China’s Predictive Policing and “Digital Totalitarianism”
Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang warned this week about Chinese authorities’ combination of data from video surveillance, face and license plate recognition, mobile device locations, and official records to identify targets for detention in Xinjiang. The report is the latest of many highlighting intensive use of advanced surveillance, more traditional security measures, and political education camps in the region, which has served as a testing ground for techniques and technologies subsequently used elsewhere.
“For the first time, we are able to demonstrate that the Chinese government’s use of big data and predictive policing not only blatantly violates privacy rights, but also enables officials to arbitrarily detain people,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “People in Xinjiang can’t resist or challenge the increasingly intrusive scrutiny of their daily lives because most don’t even know about this ‘black box’ program or how it works.”
Human Rights Watch said Xinjiang authorities in recent years have increased mass surveillance measures across the region, augmenting existing tactics with the latest technologies. Since around April 2016, Human Rights Watch estimates, Xinjiang authorities have sent tens of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities to “political education centers.”
These actions are part of the regional authorities’ ongoing “Strike-Hard” campaign, and of President Xi’s “stability maintenance” and “enduring peace” drive in the region. Authorities say the campaign targets “terrorist elements,” but it is in practice far broader, and encompasses anyone suspected of political disloyalty, which in Xinjiang could mean any Uyghur, particularly those who express, even peacefully, their religious or cultural identity.
[…] “If the Chinese government’s goal is to prevent bona fide crimes, it could train police and procurators in professional, rights-respecting methods, and empower defense lawyers,” Wang said. “Arbitrary mass surveillance and detention are Orwellian political tools; China should abandon use of them and release all those held in political education centers immediately.” [Source]
The Globe and Mail’s Nathan VanderKlippe reported on HRW’s findings:
The report "adds some pieces to the puzzle" over what is happening in Xinjiang, where it became clear over the last year "that tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs were disappearing without having done anything illegal," said Rian Thum, a historian at Loyola University in New Orleans who has travelled extensively in Xinjiang.
"No Uyghur in Xinjiang today, not even the most submissive party loyalist, can go to sleep feeling certain that they won’t be taken to the re-education camps," he said. "The notion of ‘predictive policing’ would go some way to explaining how people can disappear without having crossed any obvious line."
[… Police officer Xu Linglei told Nanfang magazine that] "Before the application of big data, police often only arrested people after they had committed wrongdoings and the victims suffered losses as a result. Now, relying on information technology, they can take preventive measures in advance." [Source]
Daily routines were monotonous and highly scripted, Iman said. “We were awoken every morning at 5 a.m. and given 20 minutes to wash. The guards only provided three thermoses of hot water each day for 20 men, though. I had to vie with the others for hot water. I didn’t properly bathe for a week. We were then required to tidy the bed. The guards inspected our work: The corners had to be crisp and the two blankets, which covered the entire platform, wrinkle-free. Breakfast was served at 6 a.m. The menu did not change: moma or steamed bread. After breakfast, we marched inside our cell, calling out cadences in Chinese: ‘Train hard, study diligently.’ Huh, I can’t remember the rest of the verse. I bet it’s on Baidu [Chinese search engine]. Anyway, we marched for several hours. We then viewed ‘re-education’ films until lunch.
[…] In his crowded cell, Iman suffered from loneliness and isolation. It was often too disheartening to speak to the others, he said, so he kept to himself. “Most of my cellmates had already been incarcerated for over two months without being formally charged. I did befriend a man in his 60s who, during my detention, was sentenced to six years in prison. His ‘crime’? He sent a religious teaching [tabligh in Uighur], a simple explanation of the Quran, though one not produced by a state-appointed cleric, to his daughter using his mobile phone. She shared it with a friend. The authorities convicted him of possession and dissemination of extremist religious content.”
The days in the detention center accumulated with no end in sight. Three days turned into a week. A week into 10 days. Ten days into two weeks. Yet Iman was never formally charged. Although arbitrary and prolonged detentions violate international law, in China law enforcement may detain “major suspects” for as many as 30 days. [Source]
The technologies highlighted by HRW are just part of a broader regime of control measures being used in the region. Xinjiang specialist Adrian Zenz described at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute: Analysis blog earlier this month how "Xinjiang has become perhaps the most heavily policed region on the planet, with estimated per capita police counts exceeding the record-setting level of former East Germany just before that nation’s fall in 1989."
The massive police intakes orchestrated under Chen Quanguo’s governance illustrate that the state’s security strategy does not rely on technology alone. Rather, we are witnessing a sophisticated, multi-pronged strategy that operates on several levels. At the top end, high tech server farms perform big data collection and analysis, aided by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. At the bottom end, low-educated assistant police forces man checkpoints, patrol neighbourhoods, perform searches and scan mobile phones for illegal contents. Any behavioural deviance quickly results in detainment in political re-education camps. With progressive societal digitalisation, a troubling shift from post-incident response to surveillance-induced anticipatory compliance is taking place.
