A future that exceeds the most daring fantasies of George Orwell
October 1, 2018 6:17 AM   Subscribe

The cameras register not only a car’s license plate number but also the face of its driver. At night, lights are projected over the camera lenses, blinding drivers more than oncoming headlights ever could. As we drove past another checkpoint, I tried to shield my eyes with my hand in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the road. The gesture did not go unnoticed: all four cameras immediately flashed a series of strobe lights.
Meduza publishes a report by a Russian-speaking journalist and traveler who managed to enter Xinjiang during the summer and observe how the new technologies in use there facilitate total surveillance, segregation, and discrimination.

"The city is split into square regions, and in order to cross from one quarter into another, every Uyghur must display a plastic ID, hand over any bags or purses to be searched, undergo a pupil scan, and, in some cases, surrender a mobile phone for inspection. "

“All textbooks published before 2009 were confiscated more than a year ago … They just went from house to house and took everything that we hadn’t managed to burn ourselves … And then, about a year ago, when they took the books and people we knew started disappearing, it became clear that a lot of this had to do with our points.”

"The artificial intelligence system that analyzes personal data about people divides society into “safe,” “average,” and “dangerous” citizens. Age, religion, previous convictions, and contact with foreigners are all taken into account. It is very likely that samples of DNA might affect residents’ scores in the near future, as well, if they are not part of the system already."

Uyghurs in Xinjiang, previously: 1, 2, 3
posted by Kabanos (29 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite

The stuff of nightmares. The surveillance aspect is awful, but so is the transformation of Kashgar described in the second part of the article. Earlier this century the Chinese government was talking with UNESCO about World Heritage status for sites along the Silk Road. I wonder how many they destroyed when obliterating Kashgar's Old Town.
posted by rory at 7:10 AM on October 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

It would be interesting to know how Cisco, Siemens, IBM and other Western companies helped provide the building blocks over the years to help create this tech.
posted by JamesBay at 8:12 AM on October 1, 2018 [15 favorites]

I wonder how much of the decision to kidnap, disappear, or murder someone is actually based on the "system", and how much is based on someone putting their thumb on the scale, with the "AI" just providing a veneer of science (and a convenient don't-blame-us justification) to the whole process? That's pretty much straight out of the authoritarian playbook: Stalin's extermination machine had paper dossiers and Hitler's had punchcards, but at the end of the day they were frequently just abstractions covering up the often-banal reasons why people lived or died.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:14 AM on October 1, 2018 [16 favorites]

As a Hong Konger, this story is terrifying. It is only a matter of time.
posted by mdonley at 8:17 AM on October 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

" The guards had to contact their commanders by walkie-talkie and ultimately determined that the word “freedom” could not be grounds for confiscation."
posted by Damienmce at 9:19 AM on October 1, 2018

Everything about the story is horrific and ominous. Maybe 10% of the Uighur population is in "reeducation" camps? Maybe 30%? Here's a site of mass slaughter. Here are police officers coming into people's houses to collect DNA samples. Here are passes needed to travel from one ghetto to another. Here are yellow letters on clothing to identify authorized Uighur businesspeople. Here is a mass of people hoping that if they just keep their heads down and their mouths shut nothing will happen to them, even though it is happening to friends and neighbours and even celebrities and intellectuals.
posted by clawsoon at 9:34 AM on October 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

“All textbooks published before 2009 were confiscated more than a year ago,” Ekhmet clarified. “They just went from house to house and took everything that we hadn’t managed to burn ourselves.”

"Even when they buy everyday kitchen knives, Uyghurs are now obligated to brand the blade with a laser-carved QR code that identifies the knife’s owner. In Aksu, knives in restaurant kitchens are attached to the walls with chains."
posted by Damienmce at 9:39 AM on October 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oi oi oi. My company has bought / merged with a series of kindergartens in Urumqi, and I will be there some time soon. Gulp. As I am in China not really much to say except, excellent that all minorities live in peace and harmony.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:48 AM on October 1, 2018 [10 favorites]

This is one of the best articles I've read on this. Thanks for posting..
posted by k8t at 10:05 AM on October 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

That sign telling you how fast you’re driving may be spying on you.
posted by clavdivs at 10:56 AM on October 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

The license-plate reader thing is probably a ship that's sailed. You could prevent the DEA from setting the things up, I suppose, if there was enough interest in Congress (which I doubt there is—and on the list of law enforcement injustices I'm not sure it'd crack the top 5), but it'd be a tough argument to stop private companies or individuals. And within a few years the technology to do ANPR will be in every phone with a quick app download. For a few bucks a month (or less, properly gamified) you could probably get enough people to put an old phone on the dashboard of their car, running an app, to have a nationwide, real-time network. Those DEA speed-trap cameras will be obsolete.

