In Xinjiang, as in all of China, the state observes and observes. A surveillance network hangs over the cities, giving the authorities enormous powers. You can scan phones, track a face, or even know when a person is leaving their home. A totalitarian state in digital form, made possible in part by the American technologies that make it up.
Since Xi Jinping came to power, the police have played an increasing role and a role in the ongoing metamorphosis. The prosecution of criminals is increasingly taking place digitally and using state-of-the-art technologies such as artificial intelligence, which are combined with facial, speech or text recognition. It is then easy to adapt these tracks to political projects.
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Therefore, the surveillance applies in particular to supporters of the Hong Kong protest movement, critics of the Chinese state and other critics. It is even more often aimed at vulnerable groups such as migrant workers and ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs, a Turkish and predominantly Muslim people who live in the Xinjiang region.
There, in the capital of this vast autonomous region of the northwest, the state has installed a complex known as the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center, named after the city in which it is located. This data center, sometimes called the Xinjiang Supercomputing Center, was added to the list of the world’s fastest computers in 2018 and is still made up of some of the most powerful computers today. These computers are made with graphics chips made by American companies such as Intel and Nvidia. They ensure the efficiency of the Chinese surveillance state in Xinjiang and participate in the suppression of these population groups, which has been widely documented since 2019.
What exactly does this complex allow? The government uses this computing power to spy on Muslim populations in the region. The cover is surveillance and the fight against terrorism. In practice, we look for faces, behaviors, cars, phones. We look for signs of Muslim belief or distrust of the Chinese state.
Often this surveillance becomes predictive policing and is used as a shortcut to preventive arrests aimed at conduct deemed disloyal or threatening to the party. For example, any demonstration of Muslim piety, any connection with a family living abroad, having two phones or not having one is considered suspect by the police. Chinese companies and authorities claim that their systems can detect religious extremism or opposition to the Communist Party.
“With cloud computing, big data and deep learning [deep learning, ndlr] With other technologies, the intelligent video analytics system can integrate police data and applications from video footage, Wi-Fi hotspots, checkpoint information, and surveillance facial recognition to support the operations of various Chinese police departments, ”said Sugon, the Chinese company that owns the Urumqi Data center, in a 2018 article. Intel and Nvidia, for their part, claim they were unaware of what they called misuse of their technology.
Advances in technology (especially American technology) have given authorities around the world tremendous power to monitor people and protect the population. As always, a technology depends on how it is used in determining its benefits. And in Xinjiang executives have taken this technology to an extreme and very authoritarian level. There, in addition to the population tracking and computing power made possible by these supercomputers, artificial intelligence and genetic testing are used to examine people to determine whether they are Uighurs.
Sugon has been blacklisted in the United States since the conditions for monitoring and treating Uyghurs, particularly in Xinjiang prisons, became known. This means that American companies are not allowed to sell their products to Sugon. For products that were sold before these restrictions, such as the Intel and Nvidia chips sold five years ago, the two American companies emphasize that they have little say in the destination of their manufacture. Graphics chips are still in supercomputers, and American technology is used for morally dubious purposes.
China is far from being an isolated case: other countries, dictatorships and authoritarian regimes are in possession of advanced American technologies. In 2019, Gatekeeper Intelligent Security sold powerful facial recognition devices to Saudi Arabia to enable the government to recognize drivers’ faces through tinted windows. Similarly, the United States is far from being the only provider of these abused technologies. In September 2020, the NGO Amnesty International issued a report accusing Idemia of selling its facial recognition technology to China. The French company, which specializes in biometrics and identification, is said to have exported digital surveillance instruments to Beijing.
In June 2019, the Trump administration had blacklisted five Chinese companies in the US, which further restricted China’s access to US technology. A behavior that is already causing high tensions with China in the economic, financial and diplomatic war.
Other Chinese companies that have been denied access to American technology include telecommunications equipment giant Huawei, which was added to the list of companies in May 2019. President Trump issued an executive order banning US investments in Chinese companies that Washington says are owned by the Chinese military are or are controlled by it.
This question of the devious and malicious use of American technologies such as chips from Intel and Nvidia is at the center of the decisions that the Biden administration has to face. In inheriting the Oval Office, the future 46th President of the United States will also inherit the country’s tensions with China and the incomplete positions that characterized the previous mandate.
It will be a matter of finding a compromise that preserves the American position in the technology market. Indeed, critics of trade restrictions on China believe that denying access to high quality American products encourages the Asian country to research and develop its own technologies. Today, China spends billions of dollars developing high-end chips.
In particular, China’s dependence on American chips has (relatively) held back the country’s ambitions in terms of control and surveillance. “I fear that in a few years, Chinese companies and governments will find their own way to develop these chips and capabilities. Then there will be no way to stop these abuses, ”said Maya Wang, Chinese researcher at Human Rights Watch.
According to the New York Times, none of China’s new technologies alone is beyond the capabilities of the US or other countries. Taken together, however, they would have the potential to take the totalitarian state of China to the next level and help cameras and software become smarter and more sophisticated.