China: Mass Surveillance and Minority Regions

24 Dec, 2018    ·   5535

Report of the discussion on China: Mass Surveillance and Minority Regions held at IPCS on 29 November 2018

On 29 November 2018, IPCS hosted a discussion on China: Mass Surveillance and Minority Regions, with Dr Tenzin Tsultrim (Research Fellow, Tibet Policy Institute), Dr Mahesh Ranjan Debata (Director, UGC Area Studies, Centre for Inner Asian Studies, JNU), and Saikat Dutta (South Asia Editor, Asia Times).

Tibet and Xinjiang are usually described as China’s "restless" West in the media owing to the political instability and geostrategic sensitivity of these two peripheral regions. Apart from the visibly strong presence of security forces in both Tibet and Xinjiang, China increasingly relies on state-of-the-art technologies that employ artificial intelligence and several physical measures referred to as the grid management system, village-based cadre system, 24X7 convenience police posts and collection of DNA samples to monitor these regions. This close policing has led to many arrests, and the situation in Xinjiang looks more serious with reports emerging of re-education camps to propagate a particular ideology or school of thought. Clearly, mass surveillance in Tibet and Xinjiang is gradually becoming more comprehensive, sophisticated and securitised, certainly far more than mainland China. The IPCS dicussion explored China's development of its surveillance system and its manner of operation in its two peripheral regions, Tibet and Xinjiang. It contended with the following questions: What is the official rationale for the surveillance regime? What are the consequences for the target subjects? What are the differences in operations in the two regions in terms of severity and scope? Finally, what is the future of mass surveillance in China? 

A Boiling Pot: Impact of CCP’s Increasing Intrusive Surveillance in Tibet
Dr Tenzin Tsultrim

The intensity and diversity of China's surveillance system has grown at an unprecedented scale over the past two years. While the concerns surrounding surveillance in Xinjiang are now, the system has been in place in Tibet since 2011. Further, reports groups such as Freedom House and the Tibetan Centre for Human Right and Democracy have found that the human rights situation in Tibet has correspondingly worsened.

Random stop-and-searches of monks and Tibetan youth are carried out by the armed police for interrogation and registration. Tibetans often fear their own relatives, with police informants and spies hidden among the local populace on the rise. This is one of the results of the Chinese state's incentivisation of informing on perceived criminal activity through cash rewards. These activities include, but are not limited to efforts to promote Tibetan culture or language, or ties to exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama.

Historically, states that have contended with separatism have dealt with the challenge through a two-pronged strategy: one, controlling the local population through surveillance, and two,  pumping money into the affected areas to induce cooperation and compliance through monetary incentivisation. The same is true of China. However, increased economic activity is not necessarily indicative of  greater cooperation.

The tendency to hide one's true feelings for fear of repercussions - what the economist Timur Khan termed "preference falsification" in his analysis of experiences in East Germany - are also reflective of the sentiment in Tibet. Clearly, China’s policy of forcefully assimilating Tibetans into the Chinese mainland for the sake of state-building is contributing to widespread resentment among the people.

The Chinese state promotes the narrative of China as a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures. However, continued repression in Tibet and Xinjiang is more likely to bring the country to a boiling point, with the infringement of privacy, freedom and dignity leading to unrest not just in Tibet but also in Xinjiang, where similar repressive measures are being undertaken.

Xinjiang: Mass Surveillance & the Logic of Re-Education Camps
Dr Mahesh Ranjan Debata

Xinjiang is located in the north western part of China where Uyghurs form the majority.  China has introduced some of its harshest internal policies in an attempt to stabilise the region.

China has introduced what is officially referred to as vocational and educational centres in Xinjiang. However, others like Amnesty International term these centres 're-education camps' - some have even gone so far as to call them 'concentration camps'. The Chinese rationale is that they are essentially 'de-extemisation camps' intended for Uyghurs involved in terrorist activities.

In 2008, China introduced an anti-extremism law, with the main objective being internal regional stability. The provincial government of Xinjiang was given a major role to play. Under the law, harsher penalties were introduced in order to instil patriotism.

