How Technology Became a “Trap” in Xinjiang

has been the site of a mass detention program where an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs have been or are being held in a series of internment camps. The camps are part of a longer-running anti-terror campaign in the region, where Uyghur identity, language, and religiosity have been targeted by state policies. Recent research from Human Rights Watch described at length how technology–both external surveillance, and mandatory smartphone apps on residents’ phones–is being used to profile the Uyghur population and fill the internment camps. University of Washington lecturer and scholar of Chinese Central Asia Darren Byler conducted over 24 months of ethnographic research in between 2011 and 2018. At The Conversation, Byler describes how he saw digital technology in the remote region change from being an emerging medium for the celebration of Uyghur culture, to a “space of surveillance,” or in the words of one of his Uyghur contacts, an inescapable “trap”:

Using WeChat on smartphones gave Uighurs the ability to circulate short audio messages, videos and images. Beginning in 2012 this allowed Uighurs to develop semi-autonomous forums in Uighur spoken language.

Initially Chinese state authorities did not have the technical capabilities to monitor and control Uighur oral speech or Uighur text embedded in images as memes. They could turn the Uighur internet on and off, but they could not fully regulate what Uighurs said because they spoke in another language.

[…] As part of this process [of launching a “People’s War on Terror“], in 2016, they began to collect biometric data, such as DNA, high-fidelity voice recordings and face scans, from the entire population of the region in order to track the activities of people on WeChat and in their daily lives using their voice signature and faceprint.

[…] Today the Uighur internet has begun to merge with the Chinese internet. Uighurs are discouraged from writing or speaking in Uighur or celebrating Uighur culture.

Instead Uighurs often post statements written in Chinese attesting to their loyalty to the Chinese state. […] [Source]

The crackdown in Xinjiang has been referred to by some as an effort to “re-engineer” the Uyghur identity, and by others as a form of “cultural genocide.” Uyghur intellectuals have been a primary target in the crackdown, and many focused on preserving and spreading the –some working under official mandate–have been detained in the camps, or worse, given life prison sentences. Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, who’s 2014 life sentence for “separatism” was seen by many as potential fuel for further radicalization among Uyghurs, was granted the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize last month.

In Byler’s most recent monthly column on Xinjiang for SupChina, the scholar describes how Uyghur-language textbooks became contraband amid educational reform in Xinjiang, putting this into the context of the campaign against Uyghur identity:

As scholars have long noted, the “bilingual” education system that was introduced over the past decade in Xinjiang is better characterized as an attempt to transform Xinjiang minority education systems, moving away from the maintenance of local native languages and traditions toward a Chinese-medium education. One of the ways this was ensured was through the removal of Uyghur students from their home communities through a “boarding school” (Uy: yataqliq mektep) system. First, nearly all schools above eighth grade became residential schools, where students are held behind walls except on weekend home visits. Then, beginning in 2017, many elementary schools and nurseries also became residential schools. Uyghur children of all ages are increasingly separated from their parents and raised in a non-Muslim, Chinese-speaking environment.

[…] Beginning in 2017, entrance exams at all levels of the Xinjiang education system began to change. For minority students taking a test in their non-native language, the bonus points they received was slashed from 50 to 15. Now, so-called bilingual education evaluations stressed that ethnic minority students should “master and use the nationally used language and writing system,” i.e., Chinese. Furthermore, only in some cases would the ethnic minority literature portion of the test be offered in the native language of minority students. The announcement that guided this reform stated plainly that one of the primary goals of the exam was to send more minority students to Han-majority schools, while also having schools with a high number of minorities receive more Han students.

[…] As a recent report from Christian Shepherd of the Financial Times notes in explicit detail, the Uyghur education administrator Tashpolat Tiyip and editor Satar Sawut were given suspended death sentences in 2017 for their role in creating Uyghur-language textbooks used in the only Uyghur literature class in the “bilingual” system. They, along with more than 80 other intellectuals, were charged with plotting to “secretly act to split the motherland.” A state-produced film titled The Plot Inside the Textbooks, which was screened in classrooms across the region, accused them of sourcing much of the content of the curriculum from Uyghur literature rather than Chinese sources. Instead of sourcing 60 percent of the text in Chinese sources and 10 percent from foreign sources and then translating them into Uyghur, they had drawn nearly 60 percent of the content directly from Uyghur sources. Furthermore, using a keyword search, the word “China” had appeared only four times in one elementary school text.

[…] Although all of the texts included in the curriculum had been previously approved by Chinese state censors, the film alleged that the actions of Uyghur educators were done for “the purpose of separatism” and “inciting ethnic hatred.” It alleged that the curriculum had “severely poisoned” the minds of Uyghur students and resulted in “endless heinous crimes,” such as violent terrorism and separatism. Rather than emphasizing Uyghur differences, the last remaining Uyghur-language class that remained part of the curriculum should emphasize Chinese national identity (中华民族 zhōnghuá mínzú) and opposition to pious forms of Islam. In 2018, Uyghur officials began to make statements that it was no longer patriotic to speak Uyghur. […] [Source]

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