On March 15, 2023, one week after International Women’s Day, Justice for All – Save Uyghur held a virtual panel discussion entitled Global Challenge: Uyghur Women’s Rights Defenders & Intrusive Surveillance Technologies. This event is one of several dozen similar events offered by UN missions and non-governmental organizations as a part of the 67th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The link to the webinar is included below.
The discussion, moderated by Justice for All’s Rizwangul NurMuhammad, included Louisa Greve, Director of Global Advocacy of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Zumret Dawut, a Uyghur human rights advocate and former detainee, Tursunay Ziyawodun, a Uyghur human rights advocate and former detainee, and Mihrigul Tursun, also a former detainee, Uyghur human rights advocate, and author. Each panelist lent powerful personal and professional insight to the discussion of the intersection of women’s rights and the draconian surveillance policies of the People’s Republic of China.
Ms. Greve began the panel discussion by providing an overview of the current situation in East Turkistan, describing in depth the various policy measures utilized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to perpetrate genocide against the Uyghur population. Ms. Greve discussed the complexity of surveillance technology in its all-encompassing nature and its connections to the global market. Indeed, global telecommunications companies like Huawei are intimately involved in the data collection, transmission, and analysis that further enables surveillance work by Beijing.
Ms. Greve expounded further upon emerging innovative technologies’ role in improving existing surveillance. The integration of AI into surveillance systems and the collection of “big data” enable machine learning that further increases the capacity and efficiency of state surveillance. Ms. Greve indicated that seemingly mundane, unrelated data collection may play a surprisingly outsized role in developing the algorithms that can surveil and track individuals in real time, even from a police cell phone. In short, modern surveillance is already scarily effective in East Turkistan but can progress further.
Next, Ms. Dawut provided a deeply personal perspective on the reality and impact of the CCP’s surveillance policies. She described how comprehensive surveillance was and continues to be. In public spaces, mosques in particular, authorities limited buildings to one point of exit and entry, requiring ID and enabling easy use of facial recognition technology. Over time, mosque attendance began to be noticeably linked to arbitrary detention.
Ms. Dawut expanded upon the role of surveillance technology in private spaces and the personal lives of Uyghurs living in East Turkistan. In addition to the systematic taking and compiling of voice prints, facial identification data, fingerprints, and DNA, cameras and voice recorders are embedded into apartments, whether in public spaces like entrances or private spaces like apartments. Every aspect of the personal lives of Uyghurs continue to be intruded upon, with Beijing limiting gatherings of non-family members, monitoring phone and text conversations, and noting “suspicious” purchases, particularly of knives but also of large quantities of food.
Ms. Dawut and Ms. NurMuhammad both expounded upon their personal experiences with detention, outlining that the expansive nature of detention means that various sorts of buildings, including schools and hospitals, are requisitioned to arbitrarily detain individuals. There, detainees are subject to horrid conditions and are further intruded upon. Cameras and audio bugs abound in private rooms, bathrooms, and showers; little attempt is made to conceal them. Both emphasized the horrible and dehumanizing nature of such surveillance.
Then, Ms. Ziyawodun described her experience of being detained in East Turkistan after traveling to China from Kazakhstan. She explained how, shortly after arrival, her passport was taken from her by Chinese authorities, and she was sent first to a preliminary camp set up in a school that had been converted to house approximately 1,000 detainees. Subsequently, following a bout of illness induced by the dreadful conditions in the camp, Ms. Ziyawodun was sent to a second camp, where the surveillance was noticeably more extensive. Finally, she described how, when housed in a 4-square-meter cell, four cameras monitored her every movement, word, and action 24/7.
Ms. Ziyawodun described how even mundane actions, such as standing too long, putting one’s head down to rest, holding one’s knees, and more, were often punished for being perceived as religious gestures. Detainees were forced to stand still for days or pace back and forth between arbitrary spots in their cells or hallways. Finally, Ms. Ziyawodun explained that the only place where cameras and surveillance technology are not found is in the ‘dark’ or ‘black rooms;’ sections of camps where detainees are interrogated and tortured, far beyond any possible accountability.
Finally, Ms. Tursun, who has written and testified extensively on her experiences while detained in East Turkistan to the US press and in several Congressional hearings, spoke briefly about the horrid conditions she faced in the camps and the continued psychological trauma that continues to haunt her. Ms. Tursun described being housed for three months in a cell with 60 other women detainees in conditions that prevented interaction with others, limited sleep, and inflicted severe physical costs.
Ms. Tursun continued on to discuss the acute psychological impact of her detention, particularly in the way that she, even living in the United States, harbors a lasting paranoia related to cameras and other recording devices. Even in the United States, she explained how she continues to fear for her safety since the Chinese government possesses an exceedingly thorough biological profile of her, from her gait to every fingerprint.
In all, the panelists provided a comprehensive picture of the technologies employed to severely curtail human rights of East Turkistan to both actively limit the ability of Uyghurs to live a life free from fear and restrictions as well as to impose long-term, severe mental costs on Uyghurs. This is a wake up call for us all.