Advanced Surveillance Spreading From Xinjiang

This week, The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin and Clément Bürge examined the combination of intensive conventional policing and innovative technologies including facial recognition that have placed Urumqi and other parts of Xinjiang among “the most closely surveilled places on earth.” The system, developed under former Tibet Party secretary Chen Quanguo, offers a glimpse of the likely future elsewhere in China, and perhaps beyond.

Security checkpoints with identification scanners guard the train station and roads in and out of town. Facial scanners track comings and goings at hotels, shopping malls and banks. Police use hand-held devices to search smartphones for encrypted chat apps, politically charged videos and other suspect content. To fill up with gas, drivers must first swipe their ID cards and stare into a camera.

China’s efforts to snuff out a violent separatist movement by some members of the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic group have turned the autonomous region of , of which Urumqi is the capital, into a laboratory for high-tech social controls that civil-liberties activists say the government wants to roll out across the country.

[…] “They constantly take lessons from the high-pressure rule they apply in Xinjiang and implement them in the east,” says Zhu Shengwu, a Chinese human-rights lawyer who has worked on cases. “What happens in Xinjiang has bearing on the fate of all Chinese people.”

During the first quarter of 2017, the government announced the equivalent of more than $1 billion in security-related investment projects in Xinjiang, up from $27 million in all of 2015, according to research in April by Chinese brokerage firm Industrial Securities. [Source]

Among the less advanced but still striking measures described is a survey sent to all Urumqi residents, requiring personal information ranging from foreign contacts to prayer frequency:

The Financial Times’ Emily Feng added:

Chin elaborated further on Twitter:

The WSJ article is one of several reports scrutinizing surveillance in Xinjiang, including one from Buzzfeed’s Megha Rajagopalan in October and another from the Associated Press’ Gerry Shih on Sunday. In a Twitter thread on the WSJ reporting, Shih commented:

In an essay deleted from in April but archived and translated at CDT, investigative journalist Jiang Xue noted the role of Xinjiang and Tibet as testing grounds for new security measures. She complained about ever-tighter real name registration requirements, but quoted a friend’s comment: “‘Go take a look at Xinjiang or Tibet. Everything’s already like this, or much worse.’ I couldn’t help but feel my conscience stirred.”

Surveillance elsewhere in China has already reached an advanced stage, as a recent BBC feature illustrated. Reporter John Sudworth was identified and located by a municipal facial recognition system within seven minutes:

The recent World Internet Conference in Wuzhen acted as an unabashed showcase for surveillance technologies, as The New York Times’ Paul Mozur described:

[… A]ll the advancements exhibited at the event, the World Internet Conference, in the picturesque eastern Chinese city of Wuzhen, also offered reason for caution. The enabling a full techno-police state was on hand, giving a glimpse into how new advances in things like artificial intelligence and facial recognition can be used to track citizens — and how they have become widely accepted here.

The tracking was apparent both in the design of the event, which ended on Tuesday, and in the technology on display. Tight security checkpoints made use of facial recognition. Chinese armed police patrolled. And in the dark corners of the whitewashed walls of the convention hall, the red lights of closed-circuit cameras glowed.

A fast-growing facial recognition company, Face++, turned its technology on conferencegoers. On a large screen in its booth, the software identified their gender, described their hair length and color and characterized the clothes they wore.

Other Chinese companies showed what could be done with such data. A state-run telecom company, China Unicom, featured a display with graphics breaking down the huge amounts of data the company has on its subscribers. [Source]

There have been some signs of a backlash against some forms of video surveillance. While official media has touted the technology’s achievements in bringing criminal suspects to justice, it has not gone unnoticed that the authorities act as the sole gatekeeper. When the hard drive containing potential video evidence in the recent RYB kindergarten abuse scandal was declared faulty, skeptical commenters suggested that it had committed suicide out of loyalty to the Party. As the Magpie Digest newsletter remarked, the episode “led the public to loudly question: who is the surveillance for, and how can it hold institutions accountable, if the authorities are the only ones who can access the footage?”

While widespread and increasingly automated video collection and analysis surveil public spaces, online arenas are also under ever more intense monitoring. As with internet censorship, private companies have been pressed into service, in pilots for the notorious nascent social credit system and elsewhere. At the end of last month, the WSJ’s Josh Chin and Liza Lin described how China’s homegrown tech companies are “openly acting as the government’s eyes and ears in cyberspace,” exploring comparisons with equivalent partnerships in the United States, and the impact of China’s new cybersecurity law.

Companies including Group Holding Ltd., Holdings Ltd. and Baidu Inc., are required to help China’s government hunt down criminal suspects and silence political dissent. Their technology is also being used to create cities wired for surveillance.

This assistance is far more extensive than the help Western companies extend to their governments, and the requests are almost impossible to challenge, a Wall Street Journal examination of Chinese practices shows.

[…] Along with access to online data, China’s government wants something else from —the cloud computing prowess to sort and analyze information. China wants to crunch data from surveillance cameras, smartphones, government databases and other sources to create so-called smart cities and safe cities.

