By Ty Joplin
“The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking — your own ethnic group,” Omar Bekali, a resident of China’s Xinjiang province told a reporter from the Associated Press, breaking down in tears as he described the conditions he lived in. “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”
Bekali was forced to stand still against a wall for five hours at a time, deprived of food for entire days and kept in solitary confinement. Bekali is just one of up to a million people who have been interned in China’s new ‘re-education’ camps, which are part of a project to mold China anew.
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 new, 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.
Omar Bekali, like many others who live in Xinjiang, is Muslim and ethnically Kazakh. Millions more are ethnically Uyghur. As such, China views them as threats to be neutralized rather than people to be protected.
In order to control them, China has been constructing the most advanced and pervasive surveillance state on Earth, in addition to interning and ‘re-educating’ Uyghur and Kazakh people by the thousands with the help of private corporations.
What is happening inside Xinjiang, many say, is an Orwellian nightmare. But now there are signs that this dystopia is going global thanks to a growing profit motive.
China is partnering with and fundraising for private corporations to help build its ‘Great Wall of Steel’ around Xinjiang. In the restive region, China is making the surveillance and policing of dissidents a lucrative, new industry that can be funded by governments and sheltered from accountability.
On top of that, 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.
Now it is fostering the export of the technology being developed abroad to Belt and Road partner-countries. In Zimbabwe, Malaysia, Singapore and Mongolia, 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.
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 behaviours 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 much of its infrastructure to reach the world, making the province economically vital to the country’s future.
It is also home to millions of ethnically Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims. 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) officials. Their conversations are wiretapped, their purchasing habits are exhaustively monitored and coded by advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, their reading habits are closely monitored, and their every movement in public is watched by cameras rigged with advanced facial recognition technology. Their movements are recorded in and outside their mosques, grocery store; their faces recognized and logged no matter what outfit they are wearing.
China also conducted a secret, mandatory DNA collection program for Xinjiang under the guise of a public health initiative.
In 2017, the CCP forced residents of Xinjiang to install an app on their phone that filters and hides any and all subversive, radical or anti-government content from view. The app, called Clean WebGuard, advertises itself as a way to hide malicious or immoral material, but it also tracks conversations, sending them to the authorities for evaluation.
The technologies currently deployed to surveil ethnic minorities vary widely, said Adrian Zenz, an expert on Chinese security and author a new, bombshell report on China’s ‘re-education’ camps, to Al Bawaba. “From face recognition and ID scanners to airport-style full body scanners to vehicle scanners to HD camera networks,” the Chinese government uses a multifaceted network of surveillance to track the movements, conversations and purchasing habits of anyone the government suspects may be a security threat.
That network is called the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” or IJOP for short.
It is one of the most exhaustive and pervasive surveillance programs on Earth. No one in Xinjiang can escape the web of security that surrounds them.
A police researcher involved with IJOP told Human Rights Watch how one aspect of their operations worked: “for example, if a person usually only buys 5 kilos of chemical fertilizers, but suddenly [the amount] increases to 15 kilos, then we would send the frontline officers to visit [the person] and check its use. If there is no problem, [they would] input into the system the situation, and lower the alert level.”
Another interviewee explained in detail what he saw when he came across an IJOP interface, it deserves to be quoted at length:
“I saw with my own eyes, on designated computers…the names, gender, ID numbers, occupation, familial relations, whether that person is trusted, not trusted, detained, subjected to political education (and year, month, date) for every Uyghur in that district. Those detained or not trusted, their color [coding] is different. Also, the content of the form is different depending on what has [already] been filled in. For example, for Uyghurs who have passports: when they got it, where did they go, how long did they stay, when did they come back, did they give their passports [to the police], did they come back from abroad, the reasons for travelling abroad such as family visits, tourism, pursuing studies, business, or others.”
IJOP also includes state-of-the-art facial recognition technology that can track individuals’ movements regardless of the clothes they wear thanks to new developments in Artificial Intelligence.
The people of Xinjiang, in other words, are the most policed in the world.
Chinese security in Urumqi, Xinjiang province (AFP/FILE)
If someone is considered to be potentially dangerous according to their data in IJOP, whether it is abnormal purchasing habits, conversations they have, or even religious practices that the Chinese state thinks is contrary to the national identity, they can be detained, sent to internment camps, and have their family be visited by a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official.
If a family is considered politically untrustworthy, party officials or surveillance officers known as fanghuiju can visit a home and gather data as often as once a day.
