China and its creepy facial recognition technology targets Uighur Muslims

The title of the article seemed to be a joke: “A Summer Vacation in China’s Muslim Gulag.”

Appearing in ForeignPolicy.com, the piece was about a Uighur student, called Iman, who was studying in the United States. He knew his homeland was a dangerous place to visit, but he had a mother he’d not seen in years.

So, he had no sooner stepped off the plane in eastern China than he was thrown into jail for nine days, then -– still shackled -– put on a 50-hour train ride to Xinjiang, his homeland in western China. He got to the city of Turpan.

The stress intensified as he was taken to the detention center, or kanshousuo. “I was terrified as we approached.” (As we talked, for the first time Iman directed his gaze at the ground, avoiding eye contact.) “The compound was surrounded by towering walls. Military guards patrolled the metal gate. Inside, there was little light. It was so dark,” he continued.
He was immediately processed. An officer took his photograph, measured his height and weight, and told him to strip down to his underwear. They also shaved his head. Less than two weeks before, Iman was an aspiring graduate at one of the top research universities in the United States. Now, he was a prisoner in an extrajudicial detention center.
Still in his underwear, Iman was assigned to a room with 19 other Uighur men. Upon entering the quarters, lit by a single light bulb, a guard issued Iman a bright yellow vest. An inmate then offered the young man a pair of shorts. Iman began scanning the cell. The tiled room was equipped with one toilet, a faucet, and one large kang-style platform bed -- supa in Uighur -- where all of the inmates slept. He was provided with simple eating utensils: a thin metal bowl and a spoon.

He endured 17 days of imprisonment for crimes he did not commit and then, unexpectedly, was released and allowed to go home and eventually to return to the United States to finish his studies. Not surprisingly, he’s not planning to return to China any time soon, plus his mother herself is imprisoned in the same kind of “re-education center.”

China’s barbaric treatment of its Muslim minority (represented by the blue flag with a crescent and star with this piece) doesn’t get any protests from the worldwide Muslim community, unlike the anger that’s released toward Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Foreign Policy makes that point in a piece published last week. A sample:

Internment camps with up to a million prisoners. Empty neighborhoods. Students, musicians, athletes, and peaceful academics jailed. A massive high-tech surveillance state that monitors and judges every movement. The future of more than 10 million Uighurs, the members of China’s Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, is looking increasingly grim.
As the Chinese authorities continue a brutal crackdown in Xinjiang, the northwest region of China that’s home to the Uighur, Islam has been one of the main targets. Major mosques in the major cities of Kashgar and Urumqi now stand empty. Prisoners in the camps are told to renounce God and embrace the Chinese Communist Party. Prayers, religious education, and the Ramadan fast are increasingly restricted or banned. Even in the rest of China, Arabic text is being stripped from public buildings, and Islamophobia is being tacitly encouraged by party authorities.
But amid this state-backed campaign against their religious brethren, Muslim leaders and communities around the world stand silent. While the fate of the Palestinians stirs rage and resistance throughout the Islamic world, and millions stood up to condemn the persecution of the Rohingya, there’s been hardly a sound on behalf of the Uighur. No Muslim nation’s head of state has made a public statement in support of the Uighurs this decade.  Politicians and many religious leaders who claim to speak for the faith are silent in the face of China’s political and economic power.

In fact, some Muslim governments, such as Egypt, Malaysia and Pakistan, have deported Uighurs back to China even though they face certain imprisonment and possibly death. Why do that?

Part of the answer is that money talks. China has become a key trade partner of every Muslim-majority nation. Many are members of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bankor are participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In South Asia, this means infrastructure investment. In Southeast Asia, China is a key market for commodities such as palm oil and coal. The Middle East benefits due to China’s position as the world’s top importer of oil and its rapidly increasing use of natural gas.

Thus, some Muslims are more equal than others.

But there are subtler reasons the Uighur are ignored. They are on the edge of the Muslim world, in contrast to the Palestinian cause, which is directly connected to the fate of one of Islam’s holiest cities, Jerusalem. China has little place in the cultural imagination of Islam, in contrast with Muslims’ fraught relationship with the idea of a Jewish state. 

