Always Watching

Lily Connors, Editor

In China, hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims are being held in detention camps under suspicion of terrorist activity and conspiring against the government but have not been officially charged and have no legal path to a trial. In Xinjiang, the northwest province of China, Uighur Muslims are targeted by Beijing authorities, detained and taken to a set of “re-education camps,” which sprung up around April of 2017. The camps reportedly force its detainees to strip themselves of their Islamic faith and its practices through ideological lectures and hymns that praise the Chinese Communist Party and writing self-criticism essays. Alongside the the ethnic cleansing mission of the camps, New York Times Journalists have uncovered reports of “military -style discipline, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, beatings and torture.”

The Islamaphobic tendencies of the Chinese government are hardly new, but the specific targeting of Uighur Muslims increased in severity following the attacks on 9/11. In 2002, Beijing authorities claimed that the Uighur ethnic group was being paid and trained by Bin Laden to carry out terrorist attacks on the Chinese government and the Chinese people. In the province of Xinjiang, where the majority of the Chinese Uighur Muslims live, the government has set up a number of police checkpoints and installed hundreds of security cameras in an attempt to crackdown on so-called extremism and separatist movements.

Victor Gevers, a Dutch cybersecurity expert, discovered the Chinese Government backed surveillance company SenseNets Technology. SenseNets created an online database that compiles names, photos, ID card numbers, birth dates and employment details of over 2.5 million citizens of Xinjiang, roughly 37% of the population belonging to Muslim minority groups. The database uses artificial intelligence, face recognition, crowd analysis and personal verification to track its citizens in their daily activities, such as attending religious services, and going to cafes or stores. The technology gives the government free-reign over the personal information and whereabouts of its citizens, and the camps are the next step in controlling and creating a homogenous population, sans Islam.

Initially, the Chinese government denied to existence of the camps but following the release of satellite images and american journalist reports, they redacted their statement, citing the camps as a nationwide and highly successful initiative to combat domestic extremism and terrorism. Through propaganda videos aired on the Chinese government-controlled news media, the camps are portrayed as safe havens providing job training and employment opportunities. Concern over extremist attacks has caused many Chinese to lend their support for the camps, citing them as necessary evils for the country.

The Trump administration has threatened to impose sanctions on the Chinese government under the Global Magnitsky Act. The act allows the United States to place economic sanctions on foreign governments if they are found to be systematically violating human rights. Included in the sanctions would be to limit to sales of American surveillance technology to Chinese companies. In fear of economic retaliation, no sanctions have yet to be imposed.

In February of 2019, Hami Aksoy, the spokesman for Turkey’s foreign ministry, urged China to close the detention camps, calling them “a great shame for humanity.” In response, Beijing authorities closed a Chinese consulate in Turkey and the Chinese ambassador Deng Li issued a warning. He said that “criticizing your friend publicly everywhere” could hinder economic ties between the two countries, potentially preventing other countries from pursuing action against the human rights violations by the Chinese government specifically regarding the detention camps.