I suppose the real endgame is to get rid of license plates altogether, and just have the police check VINs from the dashboard barcode when they pull someone over. But I'm not really holding my breath for that, and I doubt the popular interest is so far in favor of privacy along the privacy/security tradeoff axis that it would be popular.

Bluntly: preventing the data collection is no longer a viable path. The data is going to get collected, by someone, because it's possible and it has value. I'd rather have the government do it, and in doing so prevent the commercial market from existing by providing controlled access to it, than let it be up to someone like Equifax, with zero accountability. More importantly, I'd rather fight the battle over how that data is secured and stored (homomorphic encryption, for instance, can protect legitimate uses of aggregate data while making misuse more difficult; distributing the data can make 'fishing expeditions' more difficult, this is basically what's done with firearms records). And of course, what's being done with the data is the thing that's really worth going to the mat over.

What's horrifying in China shouldn't be that they're building a giant CCTV network, and some amount of AI (which may or may not be smoke and mirrors over a hollow core of shell scripts or something). That's creepy, sure, but what's horrifying is that they're rounding people up en masse and putting them into concentration camps. The internal passports, the ghettoization, the book burning. That's the scary shit.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:38 AM on October 1, 2018 [10 favorites]

Is this our algorithmic future - an exciting preview of the Fall/Winter 2029 Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever?
posted by Svejk at 1:23 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

That was truly terrifying and makes the possibility of the upcoming "Chinese Century" a dark and chilling future. Networking technology, far from making such a totalitarian vision impossible, has only ensured it will be inescapable.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 1:48 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

In the approximate words of Nietzsche - And if you stare for too long into the abyss, the abyss stares at you.
posted by numberstation at 1:53 PM on October 1, 2018

What's very clear from the article is how much this isn't just about the automation, it's about the police state on the ground in conjunction with that, and being given the resources to enforce and inspect and enact the wishes of the Chinese government.

For a long time, I'd been thinking that China was probably actually a reasonable place to live, but here it's clear that it is still the police state we'd always feared.

I find it disconcerting to worry about whether if the Uyghurs weren't Muslim, there would be more outcry amongst the international community, but maybe that's an unreasonable level of abstraction to be looking at this forced cultural assimilation from. Maybe the word is genocide, but I don't want to use that too freely.

I have to say that in this context, I'm pretty indifferent to conversations about car number plates.
posted by ambrosen at 4:13 PM on October 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

This was deeply, deeply disturbing.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 5:20 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

To quote Jon Stewart from many years ago, "Uyghur, please."

Of course, it's not funny in this context. New technology in the hands of authoritarian governments are the most frightening thing possible.

An acquaintance of mine hosted a Chinese student and my wife and I had the opportunity to dine with them both (he wants to become a biostatistician and sought my advice). We veered over into politics, and I was astounded to find that he believed unelected leaders like they have in China are the best form of government, because, "They know what they're doing. Otherwise you might get just anyone, who may be totally incompetent." I thought about disagreeing and saying that democracy ensures a thorough vetting, but then remembered Trump just in time.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:43 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

What a fucking nightmare.
posted by homunculus at 5:45 PM on October 1, 2018

> license-plate reader thing... it'd be a tough argument to stop private companies or individuals.

California does regulate private ALPR operators for privacy & security. Thanks Senator Hill!

But, yeah, it's the persistent policing that freaked me out more than the authoritarianism-enhancing tech. Cops (and language instructors!?) on every corner and a populace scared into ratting out their friends & neighbors before they're turned in themselves? A paperless GDR brought to you by Cisco and Xiaomi? I need to finish watching the 3 hour Cory Doctorow BookTV interview my (poet) dad assigned me.
posted by ASCII Costanza head at 6:07 PM on October 1, 2018

Yeesh. A combination of ruthless authoritarianism, racism, and technology to both assist and provide cover for the bigoted authoritarians. That's horrifying.
posted by sotonohito at 6:21 PM on October 1, 2018

We veered over into politics, and I was astounded to find that he believed unelected leaders like they have in China are the best form of government, because, "They know what they're doing. Otherwise you might get just anyone, who may be totally incompetent."

I was watching Michael Palin in North Korea last night, and though for the most part it didn't have anything new to me in it, I found quite interesting a discussion he had with an English-speaking woman who was one of he and his film crew's assigned “guides” while he was there.

It seemed like she was saying that North Korean people regard the Kim dynasty similar to a facet of their own personality or their own identity. Hence, to criticize the leader is like criticizing oneself.

I wonder if there's conflation between “to criticize” and “to insult” here, because in English-language sources state communist ideologies are described as having a formal component of self-criticism in public or before authorities. But in any case what she said kind of made sense to me as far as how someone would integrate into their own thinking (undoubtedly with substantial help from the authoritarian state to accomplish that integration) why it would make sense and be somehow good for such strict top-down control over society to exist.

