“China is using its huge digital surveillance system, and the threat of sending family members to reeducation camps, to pressure minorities to spy on their fellow exiles.”
Spying on behalf of the Chinese state went against everything O. believed in.
Yet even as he sat thousands of miles away in a quiet town in Sweden, he knew the police in his home country held something over him that could compel him to do just that — the freedom of his teenage son.
“What could I do?” O. said. “I told them, ‘My son is in your hands. He is the only thing that matters to me. I will do whatever you ask.’”
O. and his son belong to an ethnic group called the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group who make up close to half the population of Xinjiang, a sprawling region in China’s west. There, China’s government has built one of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance states. Measures used there include techniques like DNA collection, iris scans, and cellphone surveillance, and they are disproportionately targeted at minority groups. Hundreds of thousands of Uighurs have been sent to internment camps that are shrouded in secrecy over the past two years. None have been formally charged with a crime.
But if you’re Uighur, escaping China doesn’t mean you’ve escaped the surveillance state.