BEIJING — China has turned its western region of Xinjiang into a police state with few modern parallels, employing a combination of high-tech surveillance and enormous manpower to monitor and subdue the area’s predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities.
Now, the digital dragnet is expanding beyond Xinjiang’s residents, ensnaring tourists, traders and other visitors — and digging deep into their smartphones.
China’s border authorities routinely install the app on smartphones belonging to travelers who enter Xinjiang by land from Central Asia, according to several people interviewed by the journalists who crossed the border recently and requested anonymity to avoid government retaliation. Chinese officials also installed the app on the phone of one of the journalists during a recent border crossing. Visitors were required to turn over their devices to be allowed into Xinjiang.
With the scanning of phones at the border, the Chinese government is applying similarly invasive monitoring techniques to people who do not even live in Xinjiang or China. Beijing has said that terrorist groups use Central Asian countries as staging grounds for attacks in China.
The app’s simple design makes the inspection process easy for border officers to carry out. After Fengcai (pronounced “FUNG-tsai”) is installed on a phone, the researchers found, it gathers all stored text messages, call records, contacts and calendar entries, as well as information about the device itself. The app also checks the files on the phone against the list of more than 73,000 items.