I'm sure that being a member of the dominant ethnicity in a country, which the leaders are also members of, helps with swallowing such a rationalization.
posted by XMLicious at 6:23 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sounds similar to the systems of control set up for Iraqis in Fallujah.
posted by jaduncan at 3:35 AM on October 3, 2018

The “Identity Dominance System”; article from 2015, no more recent update on its successor, at ArsTechnica at least.
posted by XMLicious at 10:01 AM on October 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

China 'legalises' internment camps for million Uighurs
Laws revised in Xinjiang region to permit ‘education centres’ for ‘people influenced by extremism’
Amid sustained international criticism, Chinese authorities have revised legislation to allow the regional government to officially permit the use of “education and training centres” to incarcerate “people influenced by extremism”.

Chinese authorities deny that the internment camps exist but say petty criminals are sent to vocational “training centres”. Former detainees say they were forced to denounce Islam and profess loyalty to the Communist party in what they describe as political indoctrination camps.

“It’s a retrospective justification for the mass detainment of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang,” said James Leibold, a scholar of Chinese ethnic policies at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. “It’s a new form of re-education that’s unprecedented and doesn’t really have a legal basis, and I see them scrambling to try to create a legal basis for this policy.”

The revisions, published on Tuesday, say government agencies at the county level and above “may establish occupational skills education and training centres, education transformation organisations and management departments to transform people influenced by extremism through education”.

A new clause directs the centres to teach the Mandarin language and provide occupational and legal education, as well as “ideological education, psychological rehabilitation and behaviour correction”. Another new clause bars “refusing public goods like radio and television.” Chinese state media often feature programs hailing development in Xinjiang and promoting the government’s vision of stability in the territory.

The revised rules include a ban on behaviour “undermining the implementation” of China’s family planning policies which restrict family size. Last year, authorities ended an exception that had allowed Uighur and other ethnic minorities to have more children than their Han Chinese counterparts.
'Sinicisation' of Muslims in Xinjiang must go on, says Chinese official
Official warns of ‘infiltration of religious extremism’ amid crackdown on region’s large Muslim population

posted by XMLicious at 1:54 AM on October 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

China's hidden camps
What's happened to the vanished Uighurs of Xinjiang?

A company which analyzes satellite photos either took a look at records for Xinjiang themselves, or were contracted by the BBC... it's not totally clear. Then BBC journalists flew into the provincial capital Urumqi and tried to approach the camps by car.
It was impossible to speak openly to anyone - minders lurked menacingly close by and would aggressively debrief anyone who even exchanged a greeting with us.

Instead, we telephoned random numbers in the town.

What was this large complex with its 16 watchtowers that the authorities were so desperate to stop us filming?

“It's a re-education school,” one hotelier told us.

“Yes, that's a re-education school,” another shopkeeper agreed.

“There are tens of thousands of people there now. They have some problems with their thoughts.”


For Uighurs outside Xinjiang news has almost completely dried up.

Fear breeds silence.

Reports of people being deleted from family chat groups, or told never to call again, are now commonplace.


GMV calculates that, from this set of 44 sites alone, the surface area of secure facilities in Xinjiang has expanded by some 440 hectares since 2003.

This measurement refers to the whole site within the external security walls, not just the buildings.

But 440 hectares represents a lot of additional space.

For context, a 14-hectare site within the city of Los Angeles – containing the Twin Towers Correctional Facility and the Men's Central Jail - holds a combined total of almost 7,000 prisoners.


In the centre of town we stop outside a large group of buildings that used to be Yining Number 3 Middle School.

A high, solid blue steel fence now surrounds the site and there's heavy security on the front gate.

There's a new watchtower by the playground and another one by what used to be the football pitch.

The pitch is now completely covered by six long steel-roofed buildings.


[Kashgar's] main mosque is more like a museum.

We try to find out when the next prayer time is but no-one seems to be able to tell us.

“I'm just here to deal with tourists,” one official tells us. “I don't know anything about prayer times.”
posted by XMLicious at 3:13 PM on October 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

UK confirms reports of Chinese mass internment camps for Uighur Muslims
Criticism is mounting over reports of mass camps in the western territory of Xinjiang
British diplomats who visited Xinjiang have confirmed that reports of mass internment camps for Uighur Muslims were “broadly true”, the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has told parliament.

Beijing faces mounting international criticism over its policies in Xinjiang, a far-western territory of China where researchers believe an estimated 1 million members of Muslim minorities have been detained in a network of camps.

Hunt told parliament on Tuesday that diplomats had visited Xinjiang in August and “concur that those reports are broadly accurate”.

His comment puts pressure on Beijing before a UN human rights panel that will on 6 November review China’s human rights record. The UK, the US, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Norway, Germany and Belgium have asked about Xinjiang in questions submitted for China ahead of the process known as the universal periodic review (UPR).
posted by XMLicious at 12:36 PM on October 31, 2018

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