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- China has been perfecting a surveillance state in its own country
- Now its companies are exporting the technology abroad
- Thanks in part to the Belt and Road Initative, Chinese AI and surveillance companies are going global
- China is helping to create a global surveillance-industry complex
By Ty Joplin
China’s President, Xi Jinping, dreams of two things: shaping the world’s economy around China, and purifying China of any disruptive people. Luckily for him, those two goals are now converging into a lucrative enterprise.
Jinping said in a 2017 speech that China “should build an open platform of cooperation and uphold and grow an open world economy,” in reference to his ambitious plan to reorganize the economic infrastructure of many Asian and African countries to go through China. In a separate speech, he urged Chinese security forces to build a “Great Wall of Steel” around the restive Chinese province of Xinjiang, where most of China’s roads for the global economic project will go through.
Chinese surveillance and tech companies who have received massive contracts from China to help police its population are expanding their operations globally, helping to bolster other states that are part of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative.
The Chinese government, with help from private corporations, has been perfecting a surveillance state inside China’s Xinjiang province, Now it is fostering the export of the technology being developed abroad to Belt and Road partner-countries. In Zimbabwe, Malaysia, Singapore and Mongolia among others, Chinese tech firms are working with authoritarian-leaning governments to bolster their policing abilities.
We are beginning to see the emergence of a Chinese-led global surveillance-industrial complex. And some CEOs of tech companies are bragging about it.
Inside China’s AI-Powered Surveillance State
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
China has been on the forefront of developing new ways of controlling its population. Most notably, the government recently rolled out a unified system that scores every citizen and ranks them with regard to how trustworthy or untrustworthy they are.
The higher score you have, the better a citizen you are deemed to be.
Those with lower scores have restricted access to goods and services, as they are systemically ostracized from society. Some are even publicly shamed on massive LED screens in public squares, saying they are not to be trusted.
“The Chinese government awards good ‘social scores’ to behaviours that support the regime or higher consumption standards and low ‘social scores’ to behaviors that are deemed detrimental and unproductive to the state such as playing video games for long hours or posting dissenting political opinions,” said Dr. Jean-Marc Rickli, head of Global Risk and Resilience at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, in an interview with Al Bawaba.
“The consequences of a bad ‘social score’ which characterizes a ‘bad social behavior’ are very real such as travel restrictions or rejections for loans from banks or for renting apartments,” he added.
Twelve million have already been denied travel due to have low social scores. One journalist, Liu Hu, who accused several high-level officials in China of corruption, was barred from purchasing plane tickets because he was “not qualified,” to do so.
Facial recognition technology, being developed by private firms in partnerships with the state, is giving security personnel a constant stream of the activities of China’s population while they are offline.
“The Chinese government has implemented a surveillance system based on the gamification of obedience through big data and artificial intelligence. It relies on punitive and reward measures that influence the way its citizen should behave,” Rickli said.
“It is very much in line with the spirit of the Orwellian society depicted in 1984.”
Xinjiang Is Being Watched
Location of Xinjiang province in China (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
Nowhere in China is this blend of technology and surveillance more prevalent and pervasive than the restive Chinese province of Xinjiang. Located in northwestern China, the province is the gateway region whereby China is building the much of its infrastructure to reach the world, making the province economically vital to the country’s future.
"Xinjiang is considered the 'core region' of the Belt and Road Initiative," said Adrian Zenz, an expert on Chinese security and author of a new, bombshell report on China’s ‘re-education’ camps, told Al Bawaba.
It is also home to millions of ethnically Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims, who are viewed by the state as threats. To pacify and secularize them, China has penetrated into every aspect of their lives.
In addition to the social scoring system, Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang are subject to regular visits by Chinese Community Party (CCP) offiicials. Their conversations are wiretapped, their purchasing habits are exhaustively monitored and coded by advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, even their reading habits are monitored.
China conducted a secret, mandatory DNA collection program for Xinjiang under the guise of a public health initiative. Cameras rigged with advanced facial recognition technology are becoming the norm. Those who are deemed untrustworthy or suspicious are detained in extra-legal facilities to be ‘re-educated.’
So far, about a million have been detained and subject to ‘re-education’ and/or internment.
Maya Wang, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch who has followed the issue closely, stated the goal of the program in blunt terms to Al Bawaba: “The goal is to mass engineer the identity of the Muslims--which are too different from Hans [the main ethnicity in China], from the state's perspective-- so they become loyal, obedient subjects of the CCP. This is done through pervasive surveillance, political indoctrination and control--particularly over their movement--over the Muslims of that region.”
Xinjiang is also an ongoing test lab for new security technologies being developed inside China and exported globally.
