Smartphones and the internet gave the Uighurs a sense of their own identity – but now the Chinese state is using technology to strip them of it.
By Darren Byler
In mid-2017, Alim, a Uighur man in his 20s, returned to China from studying abroad. As soon as he landed back in the country, he was pulled off the plane by police officers. He was told his trip abroad meant that he was now under suspicion of being “unsafe”. The police administered what they call a “health check”, which involved collecting several types of biometric data, including DNA, blood type, fingerprints, voice recordings and face scans – a process that all adults in the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang, in north-west China, are expected to undergo.
After his “health check”, Alim was transported to one of the hundreds of detention centres that dot north-west China. These centres have become an important part of what Xi Jinping’s government calls the “people’s war on terror”, a campaign launched in 2014, which focuses on Xinjiang, a region with a population of roughly 25 million people, just under half of whom are Uighur Muslims. As part of this campaign, the Chinese government has come to treat almost all expressions of Uighur Islamic faith as signs of potential religious extremism and ethnic separatism. Since 2017 alone, more than 1 million Turkic Muslims, including Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others, have moved through detention centres.