The totalitarianism of the 21st century is being pioneered in a vast but remote region of western China inaccessible to most outsiders and subject to a media blackout by China’s Communist authorities.
In Xinjiang province, twice the size of Germany, an estimated 1 million people have been forcibly confined to political reeducation camps, where they are required to memorize and recite political songs and slogans in exchange for food. The rest of the region’s 23 million people are subjected to an extraordinary network of surveillance based in part on the collection of biometric data such as DNA and voice samples, and the use of artificial intelligence to identify, rate and track every person. Those rated as suspicious — possession of certain phone apps is sufficient — are sent to the camps without process, trial or even a fixed term.
A new report by Human Rights Watch, which pieced together information about the repression based on interviews with 58 former Xinjiang residents, adds new details about what the group calls human rights violations “of a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.” Not only is the regime of Xi Jinping persecuting millions of people based on their ethnicity and religion, but also it is developing tools of high-tech repression that could be used by dictatorships around the world. Yet China, says the report, “does not foresee a significant political cost to its abusive Xinjiang campaign.” That must change.
The principal target of the crackdown, which began in 2014 but accelerated two years ago, are the some 11 million ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, who are predominantly Muslim, along with several other smaller Muslim ethnic groups.
Some Uighur individuals have supported separatist groups, and there have been a handful of violent attacks on Chinese targets. But nothing could justify Beijing’s response, which Human Rights Watch concluded aims at the eradication of “any non-Han Chinese sense of identity.”
Inside the camps, according to the group’s research, detainees are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese: 1,000 or more characters must be memorized, along with patriotic songs and lists of rules that apply to Uighurs and other Muslims. These include not using Islamic greetings, not speaking Uighur in public, and not communicating with residents of 26 selected countries, including Russia, Turkey and Malaysia.
As disturbing, in part because it is so innovative, is the system of control outside the camps. What authorities call the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” aggregates data about people and “detects deviations from what authorities deem ‘normal,’ ” the report says. The program generates lists of subjects for police to round up and question; many are then sent to the camps.
This Orwellian model of repression is likely to become the norm in China, and to be exported to like-minded totalitarian regimes elsewhere, unless the Xi regime encounters significant resistance. There are steps the United States and other democratic governments can take: Human Rights Watch recommends sanctioning those in charge of the Xinjiang campaign and restricting exports of equipment that could be used in it. At stake is not just the welfare of the Uighurs but also whether the technologies of the 21st century will be employed to smother human freedom.
This editorial was first published in The Washington Post.