China Deploys 'Breakthrough' Surveillance Technology To Arrest 13,000 'Terrorists'
Beijing’s PR machine went into overdrive on Monday, claiming that authorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have arrested 13,000 ‘terrorists’ in the province in the last five years, with more than twice that number punished for so-called ‘illegal religious activities‘. The detail came in a white paper entitled ‘the Fight against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang,’ issued by the State Council Information Office.
Despite the more recent focus on cybersecurity, the programs in Xinjiang were an early driver of U.S. prohibitions on Chinese surveillance technology manufacturers including Hikvision, Dahua and also Huawei. “The role these companies play in the surveillance boom in Xinjiang is no secret,” explained Foreign Policy. “Chinese analysts have published detailed reports on the growth prospects for surveillance firms offered by the Xinjiang security expansion.”
And it doesn’t just impact the work of Chinese companies. In the last week, Google has been criticized by U.S. defense chiefs for engagement in China more broadly, which benefits the Chinese military, and Microsoft for the alleged (albeit denied) inclusion of their technology in the SenseNets surveillance program in Xinjiang, which uses facial recognition to track the population in real time.
Xinjiang is a state-sponsored surveillance laboratory, with unconstrained deployments of early-stage, commercial technologies suppressing the population. Upwards of 1.5 million people forced into re-education camps. Police checkpoints. Facial, iris and license plate recognition. Geofenced travel restrictions. Biometric registration. GPS tagging. Blanket video surveillance. And mandatory communications monitoring. The reality of a high-tech surveillance state.
“What’s new is the breadth of the repression and how the Chinese government is using breakthroughs in technology to increase its effectiveness,” Kelley Currie, a U.S. diplomat said ahead of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting this month.
The devil in the detail
“Since 2014, Xinjiang has destroyed 1,588 violent and terrorist gangs, arrested 12,995 terrorists, seized 2,052 explosive devices, punished 30,645 people for 4,858 illegal religious activities, and confiscated 345,229 copies of illegal religious materials,” the authorities listed in their white paper, adding that “the counter-terrorism work and the de-extremization struggle in Xinjiang have always been carried out in accordance with the rule of law.”
De-extremization includes punishment for ‘illegal religious activities’ and confiscation of ‘illegal religious materials’. The white paper claims that the authorities “draw a clear line between lawful and illegal religious activities, providing legal guarantees for people of all ethnic groups to engage in lawful religious activities,” but religious groups have reportedly been prohibited from carrying out activities such as “preaching, missionary work and ordaining clergy without prior government approval”. Most of the suppression in Xinjiang targets Uighur Muslims, but a number of Christians have also been sent to the ‘training centers’.
As explained by the pro-Beijing Global Times, the tone of the white paper is positive: ”There has been no terrorist attack in Xinjiang for more than 24 months, which is an achievement brought about by the current de-extremism efforts in the region, according to Xinjiang officials.” This is the line being taken by Beijing and its supporters, seeking to shift the focus to the outcomes and away from the approach.
“China is deliberately distorting the truth,” World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilxat Raxit said in a statement. “Counter-terrorism is a political excuse to suppress the Uighurs. The real aim of the so-called de-radicalization is to eliminate faith and thoroughly carry out Sinification.”
There has been widespread political condemnation of the ongoing situation in Xinjiang, including an EU report last year which highlighted “credible reports of mass detentions in political ‘re-education camps’ affecting Uighurs and other minorities; of mass surveillance; of restrictions on travel; and of Uighurs abroad allegedly being returned to China involuntarily.”
Last week, Chinese vice foreign minister Le Yucheng, was dismissive of this international sentiment. Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council, he claimed that “as the counter-terrorism situation improves, the training programme will be gradually downsized, leading to its completion. Without our decisive measures, violent terrorist attacks would have escalated in Xinjiang and spread to other places.”
The value of population control
The value of high-tech surveillance programs that have been awarded in Xinjiang runs into billions of dollars. It’s a closed procurement market. The Chinese companies that drive the surveillance feed from the state. The money is reinvested. The cycle repeats.
Last month, the SenseNets data breach illustrated the scale of this. Exposing the tracking of 2.6 million people, ethical hacker Victor Gevers tweeted that he had found a database ”containing over 2.565.724 records of people with personal information like ID card number (issue & expire date, sex, nation, address, birthday, pass photo, employer and which locations with trackers they have passed in the last 24 hours which is about 6.680.348 records.”
“I posted this tweet,” Gevers told me, “saying this is the system we found, it’s mass surveillance, it’s bad, it’s out there.” The data cache included location descriptions such as ‘mosque’ and illustrated the extent of the surveillance state in Xinjiang. ”We took a sample of records,” Victor explained. “We used Google Translate. We looked up GPS locations. And it all pointed to the same province. So, I reached out to the journalist who said this is bad, this can’t stay covered, you need to list this publicly.”
The SenseNets data breach provides a chilling insight into the level of surveillance now deployed, the technological realities behind the white paper. “So this insecure face recognition/personal verification solution is built and operated for only one goal,” Gevers tweeted. “It’s a ‘Muslim tracker’ funded by Chinese authorities in the province of Xinjiang to keep track of Uyghur Muslims.” It’s easier to monitor for ‘illegal religious activities’ when you can track members of a specific religion in real time.
Ends and means
The Xinjiang white paper sets out the goals and ambitions of daily counter-extremism courses in the so-called (re)training centers: “By learning national laws and regulations, ethnic policies and religious knowledge, trainees can realize that religious extremism totally deviates from religious doctrines,” where ‘attendees’ can “understand the essence and harm of terrorism and extremism and finally get rid of their control and influence.”
The Chinese equipment manufacturers supplying the technologies that power the surveillance programs in Xinjiang widely export those same technologies. That hasn’t changed. As I’ve written about before, it’s a fundamental focus of the surveillance state Beijing has in place, subsidizing exports whilst operating a closed domestic market. And Xinjiang is a frightening shop window for this – with the dollars generated through those exports driving the R&D that powers those dystopian systems.
Last week, Shohrat Zakir the governor of Xinjiang, spoke to Sky News and denied that the training centers are ‘concentration camps’, saying that “some foreign voices talking about Xinjiang, they have said that Xinjiang has ‘concentration camps’, or ‘education camps’, and so on. These statements are made up, they are lies and they are very ridiculous.”
As the world reels from the attack in Christchurch, China’s white paper with its claims that “terrorism and extremism promote zero tolerance among different religions, cultures and societies… challenging the justice and dignity of humans, destroying peace and security and severely harm human rights and sustainable development,” inevitably strike a chord.
China’s approach, though, would still cut to the heart of human rights – even if you believed that the 13,000 people the authorities claim to have arrested were really terrorists.
[The headline of this post has been changed since it was first published.]