Storing the Quran on your phone makes you a terror suspect in China
Human Rights Watch details mass surveillance and repression
Authorities in the Chinese province of Xinjiang have conducted more than 11 million searches of residents' devices, to check for the presence of 50,000 items considered indicators of dissent or terror. Among them is the Quran – the central text of Islam.
The list of material used by Xinjiang police was leaked to media outlet The Intercept in 2019.
On Wednesday, advocacy group Human Rights Watch released analysis of the list and found that half of the files flagged as indicators of violence and extremism appear to be common Islamic religious materials. Any individual in Xinjiang with the documents on their devices can be deemed a terrorist risk.
This was determined by HRW during a forensic investigation that looked at the metadata of a master list containing 50,000 multimedia files used by the police to identify Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim residents for interrogation.
In its investigation, HRW found that over a period of nine months between 2017 and 2018, Chinese police conducted 11 million searches of 1.2 million mobile phones in Xinjiang's capital city Urumqi. The city boasts a population of only 3.5 million.
Besides religious text from the Quran, the surveillance software also flagged references to the Syrian conflict, audio visual content on the Tiananmen Square massacre, and violent or gruesome content like beheadings and torture.
Analysis of a related file revealed that in addition to 57 percent of 1,000 pieces of flagged content being from Islamic texts, approximately nine percent were violent material including crimes committed by members of the Islamic State (ISIS) and four percent called for violence or urged jihad. Twenty-eight percent of the flagged content could not be identified.
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Out of 1400 phones identified by the police as storing extremist content, less than half (46 percent) were identified as containing violent, gruesome or pro-jihad material, although many had files that could not be identified.
Human Rights Watch also detailed its analysis of a leaked list of over 2,000 detainees held in a political education camp in Aksu prefecture in mid-Western Xinjiang. Around 10 percent of the detainees were held for "terrorism" or "extremism" because they had downloaded or shared "violent and terrorist" multimedia content – or were simply related to someone who had downloaded or shared such content.
"The Chinese government outrageously yet dangerously conflates Islam with violent extremism to justify its abhorrent abuses against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang," said Maya Wang, acting China director of the org. Wang called on the UN Human Rights Council to investigate what it categorizes as government abuses.
The Chinese government has forced residents in Xinjiang to install an app called Jingwang Weishi on their phones under the guise of preventing viruses and shielding inappropriate content from minors. The app extracts a phone's IMEI, MAC Address, manufacturer, model, phone number, subscriber ID, and filenames with hashes for all files and sends it to a government server. It also keeps a copy of chat records and Wi-Fi logins while it scans for files it deems "dangerous."
Usage has been enforced with police spot checks and detentions for noncompliance.
The surveillance system named iTap – built for the Urumqi Police department by the Chinese surveillance tech company Landasoft – relies on receiving data from Jingwang Weishi and similar surveillance apps, according to HRW.
"With massive amounts of information on each individual, and the integration of their contacts, location, vehicle information, financial accounts and internet accounts – all without their consent – the software allows the police to monitor every resident of Urumqi, including uncovering people's hidden relationships through network analysis," said HRW.
The NGO alleges that the pervasive surveillance and use of such information contributes to mass detention of Xinjiang's mostly Uyghur population, and therefore to suppression or erasure of the region's cultural and religious practices.
According to the United States, it also fuels many of the country's sanctions against Chinese entities. The Biden Administration has banned transactions with many Chinese businesses over their links to human rights abuses against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang. ®