A video filmed in China in July shows facial recognition scanners at the entrances to several mosques in Ürümqi, the capital of the northwestern region of Xinjiang, home to more than 10 million people from the Uighur Muslim minority. Experts who have been following the Chinese crackdown on the Uighur community say that these scanners are the latest in a push to put this region under total surveillance.
Anyone who wants to go to the Noghay mosque in Ürümqi has to first agree to have their face scanned by a machine with facial recognition software. A video posted on Twitter on August 23 shows men lining up inside a small building that serves as a checkpoint.
One after another, they stand in front of a screen and a face scanner that verifies their identity, all under the watchful gaze of a man in uniform. The machine gives mosque goers directions: first, "Bir az saqlang", which means “please wait for a moment”, and then "Kirsingiz bolidu" ("you may proceed”). The turnstile is then released and the person can continue on to the mosque, after going through a security checkpoint.
'I wasn’t expecting to see that in a mosque'
Nihad Jariri is a Jordanian freelance journalist. Back in July, she went on vacation to Xinjiang. She started to make videos to show how, as a woman, she was refused access to many mosques.
At first I didn’t really understand what it was. As soon as I started filming, I realised that the people who went through the entrance had to look up at something. I also noticed that there was a sound to indicate that they could proceed.
I thought it was extremely strange to see such a sophisticated piece of equipment at the entrance to a mosque. I wasn’t expecting it.
At first, I thought it was a simple walk-through metal detector of the kind you see all over Ürümqi, in restaurants, at bus stations... Ahead of my trip, people told me that, as a woman, I likely wouldn’t be allowed into a mosque. But no one told me about these machines! It’s terrifying.
When I looked back at footage that I had filmed in front of two other mosques in town, I saw that they had thesame machines.
The France 24 Observers reached out to several experts, who have closely followed the Chinese government’s repression of the Uighurs and the institution of a surveillance state in the Uighur homeland. These experts agreed that it was the first time that there has been video proof that facial recognition technology is being used to control who is allowed to go to a mosque.
During a visit to Ürümqi in 2018, Joanne Smith Finley, a specialist in Uighur culture, took photos of identical machines at the entrances of two other mosques. However, when contacted by the France 24 Observers team, Smith Finley said that, at the time, she didn’t get to see how the systems worked.
This photo, which was posted in 2017 by historian Rian Thum, who specialises in Uighur culture, shows a very similar security set-up (there’s a screen, a scanner, a metal detector and a turnstile) in a train station in Xinjiang. Thum told the France 24 Observers team that that machine recognised the faces of those who were scanned and checked these images against their identity cards. That’s very different to the scene filmed by Jariri, where the people seem to be handing over their documents.
Monitoring mosque attendance
The use of facial recognition technology in mosques is just one component in the vast surveillance system set up by the Chinese government to police the Uighur community.
The Chinese government gathers information on the movements of millions of Uighurs in Xinjiang. It also gathers a wealth of personal information – -from unusually high electricity consumption to unfriendly behaviour towards neighbours – which they claim is part of the effort to fight against “terrorism” in Xinjiang. In 2019, NGO Human Rights Watch published a report describing an app used by the Chinese police to gather such information.
According to specialist website IPVM, in 2017 and 2018 the Chinese company HikVision got a government contract to install 967 facial recognition scanners in mosques in Moyu (also known as Karakax), located to the south of Xinjiang. Similar cameras were ordered for the communities of Pishan and Yutian (also known as "Keriya"). HikVision is a global leader in video surveillance systems. However, on August 13, 2019, the company was banned from selling its products to US governmental agencies for security reasons.
The France 24 Observers team reached out to HikVision, but, for the time being, no one has responded to our questions.
According to China scholar Timothy Grose, these machines are meant to discourage mosque attendance, however, they also are meant to gather information on who goes to the mosque and how often. They are also meant to block entry for anyone who has “extremist” sympathies or allegiances.
For China scholar James Leibold, who specialises in methods of surveillance in Xinjiang and Tibet, facial recognition technology in mosques is a “powerful tool to stop people from expressing their religious beliefs. Chinese authorities say that they are trying to crackdown extremist religious beliefs. But these invasive surveillance methods infringe on the constitutional rights of minorities to practice their religion and preserve their cultural identity".>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Chinese mosque partially destroyed in state campaign against Muslim minority
Xinjiang has been under intense police surveillance since deadly riots in the region in 2009 and several attacks across China that were blamed on Uighurs. If the facial recognition technology identifies someone as a frequent mosque attendee, it could eventually lead to that person being sent to a re-education camp.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has been setting up these camps in an attempt to destroy Uighur culture and assimilate Uighurs into the Chinese society according to the World Uyghur Congress, a global organisation made up of Uighurs living in exile.
According to the United Nations, at least a million people are currently detained in these camps, where they are forced to recite slogans and chants glorifying the government, to forget the Uighur language and to learn Chinese or else be tortured. Beijing denies these allegations, instead referring to the camps as professional development centres set up to combat Islamic radicalisation.>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Uighurs’ voiceless protest videos highlight plight of detained family members
Article by Pierre Hamdi (@PierreHamdi)