Recent months have seen the world’s gaze fixed on ongoing protests against mainland China in Hong Kong. However, in the past few weeks, leaked documents have turned a certain amount of attention elsewhere, to the Xinjiang province in the West of the country. Limited reports have trickled out of the region since 2014, usually to be immediately denied by government officials. Such reports describe detention and concentration camps holding an estimated one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims throughout the province.
Recently, 400 pages of internal government documents were leaked to the New York Times, and last week saw the release of the China Cables, a cache of classified government papers obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). This Is Not Dystopian Fiction. This Is China reads the New York Times’ headline while the Guardian followed shortly with ‘Allow no escapes’: leak exposes reality of China’s vast prison camp network. The Embassy of China in London immediately responded to the Guardian’s reports: “First, there are no so-called ‘detention camps’ in Xinjiang. Vocational education and training centres have been established for the prevention of terrorism.”
The past few years have seen extreme crackdowns on terrorism and extremism—this often serves as an excuse for ethnic persecution and religious suppression. The Guardian reporters note: “Chinese authorities have split up families, targeted the Uighur language and culture for suppression, razed cultural and historic sites and criticised even mild expression of Muslim identity, micromanaging everything from beard length to babies’ names.”
The wider pattern of disinformation and doublethink is terrifying. The documents obtained and released in translation included answers for questions that authorities were expecting from students returning home from university, only to find their parents gone. Student protests have a long and complicated history in China. “The authorities in the Xinjiang region worried the situation was a powder keg. And so they prepared,” stated one of the many pages leaked.
One of the documents is titled Tactics from Turpan City for answering questions asked by the children of concentrated education and training school students. In it, “concentrated education and training school” is the euphemistic term used to describe the extensive network of indoctrination camps across the region.
“Where are my family members?” returning students are expected to ask. The scripted reply with “They’re in a training school set up by the government to undergo collective systematic training, study and instruction. They have very good conditions for studying and living there, and you have nothing to worry about.”
It’s worth reading through the translated documents in full, but a short extract illustrates the terrifying reality. The word ‘Orwellian’ is generally overused, particularly in recent years, but here it could not be more apt. “Did they commit a crime?” a student might ask. “Will they be convicted?”
The directed response has to be: “They haven’t committed a crime and won’t be convicted. It is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts, and if they don’t quickly receive education and correction, they’ll become a major active threat to society and to your family. It’s very hard to totally eradicate viruses in thinking in just a short time.”
In order to comfort students, camps promise the possibility of arranging video meetings, yet the Chinese Embassy has simultaneously stated that “trainees could go home regularly.” Authorities have promised that the camps offer useful vocational training, yet detainees include scholars, civil servants and entertainers.
This is not what one would expect from an anti-terror campaign; rather, it is what happens when an authoritarian government cracks down on a disenfranchised minority. These documents expose, as the Times put it, “the paranoia of totalitarian leaders who demand total fealty in thought and deed and recognise no method of control other than coercion and fear.”
‘Round up everyone who should be rounded up’ (‘ying shou jin shou’ in Chinese) is a phrase that has seen a resurgence since the appointment of Chen Quanguo to Xinjiang, a new party boss who has been accused of overzealousness in the past. This phrase was previously used to encourage officials to be focussed and careful when collecting taxes or harvests. Now, it is being used to describe the mass detention of citizens. “Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health.” This isn’t from ‘1984′—this is China under Xi Jinping.
China has just undergone its annual Spring Festival, also known around the world for being the biggest human migration on the planet with nearly 3 billion passenger trips made into the country between the end of January and the beginning of March. For the special occasion, the Chinese government provided police officers in megacities such as Zhengzhou, with a brand new AI technology device that is meant to facilitate the recognition of wanted criminals in no longer than 100 milliseconds.
As the travel rush for the Lunar New Year fills the nation’s train stations, officers have been wearing facial recognition sunglasses, the GLXSS ME, which is an AI appliance that enables the police to track suspect citizens even in the most crowded of locations. According to a report published on the Wall Street Journal, during the testing period of this technology, the Chinese police were able to capture seven suspects, and 26 individuals who were travelling with false identities.
Produced by the Beijing-based company LLVision Technology Co, which employs former masterminds from Google, Microsoft, Intel, and China Aeronautics, these glasses signal the next step in government surveillance. “GLXSS Force has been put into combat service. Many successful results are reported, such as seized suspects and criminal vehicles.” Reads the LLVision website. The mobile surveillance device, which is what the company calls these special specs, has certainly been proven successful in tracking suspects, but what about the unauthorised profiling of other citizens?
The specs are the most recent software introduced into China’s increasing AI-based social surveillance agenda, which is becoming particularly committed to facial recognition technologies that target citizens. In recent years, China has been investing millions into the development of tracking technologies, with the most obvious and striking example being its Social Credit System, a points system that gives individuals a score out of 800-900 for behaving as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ citizens. By using over 200 million CCTV cameras and rigid biometric surveillance, people’s moves and actions have been under the constant radar of AI devices, whose presence is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and government-owned.
The technology behind GLXSS ME is not particularly different from that of CCTV cameras, but it is refined: CCTV cannot reach and follow suspects everywhere, the images are blurry, and often by the time the targets are identified they might have already moved out of the field of vision of the camera. But, “By making wearable glasses, with AI on the front end, you get instant and accurate feedback. You can decide right away what the next interaction is going to be.”, Wu Fei, the company’s chief executive, told the WSJ in an interview.
The smart sunglasses embody the intensification of state surveillance powered by the Chinese government in collaboration with facial-recognition companies such as LLVision, and how easily the technology can fall into the wrong hands. Make no mistake here. The increasing ‘safety’ of civilians comes at the very high cost of everyone’s privacy; the harder it is to get away with criminal activity is directly related to the day-to-day surveillance on the ground when it comes to China’s approach.
China’s serious tilt towards using facial recognition technology for security and surveillance purposes comes as no surprise, but this new product certainly adds a darker twist to the state of policing already active in the country. And although China is steps ahead in the AI race compared to Europe or even the U.S., every time a device designed to police citizens gets used by a government, everyone’s privacy rights become more vulnerable. And that is definitely the case with GLXSS ME.