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The Severe Online and Offline Oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang

Last Updated on 2020/12/06

NordVPN has spoken extensively about the various ways the Chinese government surveils and censors their population – from the blacklisting of sensitive keywords online to social credit score to thousands of CCTVs scattered around the major cities.

by Eugene Michaels

Previously, we have also touched upon the bleak human rights situation in the Westernmost region of China – Xinjiang. As very recently a 125-page long report was released by the Human Rights Watch on the repression of the Xinjiang’s Muslims, it is a high time we delve into this topic a bit deeper.

To begin with, no one by now is surprised to hear stories about the repressive Chinese regime and its increasing severeness. This fact has become one to be even expected. China blocks another website, like Reddit or Yahoo? Totally expected. Chinese censors close couple of thousand social media accounts because the people wrote about politically-sensitive issues? Expected as well.

However, a government detaining millions of people on the basis of their religion and language? Even for authoritarian regimes, that should not be happening at this age, when the whole world is watching online. There is a humanitarian crisis happening in Xinjiang. Everyone knows this, however, any details are rather abstract and only come from the Western media, as the local news stations do not talk about it or even recognize it.

Reportedly, over 1 million ethnic Uyghurs are currently imprisoned in various detention and re-education centers around the region. The official detainment reasons coming from the authorities in Beijing tend to circle around worries of terrorism and political uprising. However, the signs of possible upcoming resistance against the government are wide and rather strange.

For example, the Uyghurs may be arrested or “taken notice of” if they speak or know someone who has traveled or lived abroad, or they have lived abroad themselves, especially in one of the high-risk (i.e. Muslim-majority) countries. They may also be in trouble if they publicly uphold any of the Muslim traditions, such as going to a mosque, praying, fasting, having a full beard, wearing a hijab, or even abstaining from alcohol and eating breakfast before the sunrise.

And that is not all. As the authorities are increasing the suppression of the Uyghurs, they also may arrest an individual if she/he does not have their official ID with them or do not allow the officials scan their eyes and take DNA.

Besides the extensive and completely mind-boggling actions, which are even officially permitted (such as scanning irises or taking people’s DNA to track them easily), there are also risky digital activities. For instance, the officials have the right to download or scan all the files one may have on their electronic device, besides already tracking everyone on WeChat. If the officials find that the individual has been using a VPN app, Whatsapp, Skype, or any other banned service in China, they will be arrested. Even if they are found to have watched videos filmed abroad they might be in trouble.

Such a treatment of people is beyond the often quoted “Orwellian” world, where the Big Brother state was a lot more isolated than China is today. Foreign trade is flowing in and out of the PRC each day. New companies are being opened, they interact and cooperate with the local brands pushing forward novel technologies. Modern, capitalist China is still there – in front of the innovation, machine learning, and AI development. Nevertheless, the companies and the foreign states should not forget what hides behind the sparkly facade and where the money may end up.

For instance, the wish of Facebook and Google to enter the Chinese market could surely bring incredible benefits to both sides. In our minds, this would open China to the world – with less censorship and more international interaction. However, this may also feed the machine and provide the Chinese government an open access to what the Chinese population is talking on the “forbidden” social media. More data and more monitoring opportunities. Both scenarios could happen. We just need to be more vocal and not ignore the calls for help.

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