Chinese authorities are waging a “war on terror” against the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in north-western China. One million Uighurs have already disappeared into internment camps, forced to undergo “re-education” programs, where they learn Mandarin and criticize and renounce their faith. Aided by a vast system of advanced facial recognition technology, the Chinese government is expanding its efforts to track and control the Muslim minority population.
Gone are the days in which conventional methods of repression—spies, police, military, guns, drones—define a government’s methods to restrain and lay ruin to a people. While China still uses these tactics, it is also constructing a future in which artificial intelligence (AI) is the primary strategy of surveillance and control. According to The Guardian, China has invested an estimated $7.2bn in techno-security in Xinjiang. Such lucrative monetary incentives have sparked the interest and involvement of Chinese tech start-ups, who in the past five years, have gotten rich off China’s “war on terror.” According to the New York Times, Chinese AI companies behind the software include Yitu, Megvii, SenseTime, and CloudWalk. Each valued at over $1 billion, they have propelled the development of AI-driven predictive technologies that claim to keep Xinjiang and greater China safe from threats from the Uighur population.
Delving into all aspects of Uighurs’ digital lives and physical movements, these highly invasive technologies sift through the large amounts of data generated by the Uighurs, searching for suspect patterns and, according to The Guardian, flag “religious speech or even a lack of fervour in using Mandarin,” while deep-learning systems “search in real time through video feeds capturing millions of faces, building an archive that can supposedly help identify suspicious behaviour in order to predict who will become an “unsafe” actor.”
Computerized surveillance, policing, and intelligence collection have spread throughout China. According to the New York Times, procurement documents show that “two dozen police departments in 16 different provinces and regions across China sought such technology beginning in 2018.” For instance, law enforcement from the central province of Shaanxi sought to acquire an artificially intelligent camera system that “should support facial recognition to identify Uighur/non-Uighur attributes.”
Having gained unfettered access to every aspect of Uighurs’ lives, this technology has supplemented the creation of a surveillance state in Xinjiang. China has instituted a passbook system, restricting Uighurs’ internal travel. China has also demanded that the Uighur people provide DNA and biometric samples, and has deployed security forces to monitor the families of those who had been disappeared or killed by the state. These actions represent China’s appalling efforts to dissolve the rights of the Uighur people. Xi Jinping aims not only to eliminate the Uighurs’ basic right to privacy but their culture. China’s “war on terror” is nothing more than trying to strip away Uighur Muslim identity.
The internet once provided the Uighurs a means to explore Islam and strengthen their Muslim identity in a country that had spent decades repressing access to mosques, Islamic funerary practices, religious knowledge and other Muslim communities. According to The Guardian, social media “reinforced a sense that the first sources of Uighur identity were their faith and language, their claim to a native way of life, and their membership in a Turkic Muslim community stretching from Urumqi to Istanbul.” Officials perceived this newfound sense of identity and community as an existential threat to the secular, Chinese way of life. Thus, to disrupt and destroy Uighur identity and community, officials called for AI-enabled technology to target where Uighur identity first flourished—the digital sphere.
The rollout of this technology has ushered in a new era of automated governmental control and repression. Uttering the words artificial intelligence often inspires fantastical fears of a future in which AI dominates and destroys humanity, but these fears should not detract from the reality that China is currently developing, implementing, and monopolizing control over cutting-edge technology to repress and perhaps ultimately destroy a people. While China has faced growing international criticism for its treatment of Uighur Muslims, scolding words are insufficient. The world cannot evade meaningful action by hiding behind critical statements. China is the first country to implement this technology, and it will not be the least. Must the Uighurs face the destruction of their culture, and must more authoritarian regimes adopt this technology before the international community realizes how dangerous it is and acts accordingly?