The methodology that has been central to the pursuit of this ‘comprehensive, round-the-clock and three dimensional prevention control’ has been the concept of ‘social management’. Samantha Hoffman notes that ‘social management’ embodies an effort to optimise ‘interactions vertically (within the Party), horizontally (between agencies), and holistically, between the Party and society’ in order ‘to improve governance capacity to shape, manage, and respond to social demands’ . It ultimately seeks to enhance the ‘legibility’ of citizens and to make them pliable subjects to be engineered and thus controlled by the state . As James C. Scott reminds us, the ‘utopian, immanent, and continually frustrated goal of the modern state’ has been ‘to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations’ thereby rendering citizens and the spaces in which they inhabit more transparent to the gaze of the state legible and thus responsive to central manipulation and control (Ibid). In fact the ‘security state’ erected in Xinjiang under the tenures of XUAR CCP Party chiefs Zhang Chunxian and Chen Quanguo has enabled the Party-state to undertake ‘social sorting’ on a large scale. ‘Social sorting’, in Jenkins’ conception, seeks the ‘identification and ordering of individuals in order to “put them in their place” within local, national and global “institutional orders”’, and to thus ascribe to them particular penalties, constraints or sanctions according to their categorization (: 160). As will be detailed below, this is what has occurred to large numbers of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population. The ends to which such means are deployed is not simply to increase the Party-state’s ability to ‘see’ the Uyghur population in all its permutations but also to manufacture the consent of Uyghur population and enable it to actively mould and shape those individuals into ‘productive’ and pliable citizens.
The CCP’s project of making of Uyghurs ‘legible’ has been highlighted in its recommitment to expand the security presence throughout the region, particularly through the use of enhanced surveillance capabilities, and by means of the legalization and institutionalization of ideological and political ‘thought’ work on its citizens. It has now been well-documented that technological innovation has been vital to this project with the use of facial recognition and iris scanners at checkpoints, train stations and gas stations, collection of biometric data for passports, and mandatory apps to cleanse smartphones of subversive material now fact of everyday life for the Uyghur population [33, 66, 67]. The data collected is then aggregated by an app used by security personnel, the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), to report “on activities or circumstances deemed suspicious” and to prompt “investigations of people the system flags as problematic” .
A closer examination of the legislative and discursive architecture that has been built around the surveillance apparatus reveals how precisely the CCP decides who is problematic or “untrustworthy”. Legislatively, there have been a number of shifts at the national and provincial level here. First, in December 2015 the National People’s Congress (NPC) passed China’s first national “anti-terrorism” law, providing an expansive and ambiguous definition of terrorism that further enables the state to criminalise a wide array of actions. The law states that terrorism is:
Any advocacy or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage, or threat, aims to create social panic, undermine public safety, infringe on personal and property rights, or coerce a state organ or an international organization, in order to achieve political, ideological, or other objectives .
Second, the XUAR government’s March 2017 ‘de-extremification’ regulations revealed the state’s objective to categorize and punish those it defines as ‘deviant’ and ‘abnormal’. These regulations defined ‘extremification’ not only as ‘speech and actions under the influence of extremism, that imbue radical religious ideology, and reject and interfere with normal production and livelihood’ but also explicitly identified fifteen ‘primary expressions’ of ‘extremist thinking’, such as ‘wearing, or compelling others to wear, gowns with face coverings, or to bear symbols of extremification’, ‘spreading religious fanaticism through irregular beards or name selection’, and ‘failing to perform the legal formalities in marrying or divorcing by religious methods’ . This list was subsequently expanded to include another sixty signs of “extremism” including such behaviors as quitting smoking and men growing long beards. This, Joanne Smith-Finley argues, amounted to a criminalization of ‘all religious behaviours, not just violent ones’, leading ‘to highly intrusive forms of religious policing’ that violate and humiliate Uyghurs . ‘Extremism’, in the CCP’s definition, is thus conflated with everyday markers and practices of the Uyghur profession of Islam.
