How TikTok opened a window into China’s police stateSeptember 25, 2019
But every so often, Erkin comes across a video that reveals something about the realities of China’s mass surveillance crackdown and brainwashing policy in Xinjiang: a video of a propaganda rally, with Uyghurs singing songs praising the Communist Party of China; footage from inside a Uyghur orphanage for children with parents in detention; crowds of Uyghurs chanting in Mandarin rather than their native Uyghur language; a mosque being demolished. Often he’ll find shots of the deserted streets of once-bustling Kashgar, his now empty home city.
Most valuable of all is evidence of life under Xinjiang’s oppressive surveillance regime, such as footage of a long line of Uyghurs waiting to pass through a security checkpoint or heavily armed Xinjiang police in training.
Another official video shows mostly Uyghur police dancing before the Chinese flag. A sign above them suggests it’s part of a group psychological support session — a telling detail, given Uyghur police are routinely required to arrest and detain their own people.
In August, something unusual began to happen on Chinese TikTok. One by one, dozens of Uyghurs from inside Xinjiang began posting mute videos of themselves in front of pictures of their relatives. Many were crying. “I think there was a mastermind behind it — one or two creative people,” Hidayat said. It was a wordless, digital flashmob; each video copying the last. “People caught on without getting together, without having to explain the concept. It was completely coded,” Hidayat said. “But every Uyghur understood those videos.” In one video, a girl sits before a picture of four men, holding up four fingers. Slowly, she makes a fist.