In order to understand how China has exploited the coronavirus crisis to ramp up its surveillance state, one needs to consider the most extreme example of the surveillance state the CCP already has in place.
The province of Xinjiang in northwestern China, homeland of the Uyghurs (Turkic Muslims) and a growing population of Han Chinese, has been transformed into a digital police state. (Uyghurs often refer to the region as East Turkestan.) Xinjiang has been described as the world’s largest open prison. Clashes between the Uyghurs and Chinese government have led – under president-for-life Xi Jinping — to the imposition of pervasive and insidious control on the Uyghur people. In 2016, Xi Jinping handpicked a trusted party official, Chen Quanguo, to control the region. Quanguo had successfully repressed other minority populations in China. Advanced surveillance technology has been one of the main weapons he has used in his most recent campaign.
The Chinese government has created the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) — a centralized mass surveillance system that stores data about all of Xinjiang’s residents. Authorities and police use an app to collect data, monitor “suspicious” activity and prompt investigative missions. Residents are forced to download the app and provide information such as height, blood type, profession, religious views, political affiliation, information about their car, license plate, electricity use, if they have relatives who live abroad, and whether a woman is taking birth control.
In 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) obtained a copy of the surveillance app, revealing how it was used to flag “suspicious” behavior. “If you use WhatsApp or Viber or Telegram, that might be considered suspicious. If you go out the back door of your house instead of the front, the police might turn up to investigate,” said Sophie Richardson of HRW. “The information from the app feeds into a central system and combines with information from other surveillance systems including CCTV cameras the rely on facial recognition software, and even ‘wifi-sniffers’ that are used as people walk through checkpoints to pull information off their phones,” she explained.
“The IJOP system aggregates all this data about people, flags those it deems suspicious and sends alerts to nearby officials. These dubious criteria are being used to identify large groups of people, many of whom are then arbitrarily locked up,” Richardson said (watch video here). Xinjiang authorities have also implemented a grid management system (explained in greater detail later), with police checkpoints set up every 100-200 meters. A web of cameras surveil every corner of the city, while facial scanners and biometric checkpoints track residents’ movements.
If a Uyghur tries to go to mosque on Friday, he is first subjected to an iris scan and full body search.
Central government has also required that butchers and restaurants engrave on the blade of each knife the QR code containing the owner’s identity card information. The CCP has also instituted a “public health program” in the Xinjiang province that requires all inhabitants age 12-65 to provide DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types. For all targeted groups, their biometrics must be provided regardless of age. Uyghur are therefore forced to provide DNA samples, biometric data and personal information. The information is then tied to an ID card which must be presented at checkpoints, fuel stations and even supermarkets.”
One Uyghur man who escaped with his family to the United States described his experience of the forced data collection:
“We got a phone call from the police station instructing us to come by. We were taken to the basement. There were manacles and shackles hanging in the cells and iron chairs called ‘tiger chairs’ where criminals are strapped in. We went inside and there were about 20 or 30 people there. We were all Uyghurs. When it was our turn, my wife and me, first they drew blood from us. Next they took our voice samples. Then our fingerprints were taken. After we finished the fingerprinting, they began the facial analysis.”
Using facial recognition software, their faces were mapped from all angles. “They’re recording and we look straight at the camera. Then we look to the right, and back. Look left, then back. Look up, come back. Look down.” They were also forced to produce a range of facial expressions. According to the Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionle (ISPI), since 2017 residents of Xinjiang region have also been tracked through the installation of the BeiDou Satellite Navigation System in all vehicles.
In 2017, the public safety bureau in Xinjiang also released an app called Baixing Anquan, meaning “Citizen Security,” which encourages residents to report on each other. Citizens can upload text, photos and video clips if they notice anything “suspicious” that might pose a threat to social stability and security. Tips to police are rewarded with cash and the anonymity is allegedly maintained.
Another app that the Uyghurs are forced to download is called Jingwang Weishi, meaning “Web Cleansing.” The app records information about the device it is installed on, including the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, the model and manufacturer and phone number. The app reportedly scans the device for images, recordings and content deemed “dangerous” and instructs the user to delete it. It also reportedly monitors messaging on WeChat and Sina Weibo activity.
The situation the Uyghurs are facing in China shows us that a surveillance state is already a daily reality under the CCP.