Lone figure walking along narrow street in darkness (© Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
An ethnic Uighur man walks in an alleyway near a local police station in Kashgar, Xinjiang. Uighurs are tracked and followed wherever they go in Xinjiang. (© Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Security cameras with facial-recognition technology, police stations watching your every move, restrictions on freedom of worship, strangers living in your home.

This is life in China’s Xinjiang province.

China has an ongoing campaign to suppress the ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identities of its Muslim minorities. More than 1 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other Muslim minority groups have been detained since April 2017 in the camps, where many are reportedly beaten, tortured, forced to renounce Islam and made to memorize Chinese Communist Party propaganda.

But even for those who have avoided the internment camps, Xinjiang has effectively become an open-air prison, using a combination of high- and low-tech surveillance and intimidation tactics.

High-tech surveillance

People walking under surveillance cameras (© Ben Blanchard/Reuters)
Imams and government officials pass under security cameras as they leave the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, in January 2019. (© Ben Blanchard/Reuters)

Uighurs and ethnic minorities are under constant surveillance. The State Department’s recent Human Rights Report describes the many ways the Chinese government monitors and tracks their citizens in Xinjiang:

  • Cameras: a vast network of security cameras that monitor streets, stores and mosques.
  • Databases: artificial intelligence software that uses facial-recognition, voice-recognition and walk-recognition technology to create a database of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
  • Communications: pervasive control and monitoring of phone calls, text messages, email, social media and other digital communications.
  • Checkpoints: Every 500 meters, the inhabitants of Xinjiang are required to show their identity cards, submit to facial recognition cameras and turn over their cellphones to be scanned by special software.
  • Biometrics: Minorities are required to undergo physical examinations during which government officials collect their DNA, scan their eyes and take their fingerprints.

Chinese technology companies have made billions monitoring Uighurs. Companies like SenseTime, Yitu, Megvii, Hikvision and CloudWalk developed special software to monitor Uighurs and track their movements, according to a New York Times report on the issue.

Low-tech monitoring

Uighurs are not even alone in their own homes. They are subject to compulsory stays by Chinese officials in their private residences, which are intended to prevent the observance of Islamic practices.

Two men standing inside a shadowy home (© Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Uighur men in 2016 in Xinjiang province, China. Uighurs are rarely alone. (© Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The Uighurs do not have a choice. These “relatives,” as they are called, enforce Chinese Communist Party loyalty and monitor their hosts for “extremist” tendencies, such as: Do the Uighurs have a copy of the Quran in their home? A prayer mat? Do they hesitate when offered pork or alcohol?

These monitors have total power over their Uighur households, reporting on their loyalty and religious practices and beliefs and recommending whether they should be sent to the internment camps, according to a report from ChinaFile, an online magazine published by the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

Spreading throughout China and beyond

China’s surveillance of Uighurs extends beyond Xinjiang. Beijing and Shanghai metro stations, for example, already have facial recognition and cellphone scanning systems, says Ferkat Jawdat, a Uighur software engineer living in the United States who in March met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the situation in Xinjiang.   

Three women standing in an intersection (© Aly Song /Reuters)
Uighur women in Shanghai in 2014. The Chinese government tracks Uighurs throughout the country using high-tech surveillance. (© Aly Song /Reuters)

China’s surveillance of Uighurs also extends beyond its borders, invading the sovereignty of other countries to harass and threaten Uighurs living abroad.

Mihrigul Tursun, who escaped from Xinjiang to the United States in 2018, says that she has been followed since she chose to speak out about her experiences in the camps. “I was terrified that the Chinese government could still threaten me from so far way,” Tursun said in 2018.