In northwestern China lies the mostly rural, predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang. Over ten years ago the Uyghur community, a largely Muslim Turkic ethnic minority, was at the epicenter of a resurgent, violent, separatist movement. A spate of bombings, shootings, and even large-scale knife attacks devastated the region for years, often leading to destructive riots. In response, the Chinese national authorities launched an aggressive counterinsurgency and pacification campaign.
Approximately the size of Alaska, Xinjiang is the largest province in China. Home to over twenty-three million people, Xinjiang is one of China’s several autonomous regions, granting it significantly more administrative and legislative authority over its own affairs than other Chinese provinces. The Chinese government felt that combating terrorist groups in an area of that size with probable ties to international groups like al-Qaeda, in a region with over a century of historically popular separatist agitation, demanded a multi-tiered, coordinated, and militarized solution.
Their solution has involved extensive human rights abuses, as well as the development of the most sophisticated and intrusive surveillance tools ever developed.
That should worry us.
OCCUPATION AND SURVEILLANCE
Today the political violence has largely stopped in Xinjiang. The People’s Liberation Army maintains a large presence there, police checkpoints are everywhere, and Beijing says that the Xinjiang economy is booming as construction cranes loom over every city in the province. The Uyghurs, meanwhile, are center stage in what many are calling a 21st-century Orwellian police state created in Xinjiang by the Chinese Communist Party.
[Xinjiang residents] are stopped by police at regular checkpoints where they are searched, their fingerprints and photographs taken, and biometric data, including DNA, gathered and added to government profiles.
Beginning in 2014, mass detentions of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people have been reported in the region. Xinjiang Muslims, especially the Uyghurs, have been placed into what the Chinese government refers to as “vocational education centers.” Journalists and governments outside of China regularly call them internment or concentration camps.
The majority of the people detained in these camps have never been, and likely never will be, charged with a crime. Reasons for their placement include: travel to or contact with people from countries like Turkey, that the Chinese government deems dangerous or suspicious; going to mosques; or sending or receiving Islam-related text messages. This has led many observers to suggest that China is punishing Uyghurs simply for being observing Muslims and spreading the practice across the country.
Chinese officials state bluntly that every measure they have taken in Xinjiang is aimed at reducing extremist and separatist ideology. They point out that there has not been a single terrorist attack in three years and credit the camps’ teaching of Mandarin, Chinese laws and customs, and vocational skills with the stability currently enjoyed by the province. According to the government, the camps are boarding schools where people voluntarily check themselves in-and-out, learning valuable cultural and job-training skills.
Critics point to the secrecy surrounding camp conditions and the government’s refusal to even confirm the number or location of the camps as evidence that they are perpetrating human rights abuses. Reports that detainees are forced to pledge fealty to the Chinese Communist Party, renounce Islam, and punished for speaking their own language also strongly suggest that China’s actions in Xinjiang are not to be trusted. Former camp residents who have since fled the country speak of the camps as prisons, where they were shackled, tortured, and interrogated, and in which suicide was common.
Facial recognition software is being perfected in Xinjiang and slowly expanded into other cities and provinces around the country. The tracking app has already been introduced to various cities, including Shanghai, where residents are reporting that it is not only mandatory, but residents need to pay for it.
Conditions outside of the camps are also described as repressive and discriminatory against the Uyghurs. Since 2017, it has been illegal for men to wear long beards and for women to wear veils in public in Xinjiang. The children of camp detainees are often forced to live in state-run orphanages, where they are subject to similar indoctrination practices. Other families report being forced to accept Communist Party members into their homes where they are monitored for signs of extremist behavior, such as observing Muslim holy days and not drinking alcohol. Traditional Islamic names like Mohammed are prohibited.
Mosques around the region have been destroyed. Halal grocers have been forced to shut down. Xinjiang residents are closely observed by the most sophisticated and intrusive surveillance network on the planet. They are stopped by police at regular checkpoints where they are searched (including their cell phones, which must be installed with software and tracks movements as well as monitors for 73,000 pieces of troublesome content such as passages from the Quran and pictures of the Dalai Lama), their fingerprints and photographs taken, and biometric data, including DNA, gathered and added to government profiles.
Facial recognition software is being perfected in Xinjiang and slowly expanded into other cities and provinces around the country. The tracking app has already been introduced to various cities, including Shanghai, where residents are reporting that it is not only mandatory, but residents need to pay for it. If they can’t afford it, they pay by watching ads in apartment elevators.
Beijing insists they are fighting terrorism. That their methods are increasingly voluntary and unobtrusive. They point to dozens of Muslim-majority nations that are openly defending China’s human rights record in Xinjiang. Technology is perfecting the ability of Chinese citizens to live in harmony with each other, under the Communist Party, first in Xinjiang, then in the rest of China.
