China’s use of high-tech surveillance to oppress and monitor Uighur Muslims is the “future of religious oppression” that could spread across the world if not stopped by the U.S. and other international players, Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, has warned.
During a webinar on “China’s Rising Threat to Human Rights” hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission on Aug. 21, panelists discussed the religious persecution of Uighur Muslims, a community that resides mostly in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China, and its implications for the wider religious community.
Brownback said that the tactics used against Uighur Muslims represent the “cutting edge of religious persecution." Estimates suggest that as many as 1 million Uighur Muslims have been subject to internment camps in Xinjiang, where they are taught to be secular citizens who will never come against the ruling Communist Party.
Though they live in a remote region, China is employing its “most aggressive technology” to oppress Uighurs, including sophisticated cameras, facial-recognition technology, and collecting DNA samples, Brownback said.
“They've got technology deployed now where they've got surveillance cameras virtually everywhere in the public,” he noted. “They've collected genetic data on most of the people in the region to where you can be tracked on the internet, they have facial recognition systems. They could now theoretically close all the concentration camps and you would still live in a virtual police state if you were a Uighur in Xinjiang.”
China has also given Chen Quanguo, party chairman of the Communist Party in Xinjiang, a “vast amount of resources” to persecute Uighurs, allowing him to implement a comprehensive surveillance, detention, and indoctrination program in the region, Brownback said.
“My great concern is what it does to the Uighur people, but also that these systems will be replicated in other authoritarian regimes around the world,” he stressed. “And we've got this huge global battle going on between democracy and dictatorships, and dictatorships have been doing pretty well lately, unfortunately. China deploys its money resources very effectively and shrewdly and craftily to get a number of countries, particularly Muslim countries, not to speak up under threat. They will threaten aggressively.”
Brownback predicted that China's methods represent “the future of religious oppression,” adding that eventually, religious minorities are “going to be oppressed by a system where they can't live and work in the society if they choose to practice their faith.”
“They get a low social credit score and then they can't get a ticket to get on the bus or the train, or they can't take their kids to school, or they can't get an apartment because they are identified on the internet, in these technology systems as a religious adherent,” he said. “And that's what's happening today in Xinjiang to the Uighur Muslims. And that is a threat to all of us. We really need to aggressively push back."
“It’s the future of the world if we don’t stop this. You can look at this [and] say, ‘That's a long way away, it's not my religion, and it's going to be fine.’ But this stuff is coming if we don't get on and stop it early.”
Panelists also touched on the issue of forced labor among the Uighur community, as new research and reports indicate that the party is forcing Uighurs to work in textile factories and other manufacturing roles, tainting supply chains in the U.S.
Nury Turkel, a Uighur American attorney born in Xinjiang and member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, revealed that forced labor has been “part of Uighur life” for as long as he can remember.
“It’s one of the methods, one of the vehicles the Chinese used to repress the Uighur religion and Uighur culture,” he said. "When you buy anything made in China, if it's a textile cotton product, I think it should be something that gives you pause. As a consumer, please do your due diligence. Please stop at least buying any cotton or textile products coming from China ... this should be something easy to tackle.”
He urged the U.S. government to pass the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was recently supported by the ERLC. The legislation would prohibit goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang or by entities using Uighur labor forcibly transferred from Xinjiang from entering the U.S. market. It also instructs the U.S. government to impose sanctions on foreign individuals who knowingly employ or utilize forced labor of Uighurs or other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.
Turkel said the “conduct by the Chinese government” may rise to the level of crimes against humanity.
He identified key elements that define such crimes, according to international law: the act must be part of a widespread systematic attack; the attack must be against a civilian population; and the attack must be launched on discriminatory grounds, including religion and ethnicity.
Brownback said the U.S. should urge its allies to join them in placing sanctions on China, restricting Chinese companies' access to U.S. technology.
“These things matter more in concert,” he said. “I think we need to continue to call it out for what it is taking place ... I hope we continue to sanction more of those companies.”