[…] While Chinese officials laud […] achievements in combating separatism and crime, the use of AI in predictive policing comes with inherent dangers. In the US, a recent study found that crime-predicting algorithms do not perform better than a random sample of untrained humans, while the computer system also exhibited a stronger (and incorrect) racial bias. Worse, societal securitisation is a leading cause of radicalisation. Rather than channelling popular discontent through inclusive socio-political mechanisms, the security state suppresses radical and moderate views alike, failing to develop the diversified responses needed for countering radicalization. As Toni Michel, drawing on Abraham Maslow, wrote: securitisation, the Weltanschauung of viewing all things through the security lens, is like “holding a hammer – and suddenly every problem looks like a nail.”
[…] Meanwhile, we can speculate based on various sources that up to 5 percent of the adult Uyghur population in Urumqi and southern Xinjiang has been or is currently detained in extralegal political re-education camps. The potentially disastrous ramifications of China’s securitization drive in Tibet and especially Xinjiang are difficult to fully assess at the present. One thing, however, is beyond doubt: the all-knowing digital police state of the 21st century is being perfected in front of our very eyes. [Source]
Other recent reports shed light on other aspects of the multi-pronged strategy Zenz describes. The Washington Post reported this week that dozens of relatives of four Radio Free Asia journalists have been detained, disappeared, or imprisoned in apparent retaliation for their work. Similar moves have been seen in the past. Dui Hua reported on Tuesday that tightening restrictions on Islamic dress have expanded to cover not just public spaces, as in several Western countries, but even private homes, as well as the sale of some garments.
Increasingly advanced surveillance in Xinjiang is at the leading edge of the nationwide construction of what CDT founder Xiao Qiang described as "a digital totalitarian state" in an op-ed at The Washington Post last week. Other elements he highlighted include the passage last year of a new cybersecurity law, an expansion of social media monitoring and censorship tracked by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, the exploits of China’s notorious "50 Cent" comment army, and a tightening of restrictions on access to foreign websites using VPNs and other tools. He begins by highlighting the 10-day detention of former lawyer Zhou Baowei for a Weibo post disparaging an elderly nuclear submarine engineer who was lionized during last month’s CCTV Spring Festival Gala. The state broadcaster praised the engineer’s conscientiousness in cutting off family contact without explanation for 30 years "for fear of giving away his knowledge," which Zhou criticized as an appalling lack of filial piety rather than a heroic sacrifice. Authorities have repeatedly punished disrespect for those deemed national heroes, an approach set to be enshrined in the country’s planned Civil Code.
Zhou’s story is the latest example of how much stricter state control has become across the Chinese Internet, especially social media platforms. In China, censorship and propaganda go hand in hand, backed by the use of physical force, including police visits, arrests and attacks by state media on people who have expressed controversial political opinions online.
[…] But beneath the surface of these constantly intensifying control measures, there are millions of Chinese grassroots voices, public opinion leaders and an insurgent community of circumvention practitioners who constantly push to expand the free flow of information in Chinese society. Digital activism has been and remains a vital driver of change in Chinese society.
So yes, we are witnessing China rise as a digital totalitarian state. But it may be the case that eventually resistance and critical thinking will become stronger than compliance and acceptance. And if that happens, the government’s repressive efforts on social media will be unsustainable. [Source]
The Wall Street Journal’s Li Yuan similarly explored the possible limits of a "digital dictatorship"’s power on Thursday:
That’s a question that author Wang Lixiong set out to answer in his dystopian novel “Ceremony.” Released by Taiwan’s Locus Publishing in December, “Ceremony” describes a China in 2021 that isn’t far off from how the nation is today. The leader wants to stay in office beyond mandated term limits and uses an anticorruption campaign to vanquish rivals. Surveillance is ubiquitous.
[…] “The Achilles’ heel for a regime like this is that it needs the assistance of people who understand technology,” he says. “These people can manipulate the technology for their own benefit. And just like the government, they can do so at much lower costs and higher efficiency.”
[…] In “Ceremony,” the government embeds chips that combine radio-frequency identification tags and nanotechnology in shoes to monitor the whereabouts of its citizens.
I told Mr. Wang that those technologies seem less sophisticated than what’s already in use in Xinjiang, China’s Central Asian frontier region. There, the government has deployed facial-recognition cameras, smartphone readers, DNA collection and data-crunching policing systems to try to quell sporadic antigovernment violence by militant Muslims.
“Reality beats fiction all the time, especially in China,” he responds. [Source]