China’s top trade negotiator is traveling to Washington this week as tension over trade intensifies between the two nations. President Trump is threatening to impose a 25% tariff on nearly all Chinese imports after the U.S. accused China of backtracking on trade commitments. Talks are expected to resume on Thursday, but the Trump administration is facing criticism for refusing to address China’s human rights record as part of the negotiations. The United Nations and a number of human rights groups have accused the Chinese government of setting up massive camps in the far-west Xinjiang province to hold an unknown number of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims. Estimates of the population of the camps range from hundreds of thousands to more than a million. China says the camps have been built as re-education and training centers and are needed to combat extremism in the region. The New York Times reports the Trump administration has shelved proposed targeted sanctions over the mass detentions out of fear it could derail a potential trade deal. Last week, Human Rights Watch revealed new details about how China is carrying out mass surveillance in Xinjiang in part thanks to a mobile app that lets authorities monitor the Muslim population. We speak with Human Rights Watch’s China director, Sophie Richardson, and Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur-American activist and founder of Campaign for Uyghurs.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, China’s top trade negotiator is traveling to Washington this week as tension over trade intensifies between the two nations. President Trump is threatening to impose a 25% tariff on nearly all Chinese imports after the U.S. accused China of backtracking on trade commitments. Talks are expected to resume Thursday, but the Trump administration is facing criticism for refusing to address China’s human rights record as part of those negotiations.
AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations and a number of human rights groups have accused the Chinese government of setting up massive camps in the far-west Xinjiang province to hold an unknown number of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims. Estimates of the population of the camps range from hundreds of thousands to over a million, perhaps millions. China says the camps have been built as re-education and training centers and are needed to combat extremism in the region.
The New York Times reports the Trump administration has shelved proposed targeted sanctions over the mass detentions out of fear it could derail a potential trade deal. Last week, Human Rights Watch revealed new details about how China is carrying out massive surveillance in Xinjiang in part thanks to a mobile app that lets authorities monitor the Muslim population. This video, produced by Human Rights Watch, begins with a Uyghur student.
ALIM: I used to be one of those people, like, “I’ve got nothing to hide. I’m just a student.” But I was very wrong. They’re targeting everyone. As long as you’re going out of your house, you’re being surveilled.
SOPHIE RICHARDSON: In Xinjiang, in northwestern China, 13 million Turkic Muslims are already enduring extraordinary suppression at the hands of the Chinese government. Authorities there are building a surveillance state to be able to track their every move.
JANIS MACKEY FRAYER: Across the northwestern province of Xinjiang, an estimated 1 million Chinese Muslims have vanished into a vast network of detention centers for what China calls “re-education.”
REPORTER: The region is now under what’s probably the most intense government surveillance in the world.
ALIM: Every 200 meters would have a police checkpoint. And then, on top of that, there are all these checkpoints at public places wherever you go. If you’re Uyghur, they stop you. They would just say, “Where’s your ID? I want to check your ID.” They would punch in the ID number, and then they would see everything about you.
SOPHIE RICHARDSON: One tool at the heart of Xinjiang’s surveillance system is the IJOP, or the Integrated Joint Operations Platform. The IJOP has an app that’s used by police and government officials to track extraordinary amounts of personal information about individuals, ranging from their religious habits to their blood type. The information from the app feeds into a central system and combines with information from other surveillance systems, including CCTV cameras that rely on facial recognition software, and even “wifi sniffers” that are used as people walk through checkpoints, to pull information off their phones. The IJOP system aggregates all this data about people, flags those it deems suspicious, and sends alerts to nearby officials. These dubious criteria are being used to identify large numbers of people, many of whom are then arbitrarily locked up.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a video produced by Human Rights Watch. We’re joined now by two guests. Sophie Richardson is China director for Human Rights Watch. She appears in that video. She edited the new report, “China’s Algorithms of Repression: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App.”
We’re also joined by Uyghur-American activist Rushan Abbas. She’s the founder and director of Campaign for Uyghurs. After she spoke out against China’s repression of the Uyghurs last year, her aunt and sister disappeared. Her aunt has since been released, but there’s still no news of her sister.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sophie Richardson, explain further exactly, first, who made this app and how China is using this, particularly against the Muslim Uyghur population.
SOPHIE RICHARDSON: The app itself was designed by a company called Hebei Far East technology corporation, which was at the time a subsidiary of a very large Chinese conglomerate called CETC. And the goal really was to build a system broadly that could integrate multiple different streams of data from everything, you know, from police-used apps to facial recognition software. And then this particular app was designed for police to use on their mobile devices, both to gather information about people, but then to receive directives from the central system about whether they were meant to go out and carry out
further investigations of people and what sorts of information they were meant to gather.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rushan Abbas, could you talk about the—the Pentagon is estimating that perhaps as many as 3 million Uyghurs are in concentration camps in China. Could you talk about the current level of the repression, whether it has been increasing or what the status, from what you know of, of the people of your group?
RUSHAN ABBAS: The Chinese government is getting away with this mass atrocity. And what they are doing today is increasing, actually, because they are being able to cover up. They are being able to manipulate the information, with the information blockade. They are being able to increase the numbers, as you see. Back in December, it was 800 to about 2 million, the estimation. Now it’s more than 3 million. My sister is still being incarcerated, somewhere that we don’t know. I am just one example of millions of the other innocent Uyghur people being held. The Uyghur Muslims are being a collateral damage between communist China’s hunger for power and the other countries’ trade deals.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Sophie Richardson: When it comes to the Uyghur population, what does China explain that it is doing, and how does it justify this app? How much is known about this app, for example, inside China?
SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Well, the Chinese government’s broad justification for its policies in Xinjiang really revolve around national security. The Chinese government insists that it’s grappling with threats of terrorism and that since it began its latest Strike Hard Against Extremism campaign in 2016, there have been no major attacks. Now, we would respond to that by saying there have been no major attacks since the province is under a near-total lockdown, regardless of whether someone is detained in a political education camp or outside, where there are still pervasive restrictions on movement, religion, people interacting with one another.
The app is certainly, it seems, reasonably well known across the province. We had come across it in the course of doing research on other kinds of surveillance technology, but then we found more discussions on police-run WeChat accounts and then actually had interviewees who had been released from political education camps describe to us that when they were detained, police were gathering information and entering it into this app and then making decisions that those people should be subject to further detention. And then we actually found the app, which at the time was publicly available, and downloaded it and set to work reverse-engineering it to show dozens of different kinds of behavior, all of them perfectly legal, that are now considered essentially evidence of problematic or suspicious behavior by the authorities.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned that even such an otherwise normal act as going outside the back door of your house as opposed to the front door of your house could be a trigger for the Chinese authorities to gather information on these apps?
SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Yeah. Some of the behaviors described or logged are really ludicrous—front door versus back door, if you’re suddenly talking to your neighbor more or less, if facial recognition software logs you putting gas into a car that doesn’t belong to you. You know, these are all behaviors that are perfectly legal under Chinese law, and yet they are now considered grounds for investigation and, in some cases, arbitrary detention.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan, who recently interviewed the Chinese professor Charles Liu, who works as an informal adviser to the Chinese government.
MEHDI HASAN: Your country, the government you support and have advised, according to a U.N. rapporteur, according to the U.S. State Department, according to Amnesty International, according to Human Rights Watch, according to plenty of journalists and many others, are believed to have detained maybe a million people or more, mainly from the Uyghur Muslim ethnic minority, in re-education camps. A million people, Charles. A million.
CHARLES LIU: OK, OK. It’s certainly not grabbing headlines in China.
MEHDI HASAN: Isn’t that because you don’t have a free press in China, so you can’t have headlines about the Uyghurs?
CHARLES LIU: No, it’s because there are 55 national minorities in China, and Uyghurs’ population is, in total—
MEHDI HASAN: Between 9 million and 10 million, I believe, in Xinjiang.
CHARLES LIU: Yes, 0.7% of the population.
MEHDI HASAN: OK, but the world doesn’t work on percentages. If you lock up a million people in camps—
*CHARLES LIU: The world doesn’t—
MEHDI HASAN: —the world pays attention.
CHARLES LIU: One-point-four billion people need to be fed, need to be clothed, need to be educated.
MEHDI HASAN: What’s that got to do with locking up a million people in Xinjiang? That must concern you, to hear that a million people of your fellow Chinese countrymen and women have been locked up by your government.
CHARLES LIU: If it’s true, sure.
MEHDI HASAN: How do we establish if it’s true or not? Why don’t you let people in to check and count? Then we’ll know for sure.
CHARLES LIU: I think people have visited.
MEHDI HASAN: No. They’ve been on kind of supervised trips with Chinese monitors to select camps where they haven’t been able to see everything. In fact, Reuters went on a trip last year. They were taken around. They were allowed to meet some people. And the people sang, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mehdi Hasan at the Oxford Union in Britain, along with the Chinese professor, Liu. Rushan Abbas, you are Uyghur. You’re a Uyghur-American activist. Your sister’s still disappeared. Your response?
RUSHAN ABBAS: Well, since April 2017, all the Uyghurs in diaspora, they are unable to contact their family members. Currently, the Chinese government arranged another supervised tour to selected camps in Kashgar and the other parts. And the authorities told the reporters they are here voluntarily and they’re being able to return home over the weekends. That’s not in reality. The people disappeared for more than two, three years now, nobody knows where they are. They are not coming home. They are not in contact with their family members.
My sister, Dr. Gulshan Abbas, she’s a medical doctor. She doesn’t need vocational training. She doesn’t need to be taught Chinese. She speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese. My sister is just one example of hundreds and hundreds of the Uyghur intellectuals, more than 400 numbers that are being reported, being incarcerated now—the university presidents, professors, famous writers. They are all taken, and nobody know where they are. They are not there voluntarily, as the Chinese government is announcing to the world or showing the other reporters, as Mehdi Hasan mentioned, in supervised tours.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rushan Abbas, could you talk about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its relationship to the strategic location of Xinjiang province in terms of that well-known effort by China to build trade ties across the world?
RUSHAN ABBAS: Since the Chinese communist government’s occupation of the Uyghur homeland in 1949, the Chinese government relentlessly tried to eliminate the Uyghur culture and the ethnicity and the religion, being targeted under the different labels. But recently, last two, three years, the deterioration of the human rights abuse in this massive scale is directly connected to the Belt and Road Initiative. The Uyghur homeland lies on the strategic heart of Belt and Road Initiative, and it’s a gateway to Central Asia, to Europe, to Africa. Therefore, Xi Jinping’s signature project to the world domination, and the innocent Uyghur people are becoming the victims.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me just quickly ask Sophie Richardson: Why the discrepancy in number? I mean, this is a large discrepancy to say between 1 and 3 million Uyghurs are being held. Why don’t we know?
SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Well, we don’t know because the Chinese government is lying. Even, you know, for the first six months that groups like mine were documenting this phenomenon, the Chinese government was denying that these camps or facilities even existed. They then changed their tune and said that they did exist but that they were vocational training schools or boarding schools. And we’ve argued hard that the only way to really ascertain the truth is for the Chinese government to allow in independent international inspectors who can visit the facilities freely and talk to people without fear of reprisal, to get a sense of just how many people are detained and to argue hard that they should be immediately released.