Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang are ordering residents to hand in all digital devices for “checking” at local police stations by Aug. 1, as part of an operation targeting “terrorist videos,” according to an announcement and official sources.
"According to the requirements of stability maintenance measures, the Baoshan community district will be carrying out a specific anti-terrorist videos operation," a notice issued to residents of the regional capital Urumqi’s Baoshan district said.
“Please would all residents and business owners of the district submit their personal ID cards, cell phones, external drives, portable hard drives, notebook computers and media storage cards and any similar devices to our district police post for registration and scanning by Aug. 1, 2017," the June 27 notice said.
"Anyone who fails to submit the above devices and content by the stated time will be dealt with according to the relevant national law, should any problems arise," it said, calling on local people to respond "proactively" to the order.
An employee who answered the phone at the Baoshan district committee offices confirmed to RFA that the order is genuine.
"Handheld computers, smartphones, and storage devices [must be handed in]," she said. "We have a special system for scanning them, and this is happening across the whole city, not just here in our district."
"These are orders from higher up."
‘Everyone must obey’
A Han Chinese officer at the Baoshan district police station also confirmed the directive, saying the directive was to “check and clean up illegal audio-video content.”
“As long as you are a Chinese citizen, it is your obligation to cooperate with us, under the necessity of stability maintenance,” he said.
“As soon as residents see the announcement, they should bring their smart phones, USB drives, [tablets] and notebook computers—these four types of devices—to the nearest police station for inspection.”
According to the officer, authorities will install software that opens “everything” stored on the devices, including documents, archived items, and “anything unclean,” without providing details.
He said that “every Chinese citizen has an obligation to participate” in the inspection, though he acknowledged that the order did not extend beyond Xinjiang, where he said the situation is “unlike any other part” of China in the aftermath of ethnic unrest in Urumqi, on July 5, 2009.
If anyone fails to bring a device for inspection, “we will find them through their mobile phone,” the officer said.
“Everyone must obey—if they don’t come, they will face legal consequences,” he added.
The officer said that anyone born in Xinjiang must comply with the order, regardless of whether they are living in other parts of China, or even in one of “26 designated countries” abroad, without specifying which nations.
“They must bring their devices for checkup as soon as they return,” he said.
“This includes all Han Chinese and ethnic minorities. As long as you are from Xinjiang, you understand well what we’re doing here.”
The new measures come after the regional government issued orders earlier this year for all vehicles to have compulsory GPS trackers and microchip license plates installed, enabling police to pinpoint the position of vehicles at all times.
Beijing in December 2015 passed an anti-terrorism law banning anyone from disseminating images or information regarding “terrorist” activities, and authorizing anti-terrorist operations by security forces beyond China's borders.
U.S. officials have said they fear the new law could be used to target peaceful dissent and religious activities among ethnic minorities in China, particularly among the Uyghur ethnic group.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party blames some Uyghurs for a string of violent attacks and clashes in recent years.
But critics say the government has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs, and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress group, said the monitoring program will likely result in even more arrests.
"I think this will mean that the situation gets even more unpredictable," Raxit said. "They are now forcibly prying into Uyghurs' private belongings."
Control and surveil
Sophie Richardson, China director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the new measure an unprecedented strategy by Chinese authorities to control and surveil residents of Xinjiang, and questioned its legality.
“There is no basis for that in Chinese law, absent some sort of credible suggestion that the communications are taking place with the view towards committing some kind of actual crime,” she said.
“From our perspective it’s another counterproductive strategy. Instead of actually addressing the legitimate grievances of the Uyghur people in the region … authorities are compounding them by preventing people from discussing them freely.”
An ethnic Kazakh resident of Urumqi told RFA that the authorities are increasingly stepping up pressure on his ethnic group too, however.
"Since 2000, all the ethnic minority schools, including Uyghur and Kazakh schools, have been merged with Han Chinese schools," the Kazakh resident said. "That includes 2,000 Kazakh schools that have been merged with Chinese schools."
"Ethnic minorities' right to their language and religious beliefs have been stripped away," he said. "We should continue to fight for justice, and say what needs to be said. We shouldn't allow them to suppress us."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and Ghulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie, Alim Seytoff and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie and Joshua Lipes.