According to a figure leaked by China’s public security agencies, a million of Uyghurs and Kazakhs have been detained and interned by Chinese security personnel. That would be almost 12 percent of the adult Uyghur and Kazakh population in Xinjiang.
Those who are deemed untrustworthy or suspicious are detained in extra-legal facilities to be ‘re-educated.’
Inside The Detention Centers
Once in the ‘re-education’ camps, detainees are subject to routine abuse both physical and verbal.
Accounts are harrowing: some have reported that they were forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, while others detail solitary confinement for long periods of time, deprivation of food and constant pressure to disavow one’s religion in the name of the Chinese community party.
They are held for months without charge or stated reason in large facilities surrounded by fences, walls and guard towers. Reports of deaths while in custody of Chinese officials have begun leaking out of the detention facilities, and some say they have tried to commit suicide while in detention, preferring death to the security apparatus China has built for them.
Xi Jinping’s ‘Great Wall of Steel’ around Xinjiang consists of a vast network of ‘re-education’ facilities that entrap thousands at a time.
When asked what China’s ultimate goal for the ‘re-education’ centers is, Zenz explained that they are meant to “strongly intimidate the population in order to exert control and ensure social compliance, and secondly to discourage any practice of religion, driving people towards secularization.”
Maya Wang, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch who has followed the issue closely, stated the directive 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.”
According to Zenz, the re-education internment camps are extra-legal, meaning they do not replace punitive legal sentences individuals may receive. In simple terms, this means many are subject to ‘re-education’ at the internment camps in addition to hard prison time.
“The scale of reported enforced disappearances and persecution of ethnic Uyghurs, if confirmed, may amount to crimes against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute, and demands international condemnation,” said Frances Eve, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders based in Hong Kong in an interview with Al Bawaba.
Chinese police trying to hold back a crowd in Xinjiang (AFP/FILE)
China has long-maintained an antagonistic relationship to the Uyghur and Kazakh population of Xinjiang. They are ethnically Turkic rather than Han Chinese, their language has more in common with Arabic and Cyrillic than Mandarin or Cantonese, the official language of the state. And they are mostly Muslim.
A breakaway group of Uyghurs, called the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), have acted out violently in an attempt for Xinjiang to secede from China. Many of the group’s leaders are in hiding in Pakistan, and thousands of its fighters are currently in Syria’s Idlib province alongside al-Qaeda linked groups and other opposition factions.
They have orchestrated a number of attacks in and outside of China, but have maintained a relatively weak presence in the country. Their last major attack in China was in 2013, where a suicide bomber killed five people in Beijing. Other attacks have occurred sporadically throughout the region from Uyghur ethno-nationalists. Many of them have targeted Hans and CCP officials.
The Chinese government sees the Uyghur and Kazakh population of Xinjiang as major security threats, and intends to pacify them using a combination of surveillance and interment designed to securalize them.
“The crackdown in Xinjiang is driven by the Party's fear of the Turkic Muslims, who are most different from Hans in many aspects and whose loyalty is divided,” Wang said, adding that “the government fears, among others, pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic thoughts among these groups as they indicate a lack of complete loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party”
“Of course, this is set to increase their antagonies towards the state,” Zenz noted.
Geo-locating The Camps
Many residents of the small town of Kargilik speak Uyghur rather than Mandarin, practice Islam rather than Buddhism, and are ethnically Turkic. Inside Kargilik stands the Jama Mosque, which serves the dual purpose of being a local prayer space for Muslims and a tourist attraction.
In 2017, the Chinese government put a banner over the facade of the mosque, telling worshippers to 'Love the Party, Love the Country.’ Inside, another banner orders all to 'Actively Promote Chinese-Style Islam.’
Right outside the town, construction workers began building a massive detainment and ‘re-education’ center where Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims are to be taken and molded into model Chinese citizens.
Some of these construction projects can now be found and verified via satellite imagery, and one law student is working to geo-locate as many as he can.
Shawn Zhang, currently studying law at the the University of British Columbia, has begun geo-locating some of China’s new detainment and re-education centers. Though it is difficult to verify much of the information, Zhang has matched details and locations of requested centers in government bids to contractors with new building projects around Xinjiang.
(Ty Joplin/Google Earth)
According to the bid, the site is 82,000 square meters, and contains a conversion center, a ‘vocational’ school, and ‘supporting facilities’ which appear to be a geometric labyrinth of detention facilities.
