Database Entry: How China Targets Uighurs ‘One by One’ for Using a Mobile App
Surveillance Religious Persecution Pretexts for Detention Use of technology

How China Targets Uighurs ‘One by One’ for Using a Mobile App

November 24, 2019
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Muslims worldwide have been flocking to a mobile file-sharing application called Zapya, developed by a Beijing-based startup that encourages users to download the Quran and share religious teachings with loved ones.

The app, developed by DewMobile Inc., allows smartphone users to send videos, photos and other files directly from one smartphone to another without being connected to the web, making it popular in areas where internet service is poor or nonexistent.

A leak of highly classified Chinese government documents, the China Cables, now reveal that since at least July 2016, Chinese authorities have been targeting users of the Zapya app, known in Chinese as Kuai Ya (fast tooth), as part of their crackdown against the Muslim Uighur population. Officials have closely monitored the app on some Uighurs’ phones and flagged its users for further investigation, according to leaked documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and shared with 17 media partners.

One document included in the China Cables instructs government officials to locate and arrest people described as “violent terrorists and extremist elements who used the ‘Kuai Ya’ software to spread audio and video with violent terroristic characteristics.”

The material doesn’t explain how the government obtains user data from Zapya — the only app mentioned in the documents by name. The documents provide no indication that the company cooperated with Chinese authorities.
Uighur refugees say police often seize phones and look through them.

According to one of the leaked IJOP bulletins, as of June 2017, more than 1.8 million Uighurs in Xinjiang were using Zapya. The number included nearly 4,000 of what the document calls “unauthorized imams.”

The document instructs officials to use data stored by IJOP to investigate Uighurs “one by one,” as thoroughly as possible, to find what it describes as terrorism suspects. “If it is not possible at the moment to eliminate suspicion,” it says, “it is necessary to put [the suspect] in concentrated training and further screen and review.”

Reports that emerged later in the summer of 2017 appear to confirm that authorities in Xinjiang had begun to implement the IJOP guidelines. A few weeks after the IJOP document mentioning Zapya was disseminated, for instance, a few news sites and individuals reported that authorities were arresting and jailing Uighurs found to have downloaded Zapya onto their devices. The Uighurs were accused of using the app to distribute extremist content.

ICIJ’s partner Le Monde reported that a computer scientist from Xinjiang’s regional capital, Urumqi, had been sent to a detention center twice, each time for 30 days, for downloading the Zapya app.