A GLOBAL PROBLEM, NOT JUST A CHINA PROBLEM
The global marketplace has traded in bad ideas as often as good ideas; we regularly share our horrors as freely as we do our hopes. The calculated evils of the Holocaust didn’t spring fully-formed in the minds of Hitler and Goebbels and Eichmann; the very phrase concentration camp comes from the British camps set up during the Boer Wars. The Nazis studied not only the historical lessons of America’s organized removal of Native Americans but the then-contemporary segregation and miscegenation laws of Jim Crow. What the Chinese implement in Xinjiang and beyond will be copied by governments and corporations all over the world—even in the ‘free and democratic’ west. This is not only because the West has been helping China watch and control the behavior of its citizens for years, but because much of what the Chinese have been doing they learned from the West in the first place.
The global marketplace has traded in bad ideas as often as it has good ideas; we regularly share our horrors as freely as we do our hopes. The calculated evils of the Holocaust didn’t spring fully-formed in the minds of Hitler and Goebbels and Eichmann.
A lesser-known consequence of globalization is that countries and companies share their technology, their data, and their strategies with each other, even for vastly different objectives. American companies like Google and IBM have been roundly criticized for helping to create and expand China’s modern surveillance state. Even companies that would seem to have no interest in state censorship or surveillance are key players. Recently, U.S. game developer Riot Games was contracted to help enforce the Chinese government’s monitoring and control over gamers in that country.
The tangled web of corporate ownership makes it difficult to know who owns what technology. Companies like Disney and Amazon are comprised of dozens of smaller (a relative term at this level) companies that provide services seemingly in tension with the interests of the parent company. What does a grocery store like Whole Foods have to do with Internet shopping on Amazon?
Chinese software and hardware companies are even more involved in the global manufacturing, data collection, and development industries. And just as American companies have discreetly helped build China’s Great Firewall, Chinese firms have covertly purchased systems with direct control over millions of Americans’ personal data. This is what modern globalization looks like: an invisible web of connected industries operating in ways the public has no knowledge or control over.
China’s unprecedentedly huge market and state control over its technology firms allow them to dictate what the Internet, digital freedom, and data privacy look like in those regions. Almost 100 countries around the globe have imported some type of surveillance or censorship technology from the People’s Republic of China, including most of Europe and the U.S.
China’s market size and state control have effectively made the Chinese public history’s largest testing ground for surveillance regimes. The products they export to foreign governments include facial recognition technology, smart national identity cards, and intelligent databases.
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, says that “[i]n the U.S., the use of credit scores, predictive policing and bail-related ‘risk assessment’ software, and other tools relying on problematic algorithms already marginalize or pose rights risks to poor people and minority communities.” The Chinese government’s doublespeak and obfuscations surrounding its treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang may suddenly seem much closer in the context of these developing ‘technospheres.’
But as Wang points out, the West doesn’t need to expressly allow the importation of technologies and practices specifically designed to control and restrict individual behavior from the Chinese technosphere in order to imperil democratic freedoms. The West has been doing it to themselves with alarming efficiency for years. Westerners, especially the Americans and the British, already—or should—have legitimate concerns over direct and indirect interference by data collection and social media companies (but I repeat myself) in their elections.
The deliberate use of Big Data technology for directed social engineering and political control shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. A powerful central government is no longer necessary to subtly or overtly crush individual freedoms.
Freedom and TV-loving westerners gape in entertained horror as popular shows like Netflix’s Black Mirror presciently display, in a more familiar context, the Social Credit System that China is rolling out. Social Credit rates citizens and businesses on a broad range of behaviors including what they buy and from whom, how they advertise and consume advertising, and how patriotic or harmonious their online and offline speech and behavior is. Low scores could mean being barred from buying train and plane tickets, prohibitions on employment, and obstacles in obtaining an education for their children. Businesses may be prevented from receiving government contracts or advertising in certain markets, and forced to display their low scores so consumers can know to avoid doing business with them at all.
Earlier this year, New York began allowing life insurance companies to consider a person’s social media content when calculating premiums. A Canadian software company called PatronScan is building an international database of ‘problem customers’ by offering an integrated customer management system to bars, clubs, and restaurants in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. What defines a ‘problem customer’ is solely up to the individual PatronScan client; customers have little ability to appeal the decision. Some places (like Queensland, Australia) are mandating such systems, and PatronScan and similar businesses are lobbying states and municipalities to make such a system compulsory.
Over 400 city police forces across the U.S. have partnered with the doorbell-camera company Ring, owned by Amazon, to share video footage from homeowners’ cameras. New York City is proposing the installation of RFID chips into government-issued IDs, not only exposing untold reams of new types of personal data to everyone from advertisers and businesses but also potentially enabling police to track anyone. The U.S. and E.U. don’t have to build Xinjiang-style concentration camps in order to use the lessons China learns on its own citizens.
The deliberate use of Big Data technology for directed social engineering and political control shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. A powerful central government is no longer necessary to subtly or overtly crush individual freedoms. Chinese technology isn’t a problem anymore than Chinese companies are, in the 21st-century borders are porous and easily penetrated by technology developed anywhere on the planet. Data is provided freely by eager consumers and then used by unaccountable companies and governments in increasingly inventive and sinister ways.
China watches and learns from the West, just as the West watches and learns from China.