Xinjiang is a geo-strategically important region with significant international borders. It is surrounded by three nuclear powers - India, Russia and Pakistan - and three central Asian countries with substantial Muslim populations. These contribute to Chinese concerns about the rise of what China refers to as the three evils: separatism, extremism and terrorism. It is suspected that common ethnic and religious identities across the border might further fuel separatist tendencies among the Uyghur. Reports also suggest that the Uyghur diaspora provides  psychological as well as economic support to the Uyghur community. Although the support is intended for religious purposes, it can be diverted for political goals. In China's view, the presence of these factors in Xinjiang make the region vulnerable to political instability. For Chinese authorities, stability in the region is crucial for the success of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with Xinjiang playing a vital role in this ambitious plan. 

However, despite the humanitarian consequences of the repression underway in Xinjiang, the international community has remained silent. For example, the EU has not taken a public stand till date due primarily to its economic interconnectedness with China, a reason that has likely contributed to others' decisions to not pursue the issue forcefully as well. Saudi Arabia has also shied away from speaking on the issue, once again because of its economic and strategic interests.

Historically, Xinjiang has twice attempted declare itself as an independent republic but these were not successful. Many Uyghurs feel that they are slowly being silenced and eradicated as an ethnic group; that by distorting and misrepresenting facts, China attempting is to erase the 6,000-year old history of the region. 

Beijing maintains that the Uyghur are not a silent minority. The Turkistan Islamic Party, formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), is an Islamic terrorist organisation founded by Uyghur jihadists in western China. Their goal is to establish an independent state called ‘East Turkestan’ in Xinjiang. As per reports, in 2016, around 100 Uyghur militants joined the Islamic State (IS) from Xinjiang. The actual danger, in the Chinese opinion, is with the return of these trained fighters to China after the IS began crumbling, thus creating a new kind of security challenge in the region. 

The Future of Mass Surveillance in China
Saikat Datta 

There is a close link between intelligence and surveillance. This is evidenced, for example, by the Northrop Grumman case, involving Chinese infiltration of the US aircraft building company that was working on the F-35 JSF. The project was thus severely compromised, with US$ 1.3 billion losses incurred. This was followed in 2012 by the launch of China's 5th generation aircraft, which was developed on the same kind of technology being used for the F-35 programme. This brought to light the extent of Chinese capabilities in surveillance and infiltration. These same technologies that compromised US national interest could very easily be used for internal surveillance, and with far-reaching consequences. 

In addition to facial recognition, China has now begun looking into gait recognition technology which can identify people based on how they move or walk. People who are picked up or arrested by the police are asked for their voice samples, DNA and fingerprints. Surveillance is also undertaken through surveillance of mobile phone networks.

It has invested in artificial intelligence and big data, the results of which feed into the surveillance programme. For instance, a project known as  Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), owned by the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, has been working on technologies that can undertake  predictive policing. This is similar to what NATGRID in India is mandated with, that is, to produce predictive intelligence based on data collected from different sources. The difference in the Chinese model is that it is not only confined to intelligence - instead, it looks, far more ambitiously, at predictive policing. 

Unlike India, which is still a consumer of the Internet, China has produced its own Internet ecosystem within which it has built not just the Great Firewall of China but has also developed the capacity to replace Western companies and technologies with Weibo, WeChat and Baidu. This ensures a strong hold on the additional data collection points which eventually feed into their mass surveillance programme. The Digital National Identification Card, which is somewhat similar to India’s Aadhar Card, is now becoming a major source of data collection. 

China follows the US model of surveillance, with both countries focused on reconciling to surveillance with capitalism. They invest in technologies and companies that can innovate and build capabilities that the state can then use to fortify its surveillance systems. One way to track this investment is by analysing China's budgetary allocations to its Public Security Bureau (PSB), which have risen year on year. 

When it comes to surveillance, whether it is a totalitarian state or a democracy does not matter, since neither will actually push back, whether it is at the political, bureaucratic or judicial levels.

Rapporteured by Anjali Gupta, Research Intern, IPCS