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trueHUE® Water cooler stories
After the 9/11 attacks, the Chinese government took a page from George W. Bush’s war on terror and began targeting separatist groups in Xinjiang. In 2009, bloody ethnic riots broke out between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital. Police put the city on lockdown, enforcing an internet blackout and cutting cell phone service. It was the beginning of a new policy to control the Uyghur population—digitally.
The WeChat Lockdown
In recent years, China has carried out its crackdown on Islamic extremism via smartphone. In 2011, Chinese IT giant Tencent holdings launched a new app called WeChat—known as “Undidar” in the Uyghur language. It quickly became a vital communication tool across China.
This kind of unrestricted communication on WeChat went on for around a year. But in May 2014, the Chinese government enlisted a taskforce to stamp out “malpractice” on instant messaging apps, in particular “rumors and information leading to violence, terrorism, and pornography.” WeChat, alongside its rival apps, was required to let the government monitor the activity of its users.
The monitoring of Uyghurs was not limited to their smartphones. Mijit remembers first encountering facial recognition technology in the summer of 2013. Her brother came home from the police station carrying a device slightly bigger than a cellphone. He scanned her face and entered her age range as roughly between 20 and 30. The device promptly brought up all her information, including her home address. Her brother warned her this technology would soon be rolled out across Xinjiang. “All your life will be in the record,” he told her.
The voice-recognition program was powered by Chinese artificial intelligence giant iFlytek, which claims a 70 percent share of China’s speech recognition industry. In August 2017, Human Rights Watch found information indicating iFlytek supplied voiceprint technology to police bureaus in Xinjiang province. The company opened an office in Silicon Valley in 2017 and remains open about working “under the guidance of the Ministry of Public Security” to provide “a new experience for public safety and forensic identification,” according to the Chinese version of its website. The company says it offers a particular focus to creating antiterrorism technology.
Human Rights Watch believes the company has been piloting a system in collaboration with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to monitor telephone conversations. “Many party and state leaders including Xi Jinping have inspected and praised the company’s innovative work,” iFlytek’s website reads.
In the year following Chen Quanguo’s 2016 appointment as regional party secretary, more than 100,000 security-related positions were advertised, while security spending leapt by 92 percent—a staggering $8.6 billion increase.
It’s part of a wider story of huge domestic security investment across China, which hit a record $197 billion in 2017. Around 173 million cameras now watch China’s citizens. In the imminent future, the government has laid out plans to achieve 100 percent video coverage of “key public areas.”