“Xinjiang has proven an ideal location for developing and trying out new technology,” said Adrian Zenz.
“The local government is actively encouraging partnerships for the development of security-related technology. The technologies deployed vary widely, from face recognition and ID scanners to airport-style full body scanners to vehicle scanners to HD camera networks.”
These experiments in surveillance are now becoming lucrative for Chinese firms, who dream of going global with help from other authoritarian states contracting them for their services.
The basic principle of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is to tie developing economic all around the world to China, which includes developing economic partnerships with their governments and firms in addition to outright building land and sea routes that go to China.
The development and export of surveillance technology and accompanying AI systems is becoming a vital part of BRI: Almost $70 billion has been invested in the development of technologies for ‘urban management,’ in the Asia-Pacific region.
Here’s a look at some of the countries Chinese firms are beginning to work with on perfecting their own surveillance technology.
Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe meets with Xi Jinping (AFP/FILE)
In March 2018, Zimbabwe’s government partnered with the Chinese tech firm Cloud Walk to build a country-wide facial recognition program.
“The Zimbabwean government did not come to Guangzhou purely for AI or facial ID technology, rather it had a comprehensive package plan for such areas as infrastructure, technology and biology,” CloudWalk CEO Yao Zhiqiang said to a reproter from the CCP-based Global Times.
“I watched with envy as Chinese people were able to pay for meals with their lovely faces,” a Zimbabwean consultant for the deal told the Global Times, referring to China’s facial recognition software. “So I can’t wait until this comes to the beautiful people of Zimbabwe.”
"With the knowledge that Chinese facial ID technology has made rapid progress over recent years, the Zimbabwean government hopes to introduce it to the country to help accelerate its modernization by partnering with leading Chinese enterprises in the IT sector," an executive at CloudWalk told a reporter for the Global Times.
A Cloud Walk executive has been recorded bragging about the company’s work in Xinjiang, helping the government to perfect its surveillance against the Kazakh and Uyghur peoples, even hinting that the government has been slowly implementing the cutting edge tech for years.
“I have been trying to make the technology practical for many years,” Zhou Xi, founder of Cloud Walk told a reporter from Synced.
“Actually, some of our designed system has been applied in XinJiang and another regions since 2011,” he added.
Another China-based tech firm, Hikvision, has been hard at work saturating Zimbabwe with Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to provide a platform for advanced surveillance.
After winning a bid from China to help build the vast web of CCTV cameras throughout Xinjiang, Hikvision partnered with a Zimbabwean company in 2017 to “provide security-related products and bring smart closed-circuit television (CCTV) technology to Zimbabwe.”
Zimbabwe has long had a troubled history with authoritarianism and human rights abuse. Ruled by dictator Robert Mugabe for 20 years, he was overthrown in a coup and replaced with a military regime. Freedom House rates the country as ‘not free.”
Seeking closer ties with eastern governments, Zimbabwe initiated a ‘Look East’ policy which called for closer relations with China. Now, Zimbabwe is working with China to join the Belt Road Initiative. Part of that appears to include the import of Chinese-origin surveillance tech tailored to fit the Zimbabwe government's needs.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong meets with Xi Jinping (AFP/FILE)
A Singapore government agency, GovTech, has initiative a pilot program to install about 110,000 surveillance cameras fitted with advanced facial recognition in all of its public lamps.
Scheduled to launch in 2019, the program, called “Lamppost-as-a-Platform” (LaaP) has been soliciting bids from Chinese companies who have had a hand in helping to build surveillance state inside China.
Yitu, a China-based tech and surveillance firm, bid for the LaaP contract, and has reportedly created a sales and marketing operation in Singapore. It plans to also establish a research and development lab in the country as well. In other words, with or without the LaaP contract, Yitu is coming to Singapore. Yitu specializes in developing cutting-edge facial recognition technology.
SenseTime, a competitor facial recognition tech firm to Yitu and perhaps the most valuable AI company in the world, also seemed to express interest in the Singapore LaaP bid.
According to Reuters, “Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney at the U.S.-based rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, urged Singapore and other governments not to adopt facial recognition surveillance technology,” for fear of its ability to systematically curtail free speech and deter peaceful demonstration. This is due to the fact that such facial recognition technology is typically wired into police and security databases.
Singapore, like Zimbabwe, has a history of suppressing political dissent and deploying tools to silence critics, including arresting peaceful protesters.
Singapore was an “early and strong supporter” of China’s Belt Road Initiative according to its Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong.
Singapore, a city-state that is a global financial center, has already signed several deals with China on the BRI. “Singapore's strength as a key infrastructure, financial and legal hub in the region will add value to Chinese companies expanding along the Belt and Road,” said Singapore’s trade minister, Lim Hng Kiang.
