“Terror Capitalism” and a “Virtual Cage” in Xinjiang

As China’s internment camps in Xinjiang and their million-plus inhabitants attract mounting global attention, The New York Times this week published a multimedia feature showing the blend of technological surveillance and raw policing manpower outside the camps, based on several visits to the city of . From Chris Buckley, Paul Mozur, and Austin Ramzy:

[… O]utside the camps, Uighurs live in a virtual cage. China has built a vast net of controls that shows the Communist Party’s vision of automated authoritarianism. Neighbors become informants. Children are interrogated. Mosques are monitored.

[…] Every 100 yards or so, the police stand at checkpoints with guns, shields and clubs. Many are Uighurs. The couldn’t work without them.

Uighurs line up, stone-faced, to swipe their official identity cards. At big checkpoints, they lift their chins while a machine takes their photos, and wait to be notified if they can go on.

The police sometimes take Uighuirs’ phones and check to make sure they have installed compulsory software that monitors calls and messages.

[…] Chinese companies are earning a fortune selling this surveillance technology. They make it sound like a sci-fi miracle allowing the police to track people with laser precision.

But spend time in and you see that the surveillance state acts more like a sledgehammer — sweeping, indiscriminate; as much about intimidation as monitoring. [Source]

Mozur supplemented the article on Twitter with a thread of photographs and other impressions:

At Logic Magazine, in a special edition on China, University of Washington anthropologist Dylan Byler describes the “new form of terror capitalism” underpinning the mass detentions.

Over the past five years, the People’s War on Terror has allowed Chinese tech startups such as Leon, Meiya Pico, Hikvision, Face++, Sensetime, and Dahua to achieve unprecedented levels of growth. In just the last two years, the state has invested an estimated $7.2 billion on techno-security in Xinjiang. […]

The company Hikvision advertised tools that could automate the identification of Uyghur faces based on physiological phenotypes. High-resolution video cameras capable of operating in low-light conditions were linked to AI-enabled software trained on an extensive image database of racially diverse faces; together, these technologies could determine the ethnicity of a person based on the shape and color of the person’s facial features—all while the person strolled down street. A Leon Technology spokesperson told one of the country’s leading technology publications that the cameras were also integrated with an AI system made by Leon that could flag suspicious behavior and individuals under special surveillance “on the scale of seconds.” Other programs performed automated searches of Uyghurs’ internet activity and then compared the data it gleaned to school, job, banking, medical, and biometric records, looking for predictors of aberrant behavior.

The rollout of this new technology required a great deal of manpower and technical training. Over 100,000 new police officers were hired. One of their jobs was to conduct the sort of health check Alim underwent, creating biometric records for almost every human being in the region. Face signatures were created by scanning individuals from a variety of different angles as they made different facial expressions; the result was a high-definition portfolio of personal emotions. All Uyghurs were required to install the Clean Net Guard app, which monitored everything they said, read, and wrote, and everyone they connected with, on their smartphones.

[…] The IJOP [Integrated Joint Operations Platform] is always running in the background of Uyghur life, always learning. The government’s hope is that it will run with ever less human guidance. The goal is both to intensify securitization in the region and to free up security labor for the work of “transformation through education.” [Source]

Also available online from Logic’s special China issue are a Burning Man travelogue by science fiction author Chen Qiufan, whose novel “Waste Tide” will be released in English on April 30, and an account of the silencing of China’s online feminist voices by activist Lü Pin.

In a Twitter thread, Byler highlighted many of the sources on which his own work had built:

These include a 2018 report on the IJOP—”a predictive policing program based on big data analysis”—by Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang, who noted that the system was supplied by a Hikvision sister company, Xinjiang Lianhai Cangzhi Company, and summarized its scope and origins as follows:

Since August 2016, the Xinjiang Bureau of Public Security has posted procurement notices confirming the establishment of the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” (IJOP, 一体化联合作战平台), a system that receives data on individuals from many different sources. Kashgar Prefecture appears to be one of the first areas where the system is complete and in regular use.

These notices reveal that the IJOP gathers information from multiple sources or “sensors.” One source is CCTV cameras, some of which have facial recognition or infrared capabilities (giving them “night vision”). Some cameras are positioned in locations police consider sensitive: entertainment venues, supermarkets, schools, and homes of religious figures. Another source is “wifi sniffers,” which collect the unique identifying addresses of computers, smartphones, and other networked devices. The IJOP also receives information such as license plate numbers and citizen ID card numbers from some of the region’s countless security checkpoints and from “visitors’ management systems” in access-controlled communities. The vehicle checkpoints transmit information to IJOP, and “receive, in real time, predictive warnings pushed by the IJOP” so they can “identify targets… for checks and control.”

