Monday, May 13, 2019

China's High-Tech Persecution of Uighurs

In 1949, the newly formed communist government of China seized control of the northwest corner of the country now known as Xinjiang Province.  The province was home to a number of different ethnic groups, the largest of which are known as Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs).  The Uighurs are a Turkic people with their own language and culture, and the majority of them are Muslims.  None of this sits well with the Chinese government, which began systematic attempts to convert Uighurs to conform to the language and ways of the Chinese-majority Han ethnicity, and the struggle continues to this day. 

Chilling details of how Beijing is using the latest high-tech surveillance methods to persecute Uighurs were reported in a recent article that appeared on the website of Wired.  In 2011, a new social-media app called WeChat took China by storm, and Uighurs seized upon it as a great new way to communicate among themselves, discussing everything from personal matters to politics and religion.  But in 2014, the Chinese government forced WeChat's owners to let them snoop on all WeChat messages, and soon after that, bad things started to happen to Uighurs who discussed sensitive issues such as Islam or Uighur separatist movements on WeChat.  In 2016, Uighur families who used WeChat incautiously were being checked on by police officers, sometimes daily.  For one family, it got so bad that they decided to emigrate to Turkey, and the father sent his wife and children ahead while he stayed behind to wait for his passport.  It never arrived, and instead he was arrested.

This is just one of thousands of cases in which Chinese officials have persecuted Uighurs.  Besides monitoring social media, the police are requiring Uighurs to provide voice and facial-recognition samples and even taking compulsory DNA samples.  Families are afraid to turn their lights on at home before dawn for fear the police will figure that they're praying, and haul them off to a re-education camp.  Yes, China is operating what amounts to massive prison camps for Uighurs, which the government claims are vocational training centers.  A diplomatic spokesman for Turkey contradicts these claims, saying that up to a million Uighurs have been detained in such camps against their will and subjected to torture and "political brainwashing."

Such actions are familiar to anyone with knowledge of China's Great Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until Mao Zedong's death in 1976.  This nationwide convulsion paralyzed the country, led to millions of deaths, and subjected millions more to internal exile and forced self-confessions.  While such things are a fading memory to most citizens of China today, the surveillance state is not, and all it takes for someone to fall back into those bad old days is to manifest religious faith in actions such as gathering for worship or praying openly.  And political organizing against the will of the ruling government will land you in hot water too.

China's reach even extends beyond its borders to blight the lives of Uighurs who escape to Turkey and elsewhere.  For Uighurs remaining in China, even contacting an exiled Uighur relative or friend by phone can result in police investigations and arrest.  So leaving China usually means losing all contact with family and friends who remain behind, except for the rare hand-carried letter that can be smuggled back into the country by a friendly courier. 

The Chinese government seems to be motivated by fear rather than trust.  One reason for this may be that the long history of China is that of periods of peace enforced by central control, interrupted by brief spasms of popular revolt that depose the old guard and install a new one in its place.  The leaders of China seem above all determined not to let that happen to them, which explains their brutal response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and their continued harrassment of ethnic and religious minorities.  In common with other totalitarian philosophies, they seem to think that if anybody, anywhere in China harbors thoughts or actions that fundamentally contradict the basic assumptions of dialectical materialism, the regime is in mortal danger and must suppress such thoughts or actions.   

In a well-informed article in the journal of religion and public life First Things, Thomas F. Farr, who heads an NGO called the Religious Freedom Institute, says that U. S. diplomacy toward China has been largely ineffective in its efforts to mitigate the suffering that religious and ethnic minorities endure there.  Farr recommends reminding Chinese government leaders of their self-interest in promoting a peaceful and prosperous society.  He suggests that we provide Chinese leaders with hard evidence that religious faith can produce individuals who are peaceful, productive, and a net asset to any country which harbors them.  So instead of persecution, arrests, and forced retraining, which are likely to inspire counter-movements and even terrorism, perhaps we can persuade the Chinese government to change its attitude toward minorities like the Uighurs and allow them to practice their faiths and preserve their cultures. 

That would be nice if we could make it happen, but so far it's just a policy idea.  Right now, the Chinese government seems to think more and more surveillance is the answer, and has invested billions in technology and hiring of police to the point that in some regions of Xinjiang, the only stable, reliable job you can get is to work for the police and spy on your neighbors.

In the U. S., such difficulties seem exotic and far away, and it's easy to forget that the same technology Beijing is using to control its Uighur population is available here.  I suppose it's better for megabytes of personal information about us to be in the control of private companies who have a good reason to behave themselves if they want to stay in business, rather than a government desperate to remain in control under any circumstances.  But the information is out there just the same, and the sad plight of the Uighurs in China reminds us that except for the traditions of freedom in the U. S., we might be in the same boat.

Sources:  Isobel Cockerell's article "Inside China's Massive Surveillance Operation" appeared on May 9, 2019 at  Thomas F. Farr's "Diplomacy and Persecution in China" appeared in the May 2019 issue of First Things, pp. 29-36.

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