Inside China’s Massive Surveillance Operation

THE WOMAN REMEMBERS the first time she got a smartphone.

Wired
Date: May 9, 2019
By: Sobel Cockerall
ABOUT THIS STORY
This article is a co-production with Coda’s Authoritarian Tech channel.


It was 2011, and she was living in Hotan, an oasis town in Xinjiang, in northwest China. The 30-year-old, Nurjamal Atawula, loved to take pictures of her children and exchange strings of emoji with her husband while he was out. In 2013, Atawula downloaded WeChat, the Chinese social messaging app. Not long after, rumors circulated among her friends: The government could track your location through your phone. At first, she didn’t believe them.

In early 2016, police started making routine checks on Atawula’s home. Her husband was regularly called to the police station. The police informed him they were suspicious of his WeChat activity. Atawula’s children began to cower in fear at the sight of a police officer.

The harassment and fear finally reached the point that the family decided to move to Turkey. Atawula’s husband, worried that Atawula would be arrested, sent her ahead while he stayed in Xinjiang and waited for the children’s passports.

“The day I left, my husband was arrested,” Atawula said. When she arrived in Turkey in June 2016, her phone stopped working—and by the time she had it repaired, all her friends and relatives had deleted her from their WeChat accounts. They feared that the government would punish them for communicating with her.

She was alone in Istanbul and her digital connection with life in Xinjiang was over. Apart from a snatched Skype call with her mother for 11 and a half minutes at the end of December 2016, communication with her relatives has been completely cut. “Sometimes I feel like the days I was with my family are just my dreams, as if I have been lonely all my life—ever since I was born,” she said.

Atawula now lives alone in Zeytinburnu, a working-class neighborhood in Istanbul. It’s home to Turkey’s largest population of Uyghurs, the mostly Muslim ethnic minority native to Xinjiang, a vast, resource-rich land of deserts and mountains along China’s ancient Silk Road trade route.
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