[…] Tencent is working with police in the southern city of Guangzhou to build a cloud-based “early-warning system” that can track and forecast the size and movement of crowds, according to a statement from the Guangzhou police bureau.

Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, contends the proclaimed benefits of such wired cities mask their true purpose. “This whole safe city idea is a massive surveillance project,” she said. [Source]

HRW has also been tracking the development of pervasive surveillance and data collection in China. Last month, for example, it issued a warning against arbitrary or political abuse of collected data:

“It is frightening that Chinese authorities are collecting and centralizing ever more information about hundreds of millions of ordinary people, identifying persons who deviate from what they determine to be ‘normal thought,’ and then surveilling them,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Until China has meaningful rights and an accountable police force, the government should immediately cease these efforts.”

[…] The fact that these systems are designed in part to track groups the authorities deem politically or socially threatening raises serious concerns about social and racial profiling. Through predictive policing, these platforms vow to analyze their past pattern of activities to “alert and warn” the police about their future activities so as to “more effectively intercept” them. Meng Jianzhu – the former Minister of Public Security and the current Secretary of the Communist Party Political and Legal Committee – which oversees the Party-state’s police, procuratorate, and the courts – said in 2015 that big data is important to “find order… in fragmented information” and “to pinpoint a person’s identity.”

The WSJ’s Li Yuan wrote further on tech companies’ subservience to the state in the context of this winter’s migrant evictions in Beijing, which have affected some operations by displacing employees at various levels. Their common master hasn’t prevented “full-blown war” from breaking out between Alibaba and Tencent, as Li wrote this week, a competition which may only lead to a tighter official grip:

They have more influence in how Chinese eat, shop, travel and have fun than any other companies in the country and arguably more than the Communist Party. It takes at least the four FANG firms (Facebook,, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google) to measure up to AT.

[…] All the scrapping is drawing louder calls for checks on the big tech companies, and regulators are taking notice. At a conference in June, an official at the central bank, which regulates financial services, talked about a “data monopoly” held by unnamed companies that scooped up personal information by investing in different product lines.

I asked the investor who knows both Messrs. Ma why they would launch a war and give the government an excuse to crack down on them. “Ego,” he says and cites a Chinese proverb: “They forgot when the sandpiper and the clam are tied in a fight, the fisherman can come by and catch them both.” [Source]

For details on other firms involved, see articles from The New York Times’ Paul Mozur and Keith Bradsher on voice recognition firm iFlytek—whose technology was the focus of a leaked media directive published by CDT in February—and South China Morning Post’s Zigor Aldama on facial recognition developer Yitu Technologies.

Back at the WSJ, Eva Dou recently detailed official monitoring of TenCent’s ubiquitous WeChat messaging service. Concerns about government eavesdropping on ostensibly private WeChat messages have been voiced as early as 2012 by prominent figures such as activist Hu Jia and Tibetan writer Woeser. More recently, it was implicated in the detention of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che, who was sentenced to five years in prison last month. Dou highlighted several other cases:

“Haha,” [construction supervisor Chen Shouli] typed on his black iPhone 7, followed by an off-color wisecrack about a rumored love triangle involving a celebrity and one of China’s most senior government officials.

Four days later, he says, the police telephoned, ordering him in for questioning.

[…] In September, amid a drunken-driving clampdown in the city of Jieshou, auto mechanic Yang Qingsong used an expletive in a WeChat post to question the intelligence of police for doing checks in the rain. Police detained Mr. Yang for five days, saying his post to a group with 241 people “created negative social effects,” according to an account of the incident the police posted on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

[…] After he called President Xi Jinping a “baozi”—a steamed dumpling—in one WeChat post, and Chairman Mao a “bandit” in another, [petitioner Wang Jiangfeng] was arrested, court records say. A local court in April sentenced him to two years in prison, a term that was reduced to 22 months after a retrial last month.

[…] Politically minded Chinese complained of a tide of chat-group shutdowns. Mr. Mo [Shaoping], the rights lawyer, said his WeChat account was suspended in October, after he forwarded a news report about Mr. Guo [Wengui] to a few friends in one-on-one chats. Though he has defended many dissidents, including the writer and eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, he says he never before lost his WeChat account. [Source]

Dou goes on to highlight Citizen Lab’s research into WeChat monitoring and censorship, including novel automatic filtering of sensitive images.

NYU legal scholar Jerome Cohen praised Dou’s report on his blog:

It is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize for the insights it gives into contemporary China and its legal system. It illustrates the currently enhanced degree of repression and the impact it has on ordinary citizens. Orwell has arrived. The increasingly smooth integration of China’s cyber monitoring systems, its various police organizations, its “Justice” Ministry, its prosecutors and its judges – no small feat – now leaves little room for free expression even among small groups.

[…] This story has so many implications. It shows how many intelligent, ambitious Chinese who have improved their lives under the Communist system have gradually awakened to its methods and costs and come to question and even modestly challenge it. The story also illustrates the fate that many challengers, and the lawyers who are asked to help them, quickly suffer. [Source]