Mel Gurtov: China’s surveillance state and its meaning for us

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In a recent commentary, I discussed the visit to China of the UN’s chief human rights official on what proved to be a seriously misguided and rather naïve attempt to improve the conditions of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. An important element in that mass internment of innocent civilians is China’s ubiquitous surveillance system, which has facilitated the roundup of Chinese Muslims.

That system is not confined to the Uyghurs. It is a many-layered nationwide network designed to collect personal data for police and security units on every Chinese citizen whose behavior or personal characteristics might be troublesome to the authorities. In a word, no one is above suspicion.

Now, a New York Times investigative group has acquired over a “hundred thousand [Chinese] government bidding documents. They call for companies to bid on the contracts to provide surveillance technology, and include product requirements and budget size, and sometimes describe at length the strategic thinking behind the purchases.”

The documents make perfectly clear why China is often called the “surveillance state”: Its facial recognition technology, DNA analysis, and other tools that intrude into people’s identity go far beyond anything other countries use – or George Orwell imagined.

We already knew some dimensions of the Chinese surveillance system before the Times report. For instance, various sources told of Chinese hackers embedding malware in smartphones to track Uyghurs’ movements and conversations, even when they left China.

China’s ministry of public security announced plans to obtain the DNA via blood samples of tens of millions of male adults and children, with Xinjiang and Tibet the starting point for creating a data base to cover virtually the entire population.

Cameras with facial recognition capability are literally everywhere. Western publications on genetics abetted Chinese efforts to identify Uyghurs (as well as Tibetans) by carrying many articles that “had a co-author from the Chinese police, the military, the judiciary or some such government institution,” according to a Belgian geneticist.

The Times report based on contract bidding adds a good deal to this picture. Facial recognition cameras are now installed in private as well as public places. They are capable of collecting voice and iris prints, and race and gender information for inclusion in an ever-expanding data base. Phone tracking not only gives a person’s location but also usernames and certain activities, such as social connections and personal habits.

What do the Chinese authorities have to say about criticisms of the surveillance state?

On one hand, they defend it by insisting it’s necessary to protect against terrorism and crime. There are no abuses of human rights in Xinjiang, only “reeducation” to bring its ethnic majority into the modern age.

On the other hand, the authorities say the criticisms are based on “misinformation and disinformation,” leading to sanctions on Xinjiang products that seek to “contain China’s growth,” disrupt “the international trade order and destabilize global industrial and supply chains.”

As the UN’s recent mission found out, it is impossible to conduct an impartial on-the-spot investigation of either China’s defense or the inhumane punishments it is carrying out.

One action the international community can take is to name and shame the perpetrators of genocide in Xinjiang and Beijing.

Governments can also intercede with technological firms that enable the Chinese to collect and upgrade their surveillance.

Banning the import of products of forced labor, as the US has now done with all Xinjiang-based exports, is another step.

To date, these steps have had limited success, demonstrating anew the difficulties in defending human rights when the means of repression are a matter of global commerce.

It can happen here

Think that the Chinese surveillance state is of no consequence for us?  Intrusive technologies imbedded in social media are already part of our daily lives, monitoring our movement, personal tastes, social views, and even future plans.

Closed-circuit cameras track ordinary citizens and criminals alike. Now, consider how the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision might deepen the surveillance state here.  If, for example, women must cross state lines, in violation of local law, to obtain an abortion or pills to induce abortion, will they be subject to official tracking for prosecution? Might every pregnant woman in a red state be forced to install a tracking device on her phone? Might anti-abortion states be able to access apps some women use to track their menstrual cycles, nabbing those women believed to be in the early stages of pregnancy?

Police already access email and text messages in cases where a woman is thought to have ended a pregnancy under questionable circumstances. The door will now be open in some states to bringing criminal charges based on cell phone data for an abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy.

I’m inclined to say that in states where abortion is outlawed—and, even worse, if the Supreme Court makes abortions illegal nationwide—the tools of a police state will be endorsed as necessary for full implementation of the law, just as in China.

The Chinese already use apps in cell phones to monitor and quarantine citizens who show signs of COVID. As Xi Jinping said, “Big data should be used as an engine to power the innovative development of public security work and a new growth point for nurturing combat capabilities.” You can bet that some American politicians believe the same, and have particular targets in mind—for starters, racial minorities, human rights protesters, and investigative journalists.

In China, ordinary people have no recourse if the surveillance system catches them. The days of private lawyers occasionally able to defend people in court are numbered. The police are all-powerful; few safeguards of privacy exist. Xi Jinping has provided a model of high-tech authoritarianism that can exist side by side with consistent economic growth.

We should beware.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.


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