CHINA’S AI-POWERED SURVEILLANCE TECHNOLOGIES IN XINJIANG

As part of Xi Jinping’s Strike Hard campaign, an exceptionally harsh crackdown has been carried out against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. Through the use of artificial intelligence (AI), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has optimised its surveillance tactics and increased their efficiency. What is the CCP hoping to achieve? And how are minorities being targeted? 

In the past few years, there has been mounting international criticism regarding China’s treatment of muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Up to a million people are being held in internment camps, with reports of illegal organ harvesting, and the carrying out of forced sterilizations. The CCP has repeatedly denied any wrong-doing, insisting internment camps are ‘vocational training centres’ – but leaked files are telling a different story. 

For the CCP domestic and foreign policies have one common overarching goal, that of achieving ‘social stability.’ Stability in Xinjiang is of critical importance for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi Jinping’s pet project. Indeed, it is a ‘bridge’ to markets in Central Asia, Middle East, and Europe, with three out of six BRI corridors meant to pass through the region. A staggering $66 billion dollars has been invested in Xinjiang, where 80% of total trade is linked to BRI countries. In addition, any organised resistance to the CCP could have a spillover effec throughout China. It is therefore imperative for the Party to prevent any such destabilising events in the region. 

Xi Jinping’s strategy for the region differs from that of his predecessors, and their development-focused approach. During his first visit in 2014, Xi stressed the need to “show no mercy” and pursue a “campaign of surveillance and intelligence gathering to root out resistance in Uighur society”. The Strike Hard Campaign was therefore launched. Its raison d’être is to root out the “three evils” of religious extremism, separatism, and terrorism in the region. Indeed, this heavy-handed and pervasive approach to surveillance is often framed within the context of the War on Terror.  

In order to monitor ethnic minorities, officials in XUAR are building an extensive database of biometric information. Residents are required to provide DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and the blood types of every individual aged 12 to 65, as well as voice samples taken during passport applications. This practice is now being carried out throughout China, and analysts believe the Chinese police will spend up to $30 billion on surveillance technology in the next few years. Human Rights Watch reverse-engineered an app called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), arguing the CCP is attempting to develop a system of ‘reality mining’ to predict people’s behaviour based on aggregated data. The IJOP was designed to help CCP officials in apprehending potentially threatening individuals, by forcing residents to install the app on their smartphone. 

Potentially suspicious behaviour can be as anodyne as owning gym equipment, and not using the front door. Practicing Islam has also been heavily criminalised, and can land a person in jail. Praying, fasting, or wearing a hijab can all become cause for arrest. Moreover, being upset about the death of a relative, having a VPN, or watching a video filmed abroad is considered suspicious. Simply put, almost anything could be framed as threatening. 

One particularity of Xinjiang is the widespread presence of ‘convenience police stations,’ designed by XUAR Party Secretary Chen Quanguo. Their purpose is to increase police presence throughout the territory, and they are all equipped with high-tech CCTV. Most of these cameras have facial recognition technology, and/or infrared vision. “WiFi sniffers” are often placed next to them. This tool collects the identifying address of any other networked device in the vicinity, giving instant access to a person’s online activity. This allows officials to draw the complete profile of an individual within minutes, providing them with complete personal records and social media profiles. These phenomena are not confined to the XUAR. Indeed, facial recognition technology is now used for racial profiling throughout the country. Through machine learning, engineers input data to AI systems and train them to recognise traits typically ascribed to ethnic minorities. Recent government documents show demand for such software is on the rise.

In China, every individual is responsible for the maintenance of national security and social stability. This places significant pressure on officials to neutralise any individual considered threatening, leaving no margin for individual decision-making. The IJOP app scores officials, thus creating a strong incentive to apprehend flagged elements. Officials who don’t tow the Party line are being purged, and XUAR residents are being forced to spy on one another. Nevertheless, high-tech surveillance in China is not as efficient as the Party would have observers believe. Advanced technology is unevenly spread throughout the country, and coordination between localities is hindered by the obstacles present in every large bureaucracy.  

Xinjiang is a crucial region for twentieth century China. Much is at stake for the CCP, from stability throughout the Chinese terriroty to the success of the BRI. AI-powered technologies allow the Party to be omnipresent in the everyday lives of Uyghurs, effectively creating a climate of fear and reining people in. The search for efficient surveillance technologies has created a huge and profitable market, with startups having a central role in their development. Thus, Xinjiang’s role in China’s overall development strategy has become too great to see a relaxation of its surveillance campaign. 

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