The Xinjiang Surveillance State

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The Chinese government plans to make China the world’s technological superpower.  Their “Made in China 2025” plan forecasts that China will overcome the advanced economies to become the global hub of AI technology in coming years. Tech giants like Baidu push the limits in microchips and automation and now challenge American technology companies. German carmaker Daimler and Baidu have linked arms to develop the newest automated driving technology. Successes like these could take China’s economy to the forefront of innovation.

These breakthroughs excite tech enthusiasts around the world—and make investors salivate. But few are asking about the uses that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can put these technologies to. In an authoritarian dictatorship like China, technology’s promise is all too often subverted to oppress minorities and dissidents.

The most prominent example of China’s dark use of technology is the vast surveillance state being built in Xinjiang, also known as East Turkestan, a culturally and religiously distinct region in northwest China populated primarily by Uyghur Muslims. Xinjiang is, officially, an “Autonomous Region.” But in a hypercentralized country like the People’s Republic, this is nothing more than a bit of doublespeak. Beijing wants to suffocate any hint of separatism or independence. And now it is using its burgeoning information technology capabilities to tighten its grip over the Uyghurs. With smartphone tracking, advanced camera technology, and DNA databases, Communist Party authorities have the tools needed to obsessively monitor the activities of any citizen of Xinjiang.

The Party’s prying eyes peer into the smartphones of all Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Every citizen is required to keep an app that gives the government complete access to everything on their phones. Messages with families, jokes with friends, or pictures are subject to viewing by the Communist Party. If a phone’s content is deemed threatening to the regime, its owner could be arrested.

Sophisticated cameras examine Xinjiang’s streets, giving the government a view of individuals’ activities at all times. Posted at street corners across the region (and increasingly all over China), they can identify faces, cars, and bikes. The most advanced technology can estimate the gender, age, and probable product preferences of the faces it analyzes. Together, these cameras provide the Communist Party a profile of the inner workings of any city.

The region’s large monitoring structure even includes hiding a comprehensive and mandatory DNA database of all citizens of Xinjiang—gathered during free and compulsory health checkups. While this may seem like an innocuous medical measure, the DNA information, combined with other surveillance tools, provides the government with an exceptional ability to trace its citizens.

Adding to the Party’s all-knowing apparatus, city planners divide cities into a grid system. Each of the grid’s squares (which have a population of about 500 people) has its own police station. This pervasive presence lets police observe the population from up close so that they can easily snuff out any signs of dissent. To help the provincial police departments constrict and monitor the Uyghurs’ activities, local authorities have also begun to dramatically increase their staff by recruiting “assistant police.” These assistants are primarily locals who work part-time and have fewer responsibilities. The government advertised over 90,000 assistant police positions in Xinjiang within a single year.

Besides unjustly imprisoning and tracking all Uyghurs, the Communist Party also harasses them on a daily basis. Checkpoints dot Xinjiang’s roads, where Uyghurs are searched and questioned; the police rifle through their phones and bags for anything that the government could perceive as threatening.

These surveillance capabilities allow the Communist Party to prevent all forms of collective action by Uyghurs in the region. Since the government can intercept communication about protests or see demonstrations before they grow too large, it can easily stamp out free speech and free assembly. This blatantly disregards the nominal guarantee of free speech found in Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution. It should be unsurprising that the Communist Party ignores their own constitution: communists lie. The human rights record of Xinjiang’s authority grows poorer each day. In fact, Human Rights Watch condemned China in their 2018 report for the region’s worsening conduct.

Xinjiang’s privacy issues foreshadow other Chinese experiments with high-tech surveillance. Local governments across China increasingly purchase the same advanced cameras used in Xinjiang; soon, the pressures faced by Uyghurs will weigh on all Chinese citizens. Moreover, the surveillance threat extends beyond China: camera companies are moving to export their dangerous technology to other authoritarian countries in the world. If wielded by oppressive governments, the wonders of advanced technology may lead the world to a gloomier future.