Aksu List Shows Arbitrary Imprisonment, Extensive Surveillance of Uyghurs

Human Rights Watch has published a list of Uyghur detainees in Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture linking their arbitrary imprisonment to the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). The IJOP is a “predictive policing” data aggregation system that sifts through a vast amount of personal information collected through surveillance footage, “wifi sniffers,” and security checkpoints in order to label people as potential threats. The Aksu List details how the IJOP flags innocent Uyghurs as dangerous for behaviors as innocuous as traveling to Beijing, as far beyond their control as being “born after the 1980s,” and as minor as missing a rent payment. The Human Rights Watch report shows how “predictive” policing violates Uyghur’s basic freedoms:

Human Rights Watch’s analysis of the Aksu List strongly suggests that the vast majority of the people flagged by the IJOP system are detained for everyday lawful, non-violent behavior. This contradicts the Chinese authorities’ claims that their “sophisticated,” “predictive” technologies, like the IJOP, are keeping Xinjiang safe by “targeting” criminals “with precision.”

[…] In some cases, the alleged “problematic” behaviors dated to years earlier, revealing broad surveillance of legal and non-violent behavior going back decades. In one case, a man was detained for having studied the Quran in the mid-80s, and having “let his wife wear a veil” in the early 2000s. In another case, a woman was detained for once going to Kashgar, and once staying overnight in Hotan, both in 2013.

[…] An examination of the Aksu List suggests that Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims are presumed guilty until proven innocent. In one case, a man was sent to political education camp because “suspicion of him cannot be eliminated and would require further interrogation.” The evidence suggests that, consistent with official rhetoric, political education is akin to a form of preventive detention, where people’s behaviors are deemed vaguely suspicious but not criminal. They are being held until their loyalty can be ascertained and, as needed, instilled. [Source]

Here is a partial list of behaviors or identities flagged as suspicious by the IJOP:

  • Using suspicious (or “minority” 小众) software, in particular peer-to-peer file sharing application Zapya (快牙), but also Virtual Private Network, Skype, Payeco (易联), L2TP, and imo.
  • Going “off grid” (去向不明 or 轨迹不明), for example “switching off their phone repeatedly” or being missing for periods of time.
  • Having mismatched identity, including using a cellphone number or ID card not registered in one’s name, having more than one hukou (residency registration), or having falsified official documents like marriage certificates. In one case, losing an ID—subsequently used by someone else—was a cause for detention.
  • Having previously been a target of Xinjiang government actions, such as being detained or convicted of ordinary crimes or political crimes. In one case, a man was subjected to “political education” because he had been detained in 2014 for 15 days for carrying a knife and for not “properly explaining” the incident.
  • Being generally untrustworthy (不放心人员).
  • “Generally acting suspiciously,” “having complex social ties” or “unstable thoughts,” or “having improper sexual relations.” [Source]

A Guardian report on the Human Rights Watch Investigation highlighted the pain of families split by arbitrary detention. From Helen Davidson and Emma Graham-Harrison:

A detainee named in the report as Ms T was flagged for “links to sensitive countries”, after IJOP recorded that she had received four calls from her sister who lived overseas, noting their duration in minutes and seconds.

Researchers with HRW spoke to her sister as part of their efforts to verify the documents. She said Ms T was interrogated by police about overseas family around the time of her detention date.

There has been no contact between the siblings since then, although she heard Ms T was now working in a factory full-time, only allowed to go home on weekends. She suspects it was part of the forced labour programme. [Source]

Technology companies, including Western ones, have facilitated the surveillance and mass incarceration of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. In late November, a New York Times investigation exposed how computer chips produced by Intel and Nvidia, two American companies, powered supercomputers used to conduct real-time surveillance of Xinjiang residents. American congressional leaders have taken preliminary steps to investigate both companies’ activities in Xinjiang.  A new report alleges that a facial recognition program created by Huawei and Megvii, two Chinese tech giants, had a “Uyghur alarm” that notified police when it “saw” Uyghurs. Drew Harwell and Eva Dou for The Washington Post:

[…] Clare Garvie, a senior associate at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology who has studied facial recognition software, said the “Uighur alarm” software represents a dangerous step toward automating ethnic discrimination at a devastating scale.