(Ty Joplin/Google Earth)
This sprawling complex appears to have a detention center and a re-education camp, with more buildings currently being constructed. Listed as the ‘second phase’ of project according to its bid, the project is funded by the Jiashi County Bureau of Justice and includes a ‘vocational skills training center.’
(Ty Joplin/Google Earth)
Zhang notes in his blog that the space the detaintment and re-education centers occupy was empty as of March 6, 2017. Construction reportedly began in May, 2017 and includes a “legal education conversion school” according to a translation of the bid.
An announcement from Shufu’s local government states that a “rehabilitation center” will be made in the space between the detainment and re-education center.
(Ty Joplin/Google Earth)
This project is notable in that the local government publicly announced it to be a school in April, 2017.
This “school” however, has high fences surrounding each building and guard towers.
(Shawn Zhang, Medium)
(Ty Joplin/Google Earth)
Like the others, the project was made with machine-like speed. It was announced in early 2017 and was nearly complete by November, 2017.
(Ty Joplin/Google Earth)
Zhang found this construction project thanks to an air conditioning company which had built AC units for the facility, which was referred to as a “legal education training center.”
The details and pictures of the air conditioning project were then matched with satellite imagery of a massive complex.
(Shawn Zhang, Medium)
The facilities pictured represent a handful of the detainment centers that Zhang has found. Adrian Zenz has found 73 bids for the construction and expansion of detention and re-education facilities.
Often sold as ‘vocational’ or ‘skills’ training facilities, Zenz and others have pointed out that these are mere euphemisms for China’s goal of indoctrinating and policing ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh populations inside the restive region of Xinjiang. That the bids are administered by local educational and public security bodies further obfuscates the centralized manner in which the detention centers have been built.
The Private Enterprise of Spying
A woman walks past Chinese propaganda in Urumqi, Xinjiang in 2014 (AFP/FILE)
Xinjiang is 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 Zenz. “The local government is actively encouraging partnerships for the development of security-related technology.”
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.
One such partnership is with Huawei, a Chinese telecom giant. “Huawei Corporation has just been invited by a police department in Xinjiang's Urumqi [the capital of Xinjiang province] 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,” Zenz added.
According to official statements from Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, Huawei will assist in capacity and expertise building to “meet the digitization requirements of the public security industry.” Tao Jingwen, an executive at Huawei, proudly said “together with the Public Security Bureau, Huawei will unlock a new era of smart policing and help build a safer, smarter society.”
Another private company, CloudWalk, is helping to spearhead IJOP’s new facial recognition technology that Human Rights Watch condemned to be dystopian ‘predictive policing,’ that infringes on individuals rights on a scale never-before-seen.
CloudWalk’s CEO, Zhou Xi, bragged about the technology in an interview with a tech publication: “Images and video are completely different. For example, face recognition. We need to identify people’s face from the image , as well as his emotions, age, gender. However, Image and video recognition is much more than that.”
Xi later casually mentioned that “actually, some of our designed system has been applied in Xinjiang and another regions since 2011.”
Another company receiving contracts from the Chinese government to bolster their security state is the Frontier Services Group (FSG). Its founder and executive director is none other than Erik Prince, the former CEO of the U.S.-firm Blackwater. Al Bawaba has detailed his global attempts to raise private armies for princes and sell illegal planes to surveil and bomb restive minority groups. Now, Prince’s FSG has boasted that is training thousands of 5,000 Chinese military personnel, 200 plainclothes police officers, 500 SWAT specialists, 200 railway police officers and 300 overseas military police officers.
A painted wall of FSG’s military school reads: “Training ground for warriors.”
(Source: Chinese government procurement bids, Adrian Zenz)
According to Zenz’s numbers, the Chinese government has given nearly a billion dollars to private companies in bids to construct Xinjiang’s massive internment camps alone.
The Connection to the Belt and Road Initiative
The land routes of the Belt and Road Initiative (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
On top of local help from China in Xinjiang, many corporations’ global ambitions are getting a helping hand from the state and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). From Urumqi to Moscow, Prague and Madrid, Kashgar to Gwadar and Tehran, China’s BRI is aiming to reshape the world’s economy around it.
The basic principle of China’s Belt and Road Initiative is to tie over 65 countries’ economies all over 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 BRI is sprawling and includes land and sea routes throughout all of Asia, Africa and Europe. It is easily the most ambitious infrastructure plan undertaken by a state that the world has ever seen, extending farther than the reach of the British empire and the historic Silk Road.
