Up to a Million Muslims Have Been Interned in China's New A.I. Camps

Published May 22nd, 2018 - 11:47 GMT
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)


  • Up to a million members of ethnic minorities have been interned in re-education camps in China
  • China is developing, thanks to help from private corporations, a massive surveillance state
  • The state-of-the-art technolgoy includes facial recognition and AI used to track purchases
  • Chinese corporations are already exporting their tech globally


By Ty Joplin


“The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking — your own ethnic group,” Omar Bekali, a resident of China’s Xinjiang province told a reporter from the Associated Press, breaking down in tears as he described the conditions he lived in. “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”

Bekali was forced to stand still against a wall for five hours at a time, deprived of food for entire days and kept in solitary confinement. Bekali is just one of up to a million people who have been interned in China’s new ‘re-education’ camps.

Concentrated in China’s Xinjiang province, the camps are officially intended to be ‘de-extremificiation,’ centers but function more practically as a form of culturally cleansing the region from Muslim and even some Christian beliefs.

China, through a vast web of public and private ventures, is building a state-of-the-art surveillance state aimed at controlling and policing a restive population of ethnically Turkic and Kazakh Muslims and Christians.


The Deep Security Web


Location of Xinjiang province in China (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)

U.S. Hollywood films have long dramatized dystopian futures where surveillance states reign supreme, where cops are able to predict and stop crimes before they ever happen and where residents are painstakingly demarcated, categorized and tracked.

Turning science fiction into daunting reality, the Chinese government has begun perfecting a method of predictive policing and mass internment.

The Xinjiang province of China is home to about 22 million people, most of whom are either Uyghur, an ethnically Turkic Muslim group, or Kazakh. In a country that boasts nearly 200 million CCTV surveillance cameras and next to no right to privacy from the central government, the Uyghurs and Kazakhs of Xinjiang are the most heavily surveilled group in China.

The technologies currently deployed to surveil them vary widely, said Adrian Zenz, an expert on Chinese security and author of a new, bombshell report on China’s ‘re-education’ camps, to Al Bawaba. “From face recognition and ID scanners to airport-style full body scanners to vehicle scanners to HD camera networks,” the Chinese government uses a multifaceted network of surveillance to track the movements, conversations and purchasing habits of anyone the government suspects may be a security threat.

That network is called the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” or IJOP for short.

A police researcher involved with IJOP told Human Rights Watch how one aspect of their operations worked: “for example, if a person usually only buys 5 kilos of chemical fertilizers, but suddenly [the amount] increases to 15 kilos, then we would send the frontline officers to visit [the person] and check its use. If there is no problem, [they would] input into the system the situation, and lower the alert level.”

Another interviewee explained in detail what he saw when he came across an IJOP interface, it deserves to be quoted at length:

“I saw with my own eyes, on designated computers…the names, gender, ID numbers, occupation, familial relations, whether that person is trusted, not trusted, detained, subjected to political education (and year, month, date) for every Uyghur in that district. Those detained or not trusted, their color [coding] is different. Also, the content of the form is different depending on what has [already] been filled in. For example, for Uyghurs who have passports: when they got it, where did they go, how long did they stay, when did they come back, did they give their passports [to the police], did they come back from abroad, the reasons for travelling abroad such as family visits, tourism, pursuing studies, business, or others.”

IJOP also includes state-of-the-art facial recognition technology that can track individuals’ movements regardless of the clothes they wear thanks to new developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Chinese security in Urumqi, Xinjiang province (AFP/FILE)

If someone is considered to be potentially dangerous according to their data in IJOP, whether it is abnormal purchasing habits, conversations they have, or even religious practices that the Chinese state thinks is contrary to the national identity, they can be detained, sent to internment camps, and have their family be visited by a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official.

If a family is considered politically untrustworthy, party officials or surveillance officers known as fanghuiju can visit a home and gather data as often as once a day.

According to a figure leaked by China’s public security agencies, a million of them have been detained and interned by Chinese security personnel. That would be almost 12 percent of the adult Uyghur and Kazakh population in Xinjiang.

Once in the ‘re-education’ camps, detainees are subject to routine abuse both physical and verbal.

Accounts are harrowing: some have reported that they were forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, while others detail solitary confinement for long periods of time, deprivation of food and constant pressure to disavow one’s religion in the name of the Chinese community party.

When asked what China’s ultimate goal for the centers is, Zenz explained that they are meant to  “strongly intimidate the population in order to exert control and ensure social compliance, and secondly to discourage any practice of religion, driving people towards secularization.”

Maya Wang, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch who has followed the issue closely, stated the goal of the program in blunt terms to Al Bawaba: “The goal is to mass engineer the identity of the Muslims--which are too different from Hans [the main ethnicity in China], from the state's perspective-- so they become loyal, obedient subjects of the CCP. This is done through pervasive surveillance, political indoctrination and control--particularly over their movement--over the Muslims of that region.”


According to Zenz, the re-education internment camps are extra-legal, meaning they do not replace punitive legal sentences individuals may receive. In simple terms, this means many are subject to both ‘re-education’ at the internment camps in addition to hard prison time.


The Private Enterprise of Spying

Chinese security personnel in Xinjiang (AFP/FILE)

Many aspects of China’s surveillance state and internment camps have been contracted out to private companies, who see a profit to be made in developing security technology.

