The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China’s high-tech repression threatens human freedom everywhere

Chinese police patrol a street in the Peyzawat, a city in the Xinjiang autonomous region, last August.
Chinese police patrol a street in the Peyzawat, a city in the Xinjiang autonomous region, last August. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
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IN RECENT months, the world has slowly awakened to the extraordinary campaign of cultural genocide China is conducting against Muslims in its western Xinjiang region. As many as 1 million people have been confined to concentration camps where they are forced to renounce their religious practices and memorize the Beijing regime’s propaganda. That gross offense against human rights must be fully investigated and sanctioned. But of equal concern are some of the means China is using to carry out the repression. Xinjiang has become a laboratory for the development of a comprehensive, high-tech system for monitoring people and their behaviors, which poses an unprecedented threat to freedom — not just in western China, but potentially throughout the world.

A report by Human Rights Watch expands on what is known about the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), the system for conducting mass surveillance in Xinjiang. By reverse engineering a mobile app connected to the system, the group was able to learn more about what data authorities are collecting about every Xinjiang resident, and what information triggers the system to order an investigation — or transport to a camp.

The results are chilling. “The system is tracking the movement of people by monitoring the ‘trajectory’ and location data of their phones, ID cards and vehicles; it is also monitoring the use of electricity and gas stations by everybody in the region,” the report says, adding: “When the IJOP system detects irregularities or deviations from what it considers normal, such as when people are using a phone that is not registered to them, when they use more electricity than ‘normal,’ or when they leave the area where they are registered to live without police permission, the system flags these ‘micro-clues’ to the authorities as suspicious and prompts an investigation.”

The police who follow up collect more data on people, from their blood type to the color of their cars. They examine their phones to see whether they contain one of 51 network tools deemed suspicious, such as virtual private networks and communications programs such as WhatsApp. They judge whether an individual fits one of 36 “person types” meriting special attention, including people who have traveled abroad, have more children than allowed or preach Islam without permission. All the data is sent back to the IJOP central system via the app, where it is stored in a database that also contains facial images and much other data.

Human Rights Watch points out that similar surveillance systems are being put into place all over China. “These mass surveillance systems have woven an ever-tightening net around people across the country,” the report says. “The depth, breadth and intrusiveness of the Chinese government’s mass surveillance on its citizens may be unprecedented in modern history.”

Far from hiding this totalitarianism of the 21st century, Beijing is seeking to export it to other countries. That’s one reason what is happening in Xinjiang ought to be disturbing to anyone concerned about preserving basic freedoms as technology rapidly evolves. There are concrete steps that can be taken, from banning the sale to China of equipment that can be used in this repression, to sanctioning its architects — including Xinjiang party boss Chen Quanguo. Legislation pending in Congress, including the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, is a start; it should be taken up and passed.

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