Leaked Chinese government documents detail how tech is used to escalate the persecution of Uighurs

Catherine Shu
This photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows a facility believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, north of Akto in China's northwestern Xinjiang region. - As many as one million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are believed to be held in a network of internment camps in Xinjiang, but China has not given any figures and describes the facilities as "vocational education centres" aimed at steering people away from extremism. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY CHINA-XINJIANG-MEDIA-RIGHTS-PRESS,FOCUS BY EVA XIAO (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

In less than two weeks, two major reports have been published that contain leaked Chinese government documents about the persecution of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China. Details include the extent to which technology enables mass surveillance, making it possible to track the daily lives of people at unprecedented scale.

The first was a New York Times article that examined more than 400 pages of leaked documents detailing how government leaders, including President Xi Jinping, developed and enforced policies against Uighurs. The latest comes from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an independent non-profit, and reports on more than 24 pages of documents that show how the government is using technology to engage in mass surveillance and identify groups for arrest and detainment in Xinjiang region camps that may now hold as many as a million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities, including people who hold foreign citizenship.

These reports are significant because leaks of this magnitude from within the Communist Party of China are rare and they validate reports from former prisoners and work by researchers and journalists who have been monitoring the persecution of the Uighurs, an ethnic group with more than 10 million people in China.

As ICIJ reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian writes, the classified documents, verified by independent experts and linguists, “demonstrates the power of technology to help drive industrial-scale human rights abuses.” Furthermore, they also force members of targeted groups in Xinjiang region to live in “a perpetual state of terror.”

The ICIJ reports that the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), a policing platform, is used by the police and other authorities to collate personal data, along with data from facial-recognition cameras and other surveillance tools, and then uses artificial intelligence to identify categories of Xinjiang residents for detention.

The Human Rights Watch began reporting on the IJOP’s police app in early 2018. The organization reverse-engineered the IJOP app used by police and found that it prompts them to enter a wide range of personal information about people they interrogate, including height, blood type, license plate numbers, education level, profession, recent travel and even household electric-meter readings, data which can be used by an algorithm (the ICIJ describes it as "as-yet-unknown") that determines which groups of people should be viewed as “suspicious."

The documents also say that the Chinese government ordered security officials in Xinjiang to monitor users of Zapya, which has about 1.8 million users, for ties to terrorist organizations. Launched in 2012, the app was created by DewMobile, a Beijing-based startup that has received funding from InnoSpring Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley Bank and Tsinghua University and is meant to give people a way to download the Quran and send messages and files to other users without being connected to the Web.

According to the ICIJ, the documents show that since at least July 2016, Chinese authorities have been monitoring the app on some Uighurs’ phone in order to flag users for investigation. DewMobile did not respond to ICIJ’s repeated requests for comments. Uighurs who hold foreign citizenship or live abroad are not free from surveillance, with directives in the leaked documents ordering them to be monitored as well.

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Allen-Ebrahimian describes the “grinding psychological effects of living under such a system,” which Samantha Hoffman, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says is deliberate: “That’s how state terror works. Part of the fear that this instills is that you don’t know when you’re not OK.”

The reports by the New York Times and the ICIJ are important because they counter the Xi administration’s insistence that the detention camps are “vocational educational and training centers” meant to prevent extremist violence and help minority groups integrate into mainstream Chinese society, even though many experts now describe the persecution and imprisonment of Uighurs as cultural genocide. Former inmates have also reported torture, beatings and sexual violence including rape and forced abortions.

But the Chinese government continues to push its narrative, even as evidence against it grows. The Chinese embassy in the United Kingdom told the Guardian, an ICIJ partner organization, that the leaked documents “pure fabrication and fake news” and insisted that “the preventative measures have nothing to do with the eradication of religious groups.” (The Guardian published the embassy’s response here.)

In October, the United States placed eight companies, including SenseTime and Megvii, on a trade blacklist for the role the Commerce Department says their technology has played in China’s campaign against Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minority groups. But the  documents published by the New York Times and ICIJ show how deeply entrenched the Chinese government’s surveillance technology has become in the daily life of Xinjiang residents and underscores how imperative it is for the world to pay attention to the atrocities being carried out against minority groups there.