Third, China’s White Paper of 16 August 2019 on ‘Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang’ , neatly demonstrates the way in which surveillance is not simply about control but also the production of particular socio-political outcomes. In this instance, surveillance has enabled the CCP to define and regulate Uyghur values, beliefs, and loyalties in such a way as to ensure individuals become ‘useful’ subjects for maintaining the regime’s political security . While defining ‘terrorism and extremism’ as ‘common enemies of human society’ and Xinjiang as the ‘main battlefield of China’s fight against terrorism and de-extremization’, the document asserted that the state must not only deal with ‘terrorist crimes in accordance with the law’ but also ‘educate and rescue personnel infected with religious extremism and minor crimes’ in order to treat ‘both symptoms and the root causes’ of religious extremism. The document asserts that it is through ‘education and training’ that Xinjiang will ‘achieve social stability and enduring peace’ by promoting development and increasing people’s overall income .
However it is a 52 gigabyte internal police dataset from the Urumqi Public Security Bureau (PSB) in the capital of the region, obtained by The Intercept  and analysed in detail by Darren Byler , that perhaps best demonstrates the intersection of surveillance technology and the ideological underpinnings of the current repression in Xinjiang. Beginning in 2013 the Urumqi PSB began experimenting with mobile scanning devices that ‘integrated 3G mobile technology through smart phone terminals and VPN-enabled database synchronization in order to allow rapid individual identity authentication’ (, 11). By 2017 this had been upgraded to allow police in the capital to scan and read ID cards, ‘instantly linking ID numbers, issuers, and photos’ of the individual being checked to the IJOP. These ‘social incident reports’—some 250 million rows of data in the files obtained by The Intercept—list the date and time of the encounter, the precinct, name, ID number, gender, ethnicity and phone number of the suspect. They describe the reason why the individual was flagged and if they warrant further investigation. They also list the geolocation of the encounter’ (Ibid, 12). The Urumqi PSB used this system to primarily monitor the capital’s Uyghur and Kazakh population, subjecting them to regular checks, ‘targeted observation’, household searches, monitoring of familial and community relationships and mosque attendance (Ibid, 12–13).
Yet such ‘technology systems cannot simply be plugged in and work their magic on their own’ but ‘are only as good as the data they are trained on’ (Ibid, 19–20). Here, the data from the Urumqi PSB files demonstrates that the authorities have trained the technology to identify and aggregate actionable intelligence based on ideologically-defined criteria. Significantly, the Urumqi PSB’s hand-held mobile scanning devices are also armed with a ‘digital forensics’ tool called the ‘Anti-Terrorism Sword’ that can scan ‘smartphones and other electronic devices in less than two minutes, attempting to match materials to a base dataset of as many as 53,000 flagged audio, video, picture and text files that had been deemed related to religious extremism or terrorism’ . The ‘Anti-Terrorism Sword’ also enables the police to access ‘private social media, email and instant messaging applications to assess the phone owner’s digital history and social network’ (Ibid). Through such means, as recounted to Darren Byler by an ethnic Kazakh police officer, the PSB was able to ascertain whether or not a person ‘had worn an Islamic veil, had installed WhatsApp or had traveled to Kazakhstan’ (Ibid). All of these data points—from an individual’s record of mosque attendance through to social media use or travel history—are used to flag an individual for further investigation or detention .
Thus the monitoring of everyday life in Uyghur neighbourhoods is geared to identify and respond to what the CCP has defined as key markers of ideological deviancy. From government officials describing Uyghur “extremism and terrorism” as a “tumour” to the equation of religious observance to an “illness”, the CCP’s discourse frames central elements of Uyghur identity as pathologies to be “cured” . That such pathologizing of Uyghur identity guides official policy was made plain by a CCP Youth League official’s justification of “re-education” in October 2017. “Being infected by religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology”, the official asserted, “is like being infected by a disease that has not been treated in time, or like taking toxic drugs” and even after completing the “re-education process” individuals “must remain vigilant, empower themselves with the correct knowledge, strengthen their ideological studies … to bolster their immune system against the influence of religious extremism and violent terrorism, and safeguard themselves from being infected once again” . This frames the Uyghur population as a “virtual biological threat to the body of society” . The ultimate “cure” for this biopolitical threat posed by Uyghur identity, as stated in an internal CCP document of March 2018, is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins” . As the dataset from the Urumqi PSB demonstrates, however, it is the surveillance apparatus erected in the region that enables the ‘social sorting’ that is central to the operation of the ‘re-education’ system in Xinjiang.