China: Big Data Program Targets Xinjiang’s MuslimsDecember 09, 2020
A leaked list of over 2,000 detainees from Aksu prefecture . . . is further evidence of China’s use of technology in its repression of the Muslim population. [A] big data program, the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), apparently flagged the people on the Aksu List, whom officials then evaluated and sent to “political education” camps in Xinjiang.
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.”
An examination of the Aksu List suggests that the authorities consider the following behavior suspicious:
Practicing Islam in the following ways:
Studying the Quran without state permission or allowing one’s children to study the Quran;
Reciting the Quran, including Khitma [海提玛], the recitation of the entire Quran;
Preaching the Quran without state permission or listening to such preaching;
Wearing religious clothing, such as the burqa or veil, or having a long beard;
Having more children than allowed by China’s family planning policy;
Marrying or divorcing outside of official Chinese legal requirements; for example, marrying before reaching the legal age (22 for men and 20 for women), marrying through a Nikah (an Islamic law marriage contract), or practicing polygamy;
Going on Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, considered a religious duty in Islam) without state permission;
Performing the Hijra (伊吉拉特), a form of migration to escape religious persecution following the pattern of the immigration of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE, which the authorities consider to be motivated by adherence to Islam.
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.
Internationally to “sensitive” countries, including Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kyrgyzstan;
Domestically outside Aksu, including elsewhere in Xinjiang such as Urumqi and Kashgar, or to other parts of China such as Beijing and Shanghai;
Without notifying local officials. People are also detained for having no fixed address.
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 “extremist thoughts” or downloading “extremist” audiovisual content.
Having relatives in a group the authorities have labeled as terrorist, including the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and a couple of Aksu local groups.
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.
Resisting official policies or official “management.” In one case, a man was detained for not paying rent on his land.
Being generally untrustworthy (不放心人员).
Being young; that is, “born after the 1980s” (80, 90后不放心人员).
“Generally acting suspiciously,” “having complex social ties” or “unstable thoughts,” or “having improper [sexual] relations.”
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.
In mid-2019, Human Rights Watch was able to speak with an official in the region involved in carrying out the IJOP system. The person said:
From 2016 to mid-2018 we were arresting people. In the beginning we were arresting those who spread terrorism videos, those who receive or give funds to ETIM, [and] those who participated in riots, and we would send them to the local political education centers. Later on … there were quotas for arrests in all the locales, and so we began to arrest people randomly: people who argue in the neighborhood, people who street fight, drunkards, people who are lazy; we would arrest them and accuse them of being extremists. There was not enough room for them all in the centers, so they built new ones.…
In the beginning when the IJOP system came live, if [we] labeled someone as suspicious during evaluation, the local village committee and the police would go and take the person into custody. Later on, we rarely marked someone as suspicious. Often … we asked them leading questions. Let’s say we had to evaluate a person whom the system had lost track of. We’d [go to his home and] ask, “these last few days you were working the fields? You didn’t go anywhere?” As long as they said yes, we’d fill out [the form in the app] noting the villager said he was working in the fields, he didn’t go anywhere but everything was fine. It was like that for all other verification tasks.”