This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China use a big data program that “arbitrarily selects Turkic Muslims for possible detention” in internment camps based on behavior that is legal, Human Rights Watch said in a report published on Thursday.
In the report, “China: Big Data Program Targets Xinjiang’s Muslims,” the New York-based watchdog group analyzes a leaked list of over 2,000 detainees from Aksu prefecture provided in late 2018 by RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“The big data program, the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), apparently flagged the people on the Aksu List, whom officials then evaluated and sent to ‘political education’ camps in Xinjiang,” HRW said
“The Aksu List provides further insights into how China’s brutal repression of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology,” said Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The Chinese government owes answers to the families of those on the list: why were they detained, and where are they now?” she said in a statement ahead of the release of the report on Thursday.
The IJOP policing program aggregates data about people in Xinjiang, and flags to officials those it deems potentially threatening, the report said.
“Officials then evaluate these individuals’ ‘general performance’ together with other sources of information, and send some to political education camps and other facilities.” it said.
Human Rights Watch spent nearly two years analyzing the Aksu List, an Excel spread sheet with the 2,000 names, consulting with Uyghur exiles from that region and checking ID numbers against those on an official website of people who have been blacklisted under China’s social credit system, it said.
The analysis of the Aksu List “strongly suggests that the vast majority of the people flagged by the IJOP system are detained for everyday lawful, non-violent behavior,” it said.
Among the activities that to detention were studying the Quran without state permission, allowing one’s children to study the Quran, reciting the Quran, wearing religious clothing or having a long beard, or going on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia without state permission, it said.
Uyghurs were also sent away to camps for “sensitive” countries, including Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kyrgyzstan — as well as elsewhere in Xinjiang such as Urumqi and Kashgar, without notifying local officials, HRW added.
“Predictive policing’ platforms are really just a pseudo-scientific fig leaf for the Chinese government to justify vast repression of Turkic Muslims,” Wang said.
“The Chinese government should immediately shut down the IJOP, delete all the data it has collected, and release everyone arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.”
Authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs – about one in six adults — and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps in the XUAR since April 2017, often for acts they label signs of “extremism.”