High-Tech Human Rights Abuses in China

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In Xinjiang, China has started a massive crackdown on Uighur Muslims and is using high-tech tools developed in Silicon Valley to assist its efforts. China claims that this crackdown has a legitimate basis, to stop terrorism and Islamic extremism. However, human rights organizations say it is the largest mass internment of an ethnic minority since World War II and a massive violation of basic human rights.

The BBC reported in November 2019 that, starting in 2017,  the Chinese government forced large numbers of Uighurs into indoctrination camps euphemistically called “Vocational Education and Training Centers.” A leak of internal government documents made to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists highlights the atrocities perpetrated against the Uighurs in these centers. The “China Cables,” as the ICIJ calls them, included a nine-page memo sent out in 2017 to the officials who run the camps by Zhu Hailun, the deputy-secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party. The memo contained orders to “[ensure] full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms free of blind spots”, “increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations”, and “encourage students to truly transform”. The Chinese state wants to demolish the culture and religion of the Uighurs in order to make them loyal to the communist government and are using every resource to their advantage.

Nury Turkel, a Uighur-American human rights advocate, spoke out against the sophisticated, artificially-intelligent technologies the Chinese use to monitor the Uighur minority. Turkel, who has family in Xinjiang,  cannot even call his parents because of the intense surveillance of regular, everyday communication. “[I]n the system, the algorithm picks up something, then the family members will be in trouble”, Turkel explained. Chinese tech is relying on complex algorithms to conduct this monitoring. According to the files leaked to the ICIJ, in a period of just 7 days,  information collected in a database called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform was used to identify 25,000 Uighurs and to locate about 16,000 of them using algorithms.

“Experts say the platform, which is used in both policing and military contexts, demonstrates the power of technology to help drive industrial-scale human rights abuses,” observed ICIJ reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

Silicon Valley companies are profiting from these massive human rights abuses by helping to build some of the programs, applications, and technologies used by China to further its crackdown. For instance, Chinese authorities encouraged Uighurs to install Zapya, an “Islamic-friendly” app, on their mobile devices. Around 1.5 million Uighurs use it to talk and share information with each other. Yet information users share via the app is being monitored so if someone sends a verse of the Quran or something Islamic-related, the algorithm picks it up and that data is used to target Uighur Muslims for arrest and “re-education.” According to an article by ICIJ reporter Scilla Alecci, Zapya’s development was funded by InnoSpring, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Not only did InnoSpring raise money from investors but also provided management support and seed funding to Zapya.

Twitter has also profited directly from China’s targeting  of Uighurs by perpetuating misinformation about the mass detention camps in “promoted tweets” from the Global Times, a pro-government Chinese newspaper. These sponsored posts obscured the truth about what was happening in Xinjiang and were sent out to more than 300 million users.

Coverage of this story by major corporate media has been uneven and incomplete. Many corporate news outlets, such as CNN and NBC,  have published isolated reports about Chinese government mistreatment of the Uighurs, especially in connection with Congress passing the Uighur Act which officially condemns the Chinese abuse of this ethnic minority. The New York Times  has reported repeatedly on the mass detentions and a January 29, 2020 New York Times magazine article even carried a detailed, in-depth story about the impact of the detentions on one Uighur family. However, such reports invariably failed to mention the disturbing revelations about the role of tech in the detentions contained in the “Chinese cables” leaked to ICIJ. Moreover, not a single corporate media outlet reported on the complicity of Silicon Valley tech companies in the oppression of Chinese Uighurs.


“Data Leak Reveals How China ‘Brainwashes’ Uighurs in Prison Camps,” BBC News, November 24,  2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-50511063.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “Exposed: China’s Operating Manuals for Mass Internment and Arrest by Algorithm, ” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, November 24, 2019, https://www.icij.org/investigations/china-cables/exposed-chinas-operating-manuals-for-mass-internment-and-arrest-by-algorithm/.

Fergus Shiel, “China Cables: Who Are the Uighurs and Why Mass Detention?” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, November 25, 2019, www.icij.org/investigations/china-cables/china-cables-who-are-the-uighurs-and-why-mass-detention/.

Mehdi Hassan, “Why Don’t We Care About China’s Uighur Muslims?” The Intercept, December 29, 2019, https://theintercept.com/2019/12/29/why-dont-we-care-about-chinas-uighur-Muslims/.

Scilla Alecci, “How China Targets Uighurs ‘One by One’ for Using a Mobile App,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, January 18, 2020, www.icij.org/investigations/china-cables/how-china-targets-uighurs-one-by-one-for-using-a-mobile-app.

Ryan Gallagher, “Twitter Helped Chinese Government Promote Disinformation on Repression of Uighurs,” The Intercept, August 19, 2019,  www.theintercept.com/2019/08/19/twitter-ads-china-uighurs/.

Student Researcher: Zamin Noorani(North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)