The Xinjiang region of China is 6,000 kilometres from London, 10,000 kilometres from New York and a million miles from most westerners’ thoughts. But here, in a developed country, men, women and children are being persecuted, imprisoned or killed for their religious beliefs.
Local Uyghurs (Turkic Muslims) are being rounded up and sent to sprawling detention facilities (or “re-education” camps) by Han Chinese migrants who have moved to the resource-rich region and commenced the systematic oppression of the indigenous people.
In fact, less than one month ago, the London-based China Tribunal found that the Chinese government is harvesting organs from prisoners. Many of these prisoners have done nothing more than follow Islam or Falun Gong (a peaceful religion characterised by kindness and meditation which is nonetheless considered a threat to the communist regime).
“Very many people have died indescribably hideous deaths for no reason, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC stated in relation to the unanimous decision of the China Tribunal. “More may suffer in similar ways and that all of us live on a planet where extreme wickedness may be found in the power of those, for the time being, running a country with one of the oldest civilisations known to modern man.”
It is now being reported that tourists entering Xinjiang are being told to download an application onto their phones, which further investigations have uncovered is malware designed to search for and extract information. The software looks for a specific set of files, according to numerous experts.
"[The app] provides yet another source of evidence showing how pervasive mass surveillance is being carried out in Xinjiang. We already know that Xinjiang residents - particularly Turkic Muslims - are subjected to round-the-clock and multidimensional surveillance in the region," Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said. "What you’ve found goes beyond that: it suggests that even foreigners are subjected to such mass, and unlawful surveillance."
Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim race who have lived in the region for centuries. However, the incoming Han Chinese (China’s and indeed the world’s largest ethnic group) control Xinjiang. Now, the government is monitoring Uyghurs who are also acutely aware of “disappearances” from the community.
“This is yet another example of why the surveillance regime in Xinjiang is one of the most unlawful, pervasive, and draconian in the world," stated Edin Omanovic, Privacy International’s state surveillance programme lead. "Modern extraction systems take advantage of this to build a detailed but flawed picture into people’s lives.”
“Modern apps, platforms, and devices generate huge amounts of data which people likely aren’t even aware of or believe they’ve deleted, but which can still be found on the device” he adds. “This is highly alarming in a country where downloading the wrong app or news article could land you in a detention camp.”
The software, called BXAQ or Fengcai, is installed on Android phones and looks for things such as ISIS’s publication Rumiyah, parts of the Quran, content relating to the Dalai Lama and music by Japanese rock band Unholy Grave, who offended the Chinese government with a song entitled Taiwan: Another China.
In a joint journalistic investigation, the Guardian, the New York Times and Vice employed researchers at Citizen Lab from the University of Toronto, researchers from the Ruhr University Bochum and penetration testing firm Cure53, on behalf of the Open Technology Fund.
"The Chinese government, both in law and practice, often conflates peaceful religious activities with terrorism,” Maya Wang, of Human Rights Watch, added. "Chinese law defines terrorism and extremism in a very broad and vague manner. For example, terrorism charges can stem from mere possession of 'items that advocate terrorism,' even though there is no clear definition of what these materials may be."
As well as extreme surveillance, Uyghurs are also being abducted from their homes and sent to “vocational schools” which use education - on topics such as Chinese culture and values - to combat “terrorism and religious extremism”. These largescale complexes are being built at a rate of knots and, with multiple watchtowers per perimeter, look far more like prisons than schools.
“There was a special room to punish those who didn't run fast enough,” former inmate Ablet Tursun Tohti told BBC. “There were two men there, one to beat with a belt, the other just to kick.” In an official video, it is claimed that Muslims are destitute people who are easily led astray but that these camps help assimilate them into the "modern, civilised" world. “We sang the song called 'Without the Communist Party There Can Be No New China',” Tohti explains. “And they taught us laws,” he adds. “If you couldn't recite them in the correct way, you'd be beaten.”
Meanwhile, the China Tribunal has uncovered a worst-case scenario in regards to organ harvesting - a practise the Chinese government claimed it had ceased in 2014. “On the day we were transferred to the labour camp, we were taken to a medical facility where we underwent physical check-ups,” Falun Gong activist Jennifer Zeng, who spent a year in a female labour camp, told the Guardian. “We were interrogated about what diseases we had and I told them I had hepatitis.”
“The second time, after about a month in the camp, everyone was handcuffed and put in a van and taken to a huge hospital,” Zeng continues. “That was for a more thorough physical check-up. We were given X-rays. On the third occasion in the camp, they were drawing blood from us. We were all told to line up in the corridor and the tests were given.”
“Inmates of the labour camp were not allowed to exchange contact details, so there was no way to trace each other after we were released,” Zeng said during the tribunal. “When anyone disappeared from the camp, I would assume that she was released and had gone home.”
“But in reality that cannot be confirmed,” she adds, “as I had no way to trace others after my release and I now fear they might have been taken to a hospital and had their organs removed without consent and thus killed in the process.”
That tourists’ phones are being scanned by border control officials is a pinprick of inconvenience compared to the persecution suffered by Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The tip of the iceberg, it gives some idea of the extent to which the lives of Chinese Muslims are being ruined through racism. Another blight on China’s pockmarked human rights record, their standing on the international stage looks increasingly shaky. But world powers will need to apply more pressure before the situation changes.