China using big data to detain Muslim minorities in Xinjiang

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NEW YORK: The Chinese government is using big data to arbitrarily detain Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, a leaked list of more than 2,000 detainees from the province suggests.

A new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which carried the list, says the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), a predictive computer programme, analyses data and selects members of minority communities to be detained.

“A big data programme for policing in China’s Xinjiang region arbitrarily selects Turkic Muslims for possible detention… A leaked list of over 2,000 detainees from Aksu prefecture provided to HRW is further evidence of China’s use of technology in its repression of the Muslim population,” the report released on Wednesday said.

Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth speaks during a press conference to launch their 2020 World Report at the New York United Nations headquarters. (File picture)

The IJOP programme automatically selects possible detainees for the controversial camps set up in the remote region according to parameters including studying the Koran, wearing religious clothing or travelling internationally.

“The Aksu List (from 2018) provides further insights into how China’s brutal repression of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at HRW.

“The Chinese government owes answers to the families of those on the list: why were they detained, and where are they now?”

“The Aksu list is the first time we have seen the IJOP in action in detaining people,” said Wang.

Experts from the UN and human rights advocates have said that at least a million from Muslim Uyghur community have been detained in camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). China has denied that Uyghurs were incarcerated in the camps, saying the government had set up vocational training institutes, which were also meant to de-radicalise locals and fight terrorism, separatism and extremism.

The inmates have been released from the camps; Beijing has said. Access to the Xinjiang camps is strictly restricted, making it impossible to independently verify whether all the camps have closed.

“Xinjiang issues are not about human rights, ethnicity or religion at all, but about combating violence, terrorism and separatism. The series of measures Xinjiang has taken are not only in accordance with China’s laws but are also concrete steps and manifestations of China’s implementation of the international counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation initiatives,” the Chinese foreign ministry had said earlier this year.

China, however, has been strongly criticised for its treatment of Muslim minorities in the vast northwestern province. “The mass surveillance and arbitrary detention of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims violate fundamental rights under China’s constitution and international human rights law. Article 37 of the constitution states that all arrests must be approved by either the procuratorate (the state prosecution agency) or the courts,” the HRW report 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.”