The technological dystopia and the death of privacy described in contemporary science fiction is now a tangible reality for the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. Having witnessed their homeland being turned into a place where virulent hatred is directed against ethnic minorities and propaganda is used to sustain totalitarian rule, Uyghurs have become helpless victims of omnipresent government surveillance and are now trapped in a vicious cycle of oppression.
Xinjiang is China’s largest and most resource-rich province. It is also the motherland of Uyghurs, an indigenous Turkic ethnic group that is racially and linguistically different from China’s Han majority. Xinjiang has long been a site of ethnic conflict between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Shortly after annexing the East Turkestan Republic in 1949, China renamed the area Xinjiang–literally translated as “New Frontier”– Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955. From then on, any usage of the region’s original toponym, “East Turkistan,” or display of its crescent moon flag is perceived by the Chinese state as separatist agitation, punishable by life imprisonment or death.
Pervasive ethnic inequality is another root cause of this divide. While Article 4 of China’s constitution expressly assures that, “[a]ll nationalities in the People’s Republic of China are equal” and “have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs,” Uyghurs are nevertheless deprived of true equality because they are seen as politically recalcitrant and culturally distinct.
Under the ethnocentric ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP,) authorities and educators in Xinjiang promote a Mandarin-centered curriculum instead of Uyghur language, part of what is officially referred to as “bilingual education.” Uyghur children are encouraged to assimilate to Chinese culture by dressing up like Han Chinese, and in predominantly Uyghur cities like Hotan, the use of Uyghur language is completely banned at all educational levels. Han Chinese migrants in Xinjiang are provided with jobs, bank loans, and economic opportunities that are denied to indigenous Uyghurs. As a result, many Uyghurs have grown increasingly intolerant of Chinese hegemony and have started to challenge state-sponsored assimilation through “everyday resistance” and mass protests.
The existing heavy-handed treatment of Uyghurs was exacerbated by the appointment of Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang’s new Party Secretary in 2016. Chen first gained prominence as the innovator of a sophisticated and repressive network of surveillance while serving as Party Secretary in Tibet. After being transferred to Xinjiang in 2016, he immediately replicated the same repressive policing strategy. He began his “strike hard” campaign by requiring Uyghur families to host Chinese officials at their homes and provide them with information about their private lives and political views. Authorities have even imposed various restrictions on daily necessities such as tracking kitchen knives with QR codes and requiring shops to produce police approval to buy sugar.
Chen then implemented a network of checkpoints and “convenient police stations” where officers check Uyghurs’ cell phones and require them to install a monitoring application. Facial-recognition cameras were installed in neighborhoods, homes, on roads, and in train stations. Authorities are using “the Integrated Joint Operations Platform” to manage and analyze data from those cameras, computers, smartphones, license plates, and IDs, as well as any personal records. Uyghurs whose data is deemed unpatriotic are subjected to investigation and detention in “political re-education camps.” According to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, the number of criminal arrests in Xinjiang increased by 731 percent from 2016 to 2017, coinciding with repressive policies implemented by Chen. Police have also collected DNA and other biometric information from Uyghurs using a U.S. company’s DNA-sequencing equipment. Meanwhile, surveillance of the Uyghurs now extends beyond China’s borders, as China created a database of Uyghurs abroad–even if they are citizens of other countries–to curtail their activities and threaten them by persecuting their family members back in Xinjiang.
International human rights law (IHRL) applies to the repressive surveillance situation in Xinjiang through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As a party to the UDHR, China is obligated to recognize “the inherent dignity” of all human beings, including the Uyghurs, and to secure their fundamental rights to “liberty” and “privacy.” For instance, Article 12 of the UDHR states that “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence” and recognizes that “[e]veryone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference.” Relatedly, right to privacy in one’s own home and personal life is central to the “liberty” and human “dignity” protected by Articles 1 and 3 of the UDHR. However, China has its own interpretation of the legal meaning of IHRL norms and has emphasized that the international law of sovereignty protects it against external interference regarding its actions on its own territory. Moreover, Article 40 of the Chinese constitution justifies the invasion of privacy “to meet the needs of State security.” Hence, without a meaningful international action, China is unlikely to reverse its policies.