categories: those for temporary detention; “re-education”; a more lenient form of re-education referred to as “vocational training”; and long-term prison.
Detention centers, which are said to have the harshest conditions and worst crowding, are essentially interrogation and holding facilities. People are kept there while waiting for an investigation to be completed. Re-education facilities are officially known as “transformation through education” camps. They practice “highly coercive brainwashing” in the words of Zenz, who has investigated the camps using government documents. The training centers are purportedly intended to transmit vocational and other skills but are clearly prison-like, with barbed wire, high walls, watchtowers, and internal camera systems.
It is common for a given citizen to travel through multiple types of incarceration in a sort of pipeline fashion. One police document from the Tianshan district of Ürümqi describes a mother involved in a “national security incident” who was put into re-education, then a vocational training school.
The re-education was conducted through the public security bureau’s internal security division, a domestic security force that investigates transnational crime. It is “a very tough unit,” often used against dissidents, said Zenz. “I totally expect that to be a place where torture is practiced, without knowing it for sure,” he added.
Authorities then sent the mother to a vocational training center, which would have been “still plenty unpleasant and coercive,” said Zenz, but “the most lenient” and eventually leading to release into forced labor. “In the police state, it’s the most desirable place to be because you’ll eventually get out,” he said. (These types of so-called vocational training centers are distinct from real vocational training centers existing in China that do not involve forced stays where people are removed from their families and subject to indoctrination.)
Nejmiddin Qarluq, a Uyghur who obtained asylum in Belgium in 2017, said the reason for detention isn’t always clear, since people are often arrested casually and have their property confiscated. When Qarluq was 6 years old, his father was released from prison. He himself was sentenced to three years in prison, then served another five-and-a-half-year term. One of his brothers was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996, he said, and another brother was sentenced to six and a half years and is still in prison. His brother, ex-wife, and sister were locked up in an education camp in 2018.
Because Qarluq was sentenced when he was 14, he said his entire life after he was released was under Chinese Communist Party police supervision, and he wasn’t ever able to feel safe at all. And, he said, there is no freedom or privacy — even privacy of thought — beyond the country’s control. “I am the lucky one who got the chance to flee the country,” he said.
The database contains evidence that rates of detention, compared to re-education, may be significantly higher than outside observers believed. That would mean Uyghurs and others in the system were enduring significantly harsher conditions while incarcerated.
A police report from Weihuliang Precinct provides information on the number of people held throughout Shuimogou, one of seven districts in Ürümqi, in detention and re-education. At the time, in February 2018, the district had 803 people in re-education and almost as many, around 787, in detention. In Weihuliang specifically, the ratio of people in detention was even higher: 348 detained versus 184 in re-education.
Byler called this “a really shocking proportion, if we take this to be normative across the region.”
“That’s showing us that almost half of the people detained are not even in the re-education camp system yet, they’re just being processed,” Byler added. “Conditions in these spaces are really bad. If what these reports are telling us are true, that these larger numbers are being held in these spaces, it is really concerning.”
Byler described detention as often “very crowded, from what we’ve heard from people, and the conditions in them are really bad, because of the overcrowding. … People sometimes, because of the crowding, aren’t able to sleep at the same time because they can’t all fit on the bed (actually a platform with a wooden top called a ‘kang’) at the same time.” Cameras in the cell watch constantly, and lights remain on all night.
Re-education, in comparison, offers somewhat better conditions, including larger inner courtyards for marching or teaching, and more importantly, the hope of potentially quick release — whenever “transformative” education is complete. But documents from the database indicate this may be, at least in some cases, a false idea. In over 100 cases, they discuss fixed-length sentences for re-education, such as two-year or three-year terms.
On November 5, 2018, police officers and household-assigned cadres accompanied [name redacted] (female, Uyghur …), wife of re-educated individual [name redacted] (male, Uyghur …), to Daban City re-education node to have a face-to-face with [her husband]. At the same time, they received the announcement from the re-education center and the procuratorate [prosecutor’s office] that her husband was sentenced to three years in re-education. The vocational training center told [the wife] that her husband could potentially be released early if he has good behavior inside the center. [The wife] told the cadre that she can accept the fact that her husband was to be re-educated for three years, although her mood is very down, but at least she and her husband have some hope. She also hoped that her husband could have good behavior inside the re-education center and hopefully reunite with the family early. Police and cadre comforted [the wife] that she shouldn’t worry too much, take care of herself and take care of the two children, and that the community would help her to solve any problems she would face.
The sentences appear to be assigned to people in the vocational form of re-education, often after they have been in incarcerated for an extended period of time. They come, documents show, through a program called “Two Inform, One Advocate,” with “inform” apparently referring to information about extremism (as provided in re-education) and “advocate” referring to advocacy of a policy to provide sentences.
Under this system, relatives and cadre members typically meet the person in re-education and a judge issues a “pre-judgment” and “pre-sentence,” usually of two to four years in documents from the database. Sometimes, certain requirements come along with the sentence, such as acquiring Chinese language skills. An October 2018 report stated that “some relatives of three-category people are very happy after they learned about ‘Two Inform, One Advocate’ work; because of this, at least they know how long it would take for their relatives to come out, and they can arrange many business-related things beforehand.”
In one of many examples of this policy in the database, from a November 2018 report, a Uyghur woman traveled to Daban City Vocational Center to receive a verdict with her brother:
Her younger brother [name redacted] Uyghur, male … on September 27, 2017, due to living and traveling with a convicted person, was taken by Badaowan Precinct for re-education. Yesterday at the “Two Inform, One Advocate” activity at the center, the verdict was sheltering criminals, and the sentence was to study for three years at the vocational school. The relatives did not dissent from the verdict and thanked the care and love of the party and the government for her and their help to her [brother].
“We’ve never heard of people getting sentences for re-education,” said Byler. “They tell you that you have to earn points to be released, and so you’re supposed to try really hard to get re-educated, but now they’re saying actually that these people have been given a sentence, their course of re-education will take three years or what have you. So it’s actually like a prison term. That’s one of the tyrannies of the system, is that once you’re in the camps, you’ll never know when you’ll be released.”
Re-education also seems to be closed off as an option for some of the most heavily persecuted activities. The Weihuliang police station notes that homed in on “illegal preachers,” listing 50 in detention, said only two were in re-education.
Much of Zenz’s work has focused specifically on internment camps officially portrayed as “vocational skills education training centers” (zhiye jineng jiaoyu peixun zhongxin). The government positions them as a more benign alternative to prosecution for those who have committed minor offenses, but they are often cover for detention on minor grounds. Despite the emphasis on the word “training,” the facilities can practice coercive indoctrination just as re-education centers do.
Government documents previously obtained by Zenz had described the re-education as using, in Zenz’s recounting, “assault-style transformation through education” (jiaoyu zhuanhua gongjian) to “ensure that results are achieved” on those who have “a vague understanding, negative attitudes, or even show resistance.”
The impact of widespread detention is not limited to those who are in prison. One document indicates 326 children in one of the seven districts in Ürümqi have one or both parents in detention. The population of the district was around 43,730, according to 2010 government figures, but only around 12 percent of the population in Ürümqi are Uyghur. “If you take the adult population of that [ethnic group] and note that 326 students have one or two parents in detention, that appears to be quite substantial,” said Zenz.
Documents: The documents published with the story are available here.
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