“Xinjiang has proven an ideal location for developing and trying out new technology,” said Zenz. “The local government is actively encouraging partnerships for the development of security-related technology.”

One such partnership is with Huawei, a Chinese telecom giant. “Huawei Corporation has just been invited by a police department in Xinjiang's Urumqi [the capital of Xinjiang province] to deploy a ‘smart city’ system that includes comprehensive surveillance and information gathering. Together with the security authorities, Huawei and other companies are opening research laboratories in Xinjiang.”

According to official statements from Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, Huawei will assist in capacity and expertise building to “meet the digitization requirements of the public security industry.” Tao Jingwen, an executive at Huawei, proudly said “together with the Public Security Bureau, Huawei will unlock a new era of smart policing and help build a safer, smarter society.”

Another private company, CloudWalk, is helping to spearhead IJOP’s new facial recognition technology that Human Rights Watch condemned to be dystopian ‘predictive policing,’ that infringes on individuals rights on a scale never-before-seen.

CloudWalk’s CEO, Zhou Xi, bragged about the technology in an interview with a tech publication: “Images and video are completely different. For example, face recognition. We need to identify people’s face from the image , as well as his emotions, age, gender. However, Image and video recognition is much more than that.”

Xi later casually mentioned that “actually, some of our designed system has been applied in Xinjiang and another regions since 2011.”

Another company receiving contracts from the Chinese government to bolster their security state is the Frontier Services Group (FSG). Its founder and executive director is none other than Erik Prince, the former CEO of the U.S.-firm Blackwater. Al Bawaba has detailed his global attempts to raise private armies for princes and sell illegal planes to surveil and bomb restive minority groups. Now, Prince’s FSG has boasted that is training thousands of  5,000 Chinese military personnel, 200 plainclothes police officers, 500 SWAT specialists, 200 railway police officers and 300 overseas military police officers.

A painted wall of FSG’s military school reads: “Training ground for warriors.”

(Source: Chinese government procurement bids, Adrian Zenz)

According to Zenz’s numbers, the Chinese government has given nearly a billion dollars to private companies in bids to construct Xinjiang’s massive internment camps alone.


Ethno-Religious Cleansing

Chinese police trying to hold back a crowd in Xinjiang (AFP/FILE)

China has long-maintained an antagonistic relationship to the Uyghur and Kazakh population of Xinjiang. They are ethnically Turkic rather than Han Chinese, their language has more in common with Arabic and Cyrillic than Mandarin or Cantonese, the official language of the state. And they are mostly Muslim.

A breakaway group of Uyghurs, called the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), have acted out violently in an attempt for Xinjiang to secede from China. Many of the group’s leaders are in hiding in Pakistan, and thousands of its fighters are currently in Syria’s Idlib province, fighting alongside al-Qaeda linked groups and other opposition factions.

They have orchestrated a number of attacks in and outside of China, but has maintained a relatively weak presence in the country. Their last major attack in China was in 2013, where a suicide bomber killed five people in Beijing.

The Chinese government nonetheless, sees the Uyghur and Kazakh population of Xinjiang as major security threats, and intend to pacify them using a combination of surveillance and interment designed to securalize them.

“The crackdown in Xinjiang is driven by the Party's fear of the Turkic Muslims, who are most different from Hans in many aspects and whose loyalty is divided,” Wang said, adding that “the government fears, among others, pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic thoughts among these groups as they indicate a lack of complete loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party”

“Of course, this is set to increase their antagonies towards the state,” Zenz noted.


The Future of Surveillance


If Xinjiang is a testing ground, other parts of China and even countries around the world should expect to see elements of surveillance reach their residents.

“Many have said that this region serves as a Frankenstein-like laboratory for the social control technologies and policing tactics that will be used throughout China, and even globally,” said William Nee, Chinese researcher for Amnesty International.


This already appears to be happening. CloudWalk, the company developing IJOP’s facial recognition A., is now expanding its operations to Zimbabwe.

"With the knowledge that Chinese facial ID technology has made rapid progress over recent years, the Zimbabwean government hopes to introduce it to the country to help accelerate its modernization by partnering with leading Chinese enterprises in the IT sector," an executive at CloudWalk told a reporter for the Global Times, a CCP-backed newspaper.

Another Chinese company, Hikvision, reportedly won over $1 billion in contracts from China to help build the vast web of security technology to surveill the population in Xinjiang. Hikvision has focused on building facial recognition and surveillance products and in 2017, partnered with a Zimbabwe company to “provide security-related products and bring smart closed-circuit television (CCTV) technology to Zimbabwe.”

Meanwhile, in the Xinjiang internment camps, thousands of ethnic minorities are denied their rights and subject to continued abuse.

“The closest analogue is maybe the Cultural Revolution in that this will leave long-term, psychological effects,” Rian Thum, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said. “This will create a multigenerational trauma from which many people will never recover.”

Omar Bekali refused to cooperate with Chinese authorities while interned. In an attempt to break him, he was thrown in solitary confinement. One day, in between stints in solitary confinement, he saw a local official walking through the facility on an inspection. He yelled at the the top of his lungs to get the officials’ attention.

“Take me in the back and kill me, or send me back to prison,” he shouted. “I can’t be here anymore,” he screamed.

Bekali was eventually released after eight months in detainment. A few months later, Chinese authorities rounded up his sister, mother and father. They too are likely to face the same internment and abuse to which Bekali was subjected.

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