Plus, Palestinians have access to the international media. Uighurs do not and Chinese officials let overseas Uighurs know that anything they try to pull in terms of protests will have immediate repercussions back home.

China’s status as the world’s greatest threat to human rights -– and I don’t say that lightly -– is also because of its dystopian security apparatus that first got tried out on the Uighurs and is now being exported. It’s known as facial recognition and it’s beyond Big Brother. More on this from a piece Foreign Policy did in June:

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.

Why does China do this?

To be blunt: The Uighurs sit on a mineral and oil-rich region that China doesn’t want to lose. It learned a lesson when Kazakhstan split from Russia in 1991, robbing the latter of generous mineral deposits in Kazakhstan’s northern tier. I spent six weeks in northern Kazakhstan in 2007 and saw how water from faucets was orange from all the iron deposits in the ground.

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 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.

China’s Muslims are akin to Germany’s Jews in the 1930s; a group of hapless people of a different religion that the government gets to experiment on. They’re already shoving roughly 800,000 Muslims into internment camps and other Muslims worldwide aren’t really noticing.

As for the children left homeless when both parents are jailed, those kids are being shipped off to eastern China, according to Radio Free Asia. Whether they’ll ever find their parents again is anyone's guess.

Fortunately, a few other media are noticing, including the video with this article by the Wall Street Journal and Buzzfeed, which did this lengthy piece last year on how China makes life hell for its Muslims. It begins with:

KASHGAR, China — This is a city where growing a beard can get you reported to the police. So can inviting too many people to your wedding, or naming your child Muhammad or Medina.
Driving or taking a bus to a neighboring town, you’d hit checkpoints where armed police officers might search your phone for banned apps like Facebook or Twitter, and scroll through your text messages to see if you had used any religious language.
You would be particularly worried about making phone calls to friends and family abroad. Hours later, you might find police officers knocking at your door and asking questions that make you suspect they were listening in the whole time.
For millions of people in China’s remote far west, this dystopian future is already here. 

Earlier this year, a bunch of publications ran articles on China’s facial recognition software and how Uighurs have been the testing ground for the new 1984. The Independent ran a piece saing how Uighurs who travel more than 300 meters from their homes are instantly tracked by police.

The Washington Post documented how China, starting with Xinjiang, is becoming one huge surveillance network. And who’s behind it all?

In this effort, the Chinese government is working hand-in-glove with the country’s tech industry, from established giants to plucky start-ups staffed by graduates from top American universities and former employees of companies like Google and Microsoft, who seem cheerfully oblivious to concerns they might be empowering a modern surveillance state…
The United States, with around 62 million surveillance cameras in 2016, actually has higher per capita penetration rate than China, with around 172 million, according to Monica Wang, a senior analyst in video surveillance and security at research consultants IHS Markit in Shanghai.
Yet it is China’s ambition that sets it apart. Western law enforcement agencies tend to use facial recognition to identify criminal suspects, not to track social activists and dissidents, or to monitor entire ethnic groups. 

Actually, the New York Times says here that China has 200 million surveillance cameras, outstripping the United States. It hopes to have 300 million by 2020. 

Well, you heard it here first during a time when the victims are a silenced religious minority. The late evangelical Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer said years ago in his 1984 book “The Great Evangelical Disaster” that when a society slides into chaos, the people will welcome an authoritarian state as the best alternative. China shows us that future.

China's excuse is that its facial recognition software is the best alternative to crime (or chaos). Zimbabwe is the latest country to import this technology. Thailand and Malaysia are next in line, according to the South China Morning Post.

I realize that most reporters cannot afford to get to western China to report on this, nor do they have the resources to hire translators, photographers and a fixer to get through police controls. But we can interview Uighar activists in this country and ask Muslim leaders why no one in their network seems all that upset about what's happening with their brethren in China. 

The more silent we are, the worse it's going to get.

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