The IJOP also draws on existing information, such as one’s vehicle ownership, health, family planning, banking, and legal records, according to official reports. Police and local officials are also required to submit to IJOP information on any activity they deem “unusual” and anything “related to stability” they have spotted during home visits and policing. One interviewee said that possession of many books, for example, would be reported to IJOP, if there is no ready explanation, such as having teaching as one’s profession. [Source]

This week’s Economist, meanwhile, examined the mounting pressure on both American and Chinese suppliers of surveillance technology to Xinjiang. (For more on the former, see another recent roundup at CDT.)

[…] Authorities in the western Chinese province have sent up to 1m members of the Uighur Muslim minority to “re-education camps”. This year two American firms have been forced by unflattering media reports to sever ties with the state. Thermo Fisher Scientific, a medical-technology firm, stopped selling gene-sequencing instruments that were used to trace Uighurs’ DNA. Badger Sportswear, a big American clothing company, cut links with a Chinese supplier suspected of using Uighur forced labour.

Attention is moving to Chinese firms linked to Xinjiang that are part of the msci index. For instance, American fund managers have flocked to buy Hikvision, a China-based supplier of surveillance cameras with a booming global business. It has now been put on a blacklist by the American government. Some investors are dropping it like a stone. Their reputations are also on the line.

[…] Scrutiny is coming from many directions. The Trump administration, though loth to condemn human-rights abuses among allies like Saudi Arabia, is paying more attention to Xinjiang, not least because of pressure from Congress. On April 3rd a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the administration to impose tougher restrictions on security firms like Hikvision, investigate their role in global financial markets and ensure that American firms do not assist in the “vast civilian surveillance or big-data predictive policing” in Xinjiang. [Source]

Hikvision was one target of a bipartisan letter from U.S. lawmakers to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last August, calling for sanctions against officials and companies involved “in mass detentions and surveillance of ethnic minorities.”

Late last month, The Financial Times’ James Kynge and Demetri Sevastopulo reported on mounting scrutiny of holdings in Hikvision by U.S. investors including the State Teachers’ Retirement Systems of New York and California:

One fund manager who sold out of Hikvision said investors were turning a blind eye to Xinjiang’s detention camps because the booming surveillance industry in China promised strong returns. “A lot of investors talk about ethical investing but when it comes to Hikvision and Xinjiang they are happy to fill their boots,” said the fund manager. “It is pretty hypocritical.”

[…] “State public pension funds, the MSCI EM index and other funds under management that hold companies like Hikvision have seemingly engaged in little, if any, human rights or national security-related due diligence,” said Roger Robinson, president and chief executive of RWR Advisory Group, a Washington-based consultancy.

[…] Hikvision declined to comment ahead of publication. The company said in a statement on Friday: “We take very seriously the concerns raised regarding the use of Hikvision equipment, and we are evaluating a range of options to address these matters.” [Source]

Also last month at The Diplomat, Freedom House’s Sarah Cook urged similar divestment from WeChat operator Tencent:

On March 16, China watcher Chenchen Zhang shared an anecdote on Twitter about a member of the Uyghur Muslim minority who was stopped at mainland China’s border with Hong Kong and interrogated for three days simply because someone on his WeChat contact list had recently “checked in” with a location setting of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The authorities apparently feared that the Uyghur man had traveled on pilgrimage to Mecca without permission, warning that such a move could yield 15 years in prison.

[…] Monitoring of user activity on the platform has been made simpler by enhanced enforcement of real-name registration requirements for mobile phones, the electronic payment features of WeChat, large-scale police purchases of smartphone scanners, and new rules facilitating public security agencies’ access to data centers. As indicated above, content from Tencent applications is being directly “spoon-fed” to police in some cases.

[…] Amid a massive crackdown in Xinjiang, Chinese police have also harnessed WeChat to connect with overseas Uyghurs, demand personal information or details about activists, and insert state monitors into private groups.

[…] Lastly, investors in Tencent should seriously consider the moral and political implications of their support for the firm. Anyone concerned about human rights, electoral interference by foreign powers, or privacy violations by tech giants should divest from the company, including retirement funds. Socially responsible investment plans should exclude Tencent from their portfolios if they have not already. Even from a purely financial perspective, Tencent shares may not be a wise purchase. The stock’s price has dropped 19 percent over the past year, at least in part because of tighter government controls on user communications. Given that Chinese regulators are now turning their attention to the gaming industry, the company’s most profitable area of activity, its value is likely to dip further. As stock analyst Leo Sun has warned, “investors in Chinese should never underestimate the government’s ability to throttle their growth.” [Source]

While oppressive use of these technologies is particularly intense in Xinjiang—as well as Tibet, as Tenzin Tsultrim recently reported at Hong Kong Free Press—it has increasingly spread not only around China, but also via exports to other countries around the world.