Nearly every developing and proposed land route from China to the rest of the world runs through Xinjiang and its capital, Urumqi. "Xinjiang is considered the 'core region' of the Belt and Road Initiative," said Adrian Zenz.
All roads lead to Xinjiang.
So far, the enterprise has launched some Chinese tech companies into entrepreneurial stardom and has given China a headstart in the race to develop the most advanced surveillance and AI systems.
“If the Chinese government feels it can get away with these policies in Xinjiang, they will likely export them to the rest of China and perhaps overseas,” said Frances Eve at theChinese Human Rights Defenders based in Hong Kong.
Xinjiang appears to be an incubator, where new technology is tested and proven, and companies are able to cement a stable source of funding by proving themselves useful to the state. From there, they can sell their tech and services to other provinces in China and to other countries throughout the world.
That appears to be already be happening.
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. They are all partners with China on the Belt and Road Initiative, and many of them have histories of suppressing dissidents and silencing critics of the state.
Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe meets with Xi Jinping (AFP/FILE)
In March 2018, Zimbabwe’s government partnered with CloudWalk 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 initiated 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. Singapore’s own state-run investment firm, Temasek Holdings, also invested in SenseTime.
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 product 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 and even 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.
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, 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 Industrial-Surveillance Complex
A guard in Xinjiang (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.
China has also 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.
In 2016, the Chinese state founded its own investment firm and called it Venture Capital Fund. The $30 billion fund is solely dedicated to investing in Chinese tech startups and has ensured that promising surveillance and AI tech firms receive massive amounts of money to build themselves from the ground up.
One Chinese firm, Megvii, helped to develop a facial recognition software called Face++, which is currently being used extensively throughout Xinjiang in conjunction with IJOP. The state-backed firm gave Megvii nearly half a billion dollars.
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.”
Taken in sum, the global surveillance-industrial complex comes into view.
Corporations driven by profit and states driven by the desire to assert maximal control over its people have created a feedback loop.
Surveillance and AI tech firms receive lifelines from state-backed investments, have their services contracted to states, then expand as far as they can; all the while accelerated by China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
There’s now a strong profit incentive to develop technology as penetrative and pervasive as possible, since states are now coughing up billions to control populations they deem threatening.
Commodifying Human Rights Abuse
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
As this surveillance-industrial complex becomes a more integral part of China’s plan to suppress its restive minorities while developing an industry at the same time, it will become harder to press for more transparency and accountability for any abuses.
The more corporations are involved with the state and state-owned investment firms, the less obvious it becomes as to whom one should petition to respect international or domestic human rights norms.
Who is to blame when facial recognition inevitably wrongly identified someone at the scene of a crime? After all, facial recognition tech has been notoriously unreliable and has had problems differentiating those who have dark skin complexions.
To whom should one petition to air their grievances on privacy rights being violated? What authority would hear the case of a mosque being spied on other than the government which commissioned the spying in the first place?
Human rights activists pin the blame squarely on Xi Jinping’s government and the CCP.
“The Xi Jinping regime is actively trying to undermine accepted international human rights norms by pushing countries to put economic development and state sovereignty above respect for human rights, rule of law, or social justice,” Frances Eve told Al Bawaba.
“Though the West struggles with populism, it’s imperative the international community speaks out strongly in defense of universal values and fundamental freedoms because behind the ‘China Model’ is exploitation, discrimination, abuse of power, and violations of basic human rights.”
Later, Eve said, “China’s failure to act according to international law is destabilizing for the international system and rule of law, and should be a matter of concern across the globe.”
The Uyghurs and Kazakh ethnic minorities may have been the test pool for many of these new surveillance techniques, but they will not be the last. As the export of surveillance technology saturates countries around the world with new methods of policing their own populations, questions of rights abuse and accountability will multiply and become even more urgent.
Meanwhile, in the Xinjiang internment camps, thousands of ethnic minorities are denied their rights and subject to continued abuse.
“The closest analogue is maybe the Cultural Revolution in that this will leave long-term, psychological effects,” Rian Thum, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said. “This will create a multigenerational trauma from which many people will never recover.”
Omar Bekali refused to cooperate with Chinese authorities while interned. In an attempt to break him, he was thrown in solitary confinement. One day, in between stints in solitary confinement, he saw a local official walking through the facility on an inspection. He yelled at the the top of his lungs to get the officials’ attention.
“Take me in the back and kill me, or send me back to prison,” he shouted. “I can’t be here anymore,” he screamed.
Bekali was eventually released after eight months in detainment. A few months later, Chinese authorities rounded up his sister, mother and father.
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