Former Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak meets with Xi Jinping (AFP/FILE)
Malaysian security forces showed off their latest tech in April 2018; cameras worn by officers with state-of-the-art facial recognition technology provided by none other than Yitu.
“AFSB [Auxiliary Force Sdn Bhd] is committed to bring[ing] innovation to the security landscape in Malaysia. This is a significant step forward for us as we leverage artificial intelligence to increase public safety and security,” said CEO of Auxiliary Force Sdn Bhd, Datuk Rosmadi Ghazali.
In publicizing their new partnerships within Malaysia, Yitu showcased its newest products to other potential buyers inside the county including ‘smart AI glasses’ and drones equipped with facial recognition technology. As such, other Malaysian security forces and government entities are likely to adopt similar technology.
Unsurprisingly, Malaysia has had checkered history with rights protections and abusive state policies. Just before his resignation in May 2018, Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak instituted an ‘anti-fake news’ law that sought to punish with up to a decade in jail those who published pieces deemed unacceptable by the state.
Activists inside Malaysia criticized the law as a blatant attack on the press meant to coerce acquiescence to state lines and narratives. While Razak was eventually forced to resign due to a plethora of corruption allegations, Freedom House rates Malaysia as only ‘partly free.’
Malaysia has sought to get in on the Belt Road Initiative as much as it can, trying to cut new partnerships and deals with Chinese firms.
One of those new partnerships appears to be in importing Chinese surveillance tech to use on its people.
Tsend Munkh-Orgil, Mongolia’s foreign minister, with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing (AFP/FILE)
Another link in the Belt Road Initiative chain, a Mongolian prison has adopted Chinese facial recognition software in one of its high-security prisons.
The SenseTime CEO bragged about his company’s involvement in rigging a prison with SenseTime’s cutting-edge facial recognition tech.
“The high-security prison in Inner Mongolia leverages the national first dynamic face recognition people control system developed by SenseTime, which effectively assists the security control in the prison, increases management efficiency and enhances staff productivity,” Li Xu, CEO of SenseTime writes in Jumpstart.
He also states that the goal of SenseTime is to become a global power: “Our target definitely is not to create a small company to be acquired, but rather a ‘platform company’ for global users that dominates with original core technology, like Google and Facebook.”
Mongolia reportedly maintains a de facto two-tiered criminal justice system where some have relative immunity where others are persecuted to the fullest. “Ultranationalist groups enjoyed impunity due to police complacency and unwillingness to apprehend the offenders,” writes Michelle Tolson for the Inter Press Service.
Amnesty International has also reported torture routinely used inside Mongolian prisons.
The Global Surveillance Industrial Complex
Chinese security eye Muslim pedestrians in Xinjiang, China (AFP/FILE)
Many of China’s tech firms have received massive financial support from the Chinese state via contracts or helping to fundraise on the company’s behalf. The technology being commissioned and developed by the private corporations for the use of the Chinese ruling party has given these companies experience, funding and a platform from which they can sell their tech abroad.
The Belt and Road Initiative then has given these companies a massive boost in facilitating their expansion into partner countries.
Other companies are getting in on the action as well, including the global telecommunication giant Huawei.
According to Zenz, “Huawei Corporation has just been invited by a police department in Xinjiang's Urumqi City to deploy a ‘smart city’ system that includes comprehensive surveillance and information gathering. Together with the security authorities, Huawei and other companies are opening research laboratories in Xinjiang.”
China has provided a habitable environment within which these firms can incubate, mature within a strict set of Chinese controls and grow profitable before going global:
“China’s sophisticated censorship infrastructure enables the government to shape public discourse, promulgate propaganda, censor dissent, engage in domestic protectionism, and control both multinational and domestic corporations that operate in China,” Simon Zhen, a legal analyst and author of an upcoming report on China’s censorship told Al Bawaba.
All this in the name of Xi Jinping’s dream of a global China, complete with a united Chinese people, free of any dissent or disruption from ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
“China made it clear that it wants to be the leader in cyber security and AI and hence devote a lot of resources to it,” Jean-Marc Rickli told Al Bawaba.
“The concrete benefits of this technology for the regime is demonstrated by the social control that it allows through for instance the ‘social score system.’ Being a pioneer in the field is also strategic in terms of commercial global power and military,” Rickli added.
China is doubling down on integrating surveillance technology into its global economic plan, and so far appears unperturbed by the human rights records of those countries it is working with or the abuse it is currently enforcing on its own people.
“There are currently no effective checks due to sovereignty and, in my opinion, China’s hegemonic position,” Zhen stated.
“Not only can China freely expand its censorship infrastructure, it can also sell its surveillance technology to developing countries.”