China’s Electronic Surveillance Program Targets Muslims

In the far western region of Xinjiang, China has created one of the world’s most sophisticated and intrusive state surveillance systems to target the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority. 

Part of what Beijing calls its anti-terrorism campaign, the system includes mandatory facial-recognition scans at gas stations and Wi-Fi sniffers that secretly collect data from network devices. 

Over the past two years, the technology has helped authorities round up an estimated hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslims and lock them up in clandestine camps that China calls “re-education centers.” For those detainees and for millions of others, this Chinese experiment in technological control has transformed Xinjiang into an Orwellian prison state.

But for Chinese surveillance companies, it has turned the area into something else altogether: a lucrative market and a laboratory to test the latest gadgetry. 

The companies include some of the leaders in their field, often backed by Western investors and suppliers, according to analysts and activists who follow the plight of the Uighurs. Their research on the issue raises the grim prospect that many people around the world are profiting from some of China’s worst human rights abuses.

The companies include the world’s two largest security camera manufacturers, Hikvision and Dahua Technology. Though they are not household names, odds are you’ve been filmed by one of their products. Combined, the two firms supply around one-third of the global market for security cameras and related goods like digital video recorders. They are publicly traded at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and are worth a combined $70 billion, billions more than better-known brands like Sony.
Hikvision and Dahua have already attracted scrutiny in the West, where their popular cameras are deployed at US Army bases and other sensitive locations.

Hikvision has close ties to the Chinese government, it’s partly owned by a state defense contractor and its chairman was appointed to the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, earlier this year, raising concern in the United States that China might be harnessing these cameras for espionage (charges Hikvision strongly denies). 

Last month, the House of Representatives passed the annual National Defense Authorisation bill for 2019, which includes a provision that would bar the US government from purchasing both firms’ products.

But the two companies’ activities within China, where they make the bulk of their revenues, have received little scrutiny, allowing both firms to capitalise on China’s surge in security spending in Xinjiang in recent years.  

Beijing has long worried about a Muslim separatist movement in Xinjiang, a huge mineral-rich region that straddles key trade routes. In response, it has promoted the migration of millions of Han Chinese, people from China’s ethnic majority, to the province, a strategy which backfired in 2009, when race riots left hundreds dead, in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi. 

As Beijing cracked down, some Uighurs turned to terrorism. 
In 2016, China appointed Chen Quanguo to run the province, a hard-liner who had previously run the Tibet autonomous region. In short order, Quanguo nearly doubled security spending in Xinjiang to an astonishing $9 billion per year. 
Since then, Hikvision and Dahua have won at least $1.2 billion in government contracts for 11 separate, large-scale surveillance projects across Xinjiang, according to Chinese bidding websites and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. 
Most of the Xinjiang projects were launched in 2017, a year in which Hikvision and Dahua’s revenues grew by 30 and 40 percent respectively, and most are located in predominantly Uighur parts of the province.

Suspects flagged for practicing their religion
The scale of these projects is huge. A single “safe county” project won by Dahua in Yarkant County in 2017, the site of violent riots that left scores dead in 2014, is worth the equivalent of $686 million over a 10-year period. Another project won by Hikvision in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi is worth $79 million and includes some 30,000 security cameras. 
The projects include not only security cameras but also video analytics hubs, intelligent monitoring systems, big data centers, police checkpoints, and even drones. Most of the projects are under construction, but some are already completed or partially operating.

These mass surveillance schemes are not a new phenomenon in China. Beijing began building a nationwide surveillance network in 2005 called Skynet to better control public order in urban areas. 

In 2015, authorities launched a dramatic expansion and update of Skynet called Sharp Eyes, intended to cover the entire country with facial-recognition systems and other technology. While these national programs have raised concerns on their own, nowhere has Chinese state surveillance been as broad and intrusive as in Xinjiang. 

In an attempt to establish total control, Chinese authorities have pushed local apps capable of covertly passing data to authorities, detained Uighurs for studying abroad, and even arrested the families of Uighur reporters working for a US state-funded outlet. There, even buying a knife or entering a bazaar can require an identity check.

But the most disturbing feature of China’s clampdown is the secretive network of re-education camps where Uighurs and other minorities are detained for exhibiting behavior deemed too Islamic or anti-China. 

The United States has long banned exports of crime-control products to China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, but most video surveillance products aren’t included because they also have non-security-related functions like traffic control. 
Still, unprecedented business opportunities have emerged from China’s massive surveillance-state expansion and its national push into AI.

As the web of companies involved in Xinjiang’s repression expands, the endeavor to invest ethically becomes more complicated. “I think it’s increasingly difficult to stay clean,” said Cook, the Freedom House researcher.

Foreign Policy

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