By Jacky Habib  

“If I disappear, don’t tell anyone or say anything. There are people listening everywhere. Everyone has someone following them,” Gulgine, a Uighur Muslim woman, told her sister.

Gulgine has since vanished and is now believed to be among the estimated one million people — mostly Uighurs — in detention in China’s Xinjiang province. It is believed to be the largest incarceration of an ethnic minority group since the Second World War according to Inside China’s Digital Gulag, a new documentary about state surveillance presented by The Passionate Eye.

Xinjiang’s ‘re-education’ camps

The world’s largest population of Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims originating from Central Asia, live in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China. Although people in Xinjiang accounted for just over one per cent of China’s total population in 2017, they accounted for 21 per cent of criminal arrests in the country according to advocacy organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Human rights groups and activists allege that the Chinese government is detaining Uighurs and other Muslims in “re-education” camps, which involve indoctrination into Communist Party ideology and attempts to strip detainees of their culture, language and religion. Forced labour has also been reported in the centres, and former detainees have spoken out about torture and sexual assault.

Government officials say that Uighurs are not being detained arbitrarily. They characterize the facilities as vocational training centres for convicted criminals that also help quell religious extremism. Beijing has long suspected Uighur dissidents of spearheading an Islamic separatist movement. As such, the documentary notes, even undetained Uighurs live under near-constant surveillance in Xinjiang.

A surveillance state

Inside China’s Digital Gulag details how the Chinese government is employing both human surveillance — through the use of spies — and advanced technological surveillance in its aim to create the most complete surveillance state in history.

Xinjiang’s Integrated Joint Operations Platform gathers data on residents using iris scanners, CCTV cameras with face and voice recognition, and DNA sampling. It links this data with residents’ online activity, banking information, phone calls and text messages to identify behaviour the government regards as threatening.

See how the technology is used.

Lynette Ong, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, says even seemingly ordinary behaviour can arouse suspicion. “If you are a Uighur and you download [WhatsApp], it will get you into trouble. If you communicate on Skype with your relatives in the United States or in Canada, that can potentially get you into trouble, too. If you go to the post office and you try to send something to them, and the CCTV picks you up, that can get you in trouble, too.”

The lack of clarity from the government on what behaviours are not permitted also works to self-censor citizens. “We don’t know what the benchmark [for suspicious activity] is,” Ong says. “It’s a huge disadvantage to the ethnic minorities and gives the government power to do whatever they want to do.” 

Limiting freedom of speech

An apparent crackdown on dissent since Chinese President Xi Jinping came into power “suggests that there’s an intention to suppress protest activity and limit freedom of speech across mainland China through these technologies,” says Robin Barnwell, director of Inside China’s Digital Gulag.

Barnwell says China plans to establish a Xinjiang-style surveillance system across the country.  “We know that Beijing has ambitious plans to develop a vast national surveillance system in mainland China, based on facial recognition, to track and identify its 1.4 billion citizens through a vast network of CCTV cameras.” As of 2017, the BBC reported that there were 170 million cameras already in place and plans to install 400 million more cameras over the next three years.

Ong says residents are being monitored outside Xinjiang, although not with the same intensity. “There are what may look like street poles in Hong Kong, but they are surveillance polls, which are 360-degree cameras which can recognize people,” she notes.

The Hong Kong government says the “smart lampposts” installed earlier this year are meant to monitor things like air quality and traffic and are not equipped with a facial recognition function. But pro-democracy demonstrators are suspicious of the technology. “We have seen how protesters are trying to destroy them,” says Ong.

Exporting technology around the world

Barnwell believes the extent of Xinjiang’s surveillance has implications for the rest of the world. Chinese companies are engaged in an “aggressive export program worldwide,” he says, in an effort to dominate the AI industry, which was valued at more than $20 billion US in 2018 and is rapidly growing.

Chinese tech companies have already provided artificial intelligence–based mass surveillance systems to at least 18 countries, some which have poor human rights records.

Watch how this technology could be used to limit freedom.

Hikvision, a partially state-owned company and the world’s largest supplier of video surveillance equipment, had an annual revenue of over $7 billion US in 2018, and invests a minimum of seven per cent of annual sales into research and development. While based in Hangzhou, China, it has a research and development center in Montreal.

Ong says this isn’t an immediate cause for concern. “Surveillance is also used for the good of the people at banks, government institutions and public spots where you want to know what people are doing. A lot of that isn’t for insidious purposes,” she states.

Still, Barnwell maintains that through exporting this technology, China is ultimately exporting its model of controlling people through surveillance. “Other repressive regimes around the world will use [President Xi Jinping’s] governance model, which would threaten freedom all around the world.”

Watch Inside China's Digital Gulag.