BEIJING — China is collecting and analyzing large volumes of data about citizens in its far west region of Xinjiang, according to new research from Human Rights Watch released on Tuesday, and people flagged as potential threats can be detained and sent to political education centers where they are often held for months without charge.
The report is the latest indication that authorities are ramping up a campaign of mass surveillance and detention in the region, which is home to most of the country’s ethnic Uighurs.
“This program goes beyond a massive intrusion on privacy, and actually leads to people being arbitrarily detained,” Maya Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told BuzzFeed News.
Tens of thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities have been dispatched to political education centers since last spring in a campaign that has emptied many villages in the region. Because the centers are not official prisons, those held at the centers have not been formally charged with any crime.
The Chinese government’s mass surveillance system involves heavy-handed human policing as well as the use of high-tech surveillance tools such as drones and facial-recognition cameras. The government says the measures are necessary to combat the threat of terrorism in the region, which has seen periodic bouts of unrest. But critics say the measures are a form of collective punishment for the actions of a handful of extremists.
The system, officially called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, collects information from a variety of sources including CCTV cameras and Wi-Fi sniffers, as well as existing databases of health information, banking records, and family planning history, Human Rights Watch said, citing government procurement records as well as interviews with sources from the region. Police must also submit information to the database if they discover anything “unusual” while visiting residents’ homes.
Teams of police officers and local Communist Party cadres regularly visit people’s homes to collect data, the report found. The report’s findings match anecdotal accounts given to BuzzFeed News by Uighurs last fall. The officials ask residents about their families, their “ideology,” and their neighbors.
People who had seen the Integrated Joint Operations Platform on a computer told Human Rights Watch it pulled up lists of people the police were supposed to round up.
China is far from the only country to use data analytics in policing. But rights groups say its use in Xinjiang is problematic because the technology is used to detain or imprison people who are accused of no crime. In any case, criminal courts in China have a 99% conviction rate, so being accused of a crime in China is almost always tantamount to a conviction.