“There are certain tools that quite simply have no positive application and plenty of negative applications, and an ethnic-classification tool is one of those,” Garvie said. “Name a human rights norm, and this is probably violative of that.”

[…] The system tested how a mix of Megvii’s facial recognition software and Huawei’s cameras, servers, networking equipment, cloud-computing platform and other hardware and software worked on dozens of “basic functions,” including its support of “recognition based on age, sex, ethnicity and angle of facial images,” the report states. It passed those tests, as well as another in which it was tested for its ability to support offline “Uighur alarms.”

The test report also said the system was able to take real-time snapshots of pedestrians, analyze video files and replay the 10 seconds of footage before and after any Uighur face is detected. [Source]

These latest reports added to an extensive body of research on invasive surveillance technology in Xinjiang. In October, a ChinaFile report detailed how state security agents have integrated private security cameras into government-run surveillance regimes. In 2019, CDT documented the development of China’s “Sharp Eyes” video surveillance program in Xinjiang and elsewhere across China. Uyghurs flagged by the IJOP and other surveillance programs can be placed in internment camps. At Buzzfeed News last week, Megha Rajagopalan and Alison Killing published a follow-up to their earlier report identifying camps from satellite images, this time exposing conditions in one internment facility near the China-Kazakhstan border :

The rooms, which could house more than a dozen people, were about 14.1 feet long (4.3 meters) and 20 feet wide (6.1 meters), according to a BuzzFeed News architectural analysis — a little over half the size of a two-car garage. The detainees spent nearly all their time there, often as many as 23 hours a day.

Each room had two layers of doors for security, the outer one made of metal. The inner wooden door had a slot, which would be used to pass food inside, O. said. There was a canteen in the building on the first floor, but the detainees had only heard about it. They assumed it was only for the people who worked in the camp — the teachers, the administrators, and guards.

[…] Guards watching the detainees through closed-circuit cameras — at least two in each cell — would monitor whether they were speaking their languages (for instance, Uighur or Kazakh) instead of Mandarin Chinese. One day in 2018, someone in Ulan’s room was found to be in violation.

[…] Raising an electric baton, [Director Ma, one of those in charge of the camp] beat them over their backs. Ulan remembers the screaming. “Their screams must have scared everyone in the building,” he said. [Source]

The sustained campaigns of surveillance and incarceration have inflicted catastrophic harm on Uyghur culture. At The Guardian, Lily Kuo detailed how Uyghur poetic traditions have been destroyed by the state:

According to poets and researchers, Uighur poetry is now on the verge of extinction as the Chinese government detains and silences poets. Outside of China, Uighurs in the diaspora are fighting to keep the art form alive as authorities double down on their campaign to assimilate minority populations of Xinjiang into mainstream Han Chinese culture.

[…] Among the detained poets are cultural giants like Abdurehim Heyit, a singer, musician and poet, whose rumoured death in 2019 caused such an outpouring that authorities released a video of him affirming he was alive but under investigation.

[…] “The very act of this language being taken away from my existence is the greatest insult and invasion of my humanity, my value as a human being and my dignity as a person,” [Ekhmetjan Osman, known for leading the new movement in modern Uighur poetry in the 1980s] said. “What other crime is there than erasing the whole of a nation? To me there is no bigger crime.” [Source]

Lily Kuo’s report was accompanied by the publication of Joshua L. Freeman’s translations of Uyghur poetry, also for The Guardian:

By Abide Abbas Nesrin

I swear by the calluses inside me
I swear by hopes with whitening lips
I swear by my soul that can’t emerge
I swear by sunrises without you
If you become a wall I will still know you
In the pocket of a bird I would still feel you
If you are reborn as a snake I will still love you

10 April 2020 [Source]


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