In November of 2018, Anayit Abliz, a Muslim Uighur from China’s far western region of Xinjiang, was sentenced to three years in prison for using a file-sharing application called Zapya and a virtual private network (VPN) to communicate online the previous year.
During the months of detention leading to his conviction, the teenager’s family was subjected to intrusive surveillance, with their daily activities chronicled in a series of reports filed under the heading, ‘Situation regarding persons who are detained or going through re-education’.
In one incident, a neighbourhood watcher entered Abliz’s family home and reported they had found his father, mother and sister all watching television. Another time, the government-assigned monitor noted that the family members were just “going about their business” inside their house.
It is thought that in Xinjiang, the discovery by authorities of the widespread use of the Zapya application “prompted millions of investigations at the grassroots level” similar to the intrusions faced by Abliz’s family, according to a new report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) based in Canberra.
Between July 2016 and June 2017, government monitors assigned by Beijing flagged at least 1,869,310 Uighurs and other citizens in Xinjiang for using Zapya, the report revealed. ASPI’s latest report is based on thousands of documents leaked to the think tank.
Since early 2017, vast numbers of Uighur men and women, as well as other Muslim ethnic minorities, have been arbitrarily detained or imprisoned according to the United Nations and human rights groups.
They include hundreds of thousands who have been sent to prisons, in addition to the one million the UN estimates to have been sent to internment camps.
The detentions and alleged abuses inside enclosed government facilities have been described by the United States and international human rights groups as a form of genocide constituting “crimes against humanity”. Last month, Amnesty International accused China of creating a “dystopian hellscape” in Xinjiang.
China has rejected the allegations, saying its policies towards the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities living in Xinjiang are necessary to “fight extremism” and promote upward economic mobility for the impoverished ethnic group.
But the latest report detailing how China’s “vast system of coercive state control works” only bolsters the allegations of the existence of an “architecture of repression” in Xinjiang targeting Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, according to ASPI.
The 82-page report also draws on previously unpublished material from thousands of Chinese-language sources, including police records and budget documents obtained by scraping through publicly available Chinese government websites.