Taipei, Taiwan – According to a forensic investigation by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Chinese authorities are checking the phones of ethnic minority Uyghurs for the presence of 50,000 known multimedia files used to signal violent extremism.
While the list of “violent and terrorist” content includes violent audio, video, and images produced by militant groups such as ISIS (ISIL), it also includes material from organizations promoting the identity or self-determination of Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim minority. in the far west of Xinjiang.
The organizations include the separatist East Turkestan independence movement, the World Uyghur Congress exile, and the US government-funded news outlet Radio Free Asia.
The files also contain information about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which is heavily censored in China.
However, some content flagged for review is non-political, including a Chinese travel show submitted in Syria called “On the Road”, readings from the Quran and Islamic songs, according to a metadata analysis of the listing by the rights group.
“The Chinese government is scandalously but dangerously confusing Islam with violent extremism to justify its appalling abuses against Turkish Muslims in Xinjiang,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at HRW.
“The UN Human Rights Council should take long overdue action by investigating the Chinese government’s abuses in Xinjiang and beyond.”
The master list analyzed by HRW is part of a larger 52GB trove of documents from a Xinjiang police database that was leaked to Intercept, a US-based media outlet, in 2019, but has so far not been made public.
Chinese police in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi have required residents to download an app called Jingwang Weishi that allows authorities to monitor the contents of their mobile phones. Visitors to Xinjiang may also be required to download a similar app called Fengcai.
While police officially check for “extremist” material, HRW said an analysis of the police database suggests that in many cases, ethnic Muslims are flagged as adherents of violent extremism simply because they practice or show an interest in their religion.
An analysis of 1,000 files flagged by police during 11.2 million searches of more than 1 million phones between 2017 and 2018 showed that 57 percent of content identified as problematic was simply religious material, HRW said.
Only 9 percent of flagged files contained violent content and 4 percent contained content inciting violence, according to the rights group.
A leaked list of 2,000 detainees at a re-education center in Aksu Prefecture in 2018 showed 10 percent had been detained for downloading “violent and terrorist” multimedia or having a connection to someone who downloaded it, HRW said.
Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims are under heavy surveillance as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to smooth out the cultural, linguistic, and religious differences among the country’s Han culture.
Rights groups estimate that more than 1 million people have been detained in re-education camps — dubbed “vocational training centers” by authorities — in recent years as part of the campaign, launched after a series of bombings and knife attacks in Xinjiang in the 2000s.
After launching the “Strike Hard campaign against violent terrorism” in 2014, Beijing escalated its efforts to include mass surveillance through biometric data collection, police apps and facial recognition technology.
Beijing has denied committing human rights violations in Xinjiang and defended its reeducation centers as important tools to fight violent extremism and alleviate poverty.