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China’s new policy tracking Muslims’ phones adds to rise in global Islamophobia

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Citizens in Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority province, are being forced to install a mobile surveillance app or risk a 10-day jail sentence.

Uighur (also Uyghur) ethnic minority worshipers take part in Friday noon prayers in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province in China in 2009. CREDIT: AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel

The Chinese government has increased its surveillance tracking efforts of the country’s minority Muslim population, adding to the use of technology in rising Islamophobic policies around the world.

Government officials notified the citizens of the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang province via WeChat in July, instructing them to scan a QR code and download an Android surveillance app that scans mobile devices for “terrorist and illegal” content, including images, video, documents and e-books, Mashable reported. If such content is found, individuals would be instructed to delete it.

Per officials’ notice, the government will conduct spot checks to ensure compliance. Individuals on social media reported that removing or failing to download the app carried a 10-day jail penalty, according to Mashable.

The Chinese government’s latest surveillance move is part of escalating tensions with the country’s Muslim population and the Uyghur (also spelled Uighur) ethnic minority. The Chinese government has been cracking down on the Uyghur for years, increasing police surveillance at mosques following violent riots in 2009 between the Uyghur people and Chinese Han migrants, and putting Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi under complete video surveillance in 2011. Earlier this year, the Chinese government banned “abnormal” beards and headscarves because they are “deemed to promote extremism.”

But China isn’t alone in using technology to aid its anti-Muslim policies. China’s approach is reminiscent of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s suggestion to register all Muslims in an electronic database to track their movements in and and out of the country. That plan has since been scrapped, but the Trump administration has gone forward with several other policies that negatively impact the Muslim community, including a travel bans that targets six Muslim-majority countries. There are also reports that U.S. non-immigrant visa applicants will have to disclose their social media accounts, which could be disproportionately used to target Muslims.

In Japan last year, a high court approved dragnet surveillance of the country’s Muslim population, allowing police to compile dossiers on individuals. Following multiple Islamic State-inspired attacks, former President François Hollande passed a set of sweeping surveillance laws that expanded police powers to include warrantless searches, personal data acquisition, and the ability to place people — predominantly Muslims — under house arrest. The U.K. has also increased surveillance efforts more broadly, but following the London Bridge attack earlier this year, Prime Minister Teresa May was criticized for saying she would target “safe spaces” online and Muslim communities because they breed extremism.

Muslim populations are rising quickly worldwide and Islamophobia sentiments have grown, almost in tandem, with many associating Muslims and the religion of Islam with violence and extremism. According to a recent Pew survey, 10 percent of Europeans will identify as Muslim by 2020. However, Westerners in the United States, Russia, and Western Europe most often associate Muslims with being “fanatical,” “honest,” and “violent,” Pew found.

But if China’s new policy is any indication, those sentiments aren’t exclusive to the West and could result in more intense surveillance policies worldwide.


China’s new policy tracking Muslims’ phones adds to rise in global Islamophobia was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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