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Hello Uighurs: Chinese Technology and Politics

by Emma Chiu

Religious Freedom Institute

The recent bill passed by the United States House of Representatives once again brought attention towards the detention, torture and harassment of Uighur Muslims in China, after the Xinjiang Papers were brought to the attention of US media. This bill was intended to address the human rights violations of Uighur Muslims that have remained under the radar of the international community’s attention over the course of the years. It accuses the Chinese government of discriminating against the Uighurs by denying them the freedom of expression, religion, movement, fair trial, and other civil rights. These salient issues arise from arbitrary arrests and growing evidence of deaths in custody and forced labor in the detention camps where they are subjugated in.

A major component of this bill revolves around China’s use of technology, allegedly carried out against Muslims in Xinjiang. Contested policies detailed in this bill include: pervasive, high-tech surveillance, the collection of DNA samples from children, and the use of QR codes outside homes to gather information on how frequently individuals pray. These uses of technology were heavily criticized by Western media, which suspect the Chinese government of furthering their discrimination towards Uighurs. China’s response towards this bill has been largely negative — the foreign ministry issued an official statement that the measures taken in Xinjiang reflect China’s efforts in de-radicalization and counterterrorism. What western media has reported about, according to China, is a biased perspective of the human rights conditions in Xinjiang.

China’s rapid advance in technology has been associated with what Western liberal ideology deems as illegitimate breaches of privacy. Along with the development of facial and voice recognition software and “predictive policing” databases, the Chinese government is now equipped with technology that could be used to distinguish ethnic groups by assessing differences in facial features. The extent to which these systems can accurately identify different Chinese ethnic groups is unclear, but Chinese technology companies are on the move to perfect their technologies through opening up new markets in developing countries.

Using the data obtained in these developing countries, Chinese companies seek to perfect their current facial recognition technology. It is unclear to what end China will use its rapidly developing technology, but one thing is clear: any move from the Chinese government will have a global effect. For instance, Chinese tech companies are now heavily influencing surveillance standards at the UN. Companies such as ZTE, Dahua and China Telecom are among those proposing new international standards — becoming key players in the aim to create universally consistent technology in the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The government’s move to incorporate this technology into its legal code can be interpreted as an effort to reduce fraud and boost cybersecurity. On the other hand, it also looks like part of a drive to make sure every member of the population can be surveilled. Despite the notion that issues of privacy and surveillance are already on the horizon, what the international community is concerned with is the role technology will play in the suppression of Uighur Muslims, who have been denied a wide range of civil and political rights, including the freedoms of expression, religion, movement, and a fair trial.

Since the practice of requiring citizens using mobile phones to scan their faces is relatively new, there is no evidence confirming whether or not these technologies are directly linked to the oppression of Uighurs; we only know that sophisticated surveillance technologies are being implemented across regions where there is a high concentration of Uighurs. Additionally, the Xinjiang Papers have exposed President Xi’s crackdown after Uighur militants attacked 150 people at a train station. The data leaked also detail China’s systematic brainwashing of Uighur Muslims in a wide range of high-security prison camps, featuring the mass internment of over 1,000,000 Uighurs. The documents detailing the treatment of its prisoners was dismissed as fake news by China’s UK ambassador, and the Chinese government has consistently claimed that these detention camps are job-training centers offering voluntary re-education to counter extremism. However, investigations done by major media companies including BBC Panorama and The Guardian newspaper in the UK, have produced evidence to undermine the claim that these camps are merely made for the purposes of job-training.

Therefore, it seems like technology has come as a double-edged sword in China’s economic and political development. It has helped the country enter into the international tech arena, expanding its influence to the global sphere. However, it has also led to data leakage that was meant to be kept out of international attention, revealing its long-lasting discrimination towards Uighur Muslims. China’s advancement as a global superpower is partly dependent on their power over the rest of the world, motivated by their technological progress. However, one can say that the pushback is caused by the same technology, as the world looks closely towards China’s methods of surveillance and treatment of the ‘other’.

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