Tight control of civilian populations is the cardinal rule of authoritarian regimes. Yet the sheer scale and complexity of those populations makes control difficult. Now, however, AI technology has made civilian surveillance far easier, and far more invasive. It is rapidly becoming the new best friend of dictators everywhere.
In fact, the most sweeping and stifling surveillance program in human history is currently being employed against the Muslim Uighur minority in northwestern China. The most visible outcome of this program is that a million Uighurs, about 10 percent of their total population, are currently held captive in what the Chinese authorities call “re-education and training” camps. Uighurs have been sent to the camps for a wide variety of infractions, including for commonplace religious practices like reading the Quran or being caught with religious content on their phones.
At the camps, Uighurs are required to listen to hours upon hours of Communist Party propaganda and engage in rigorous self-criticism. Reporting earlier this year in the UK’s Independent says that Uighur inmates have allegedly “been tortured, forced to consume pork and alcohol, and ordered to renounce their religion.” Other Uighurs have been ‘disappeared’ into the camps, never to be heard from again.
At a United Nations hearing in early May, Adrian Zenz, a specialist on Xinjiang, said, “We are really talking here about a humanitarian emergency . . . This is a very targeted political re-education effort that is seeking to change the core identity and belief system of an entire people. On that scale it’s pretty unprecedented.”
Recently, reporters from the New York Times visited Kashgar in Xinjiang province and reported on life there in a piece entitled, “How China Turned a City Into a Prison.” On the one hand, they said, much of Kashgar is still an ancient city, comprised of mud and stone and open-air markets. Camels, sheep, and goats mingle among the motor scooters and automobiles. But you also have “tremendously powerful facial recognition cameras hanging from a mud-brick wall, and there are cameras absolutely everywhere.”
Which means that even for the Uighurs outside the camps, life takes place in a (virtual) cage. Cameras surveil every inch of every mosque. As a result, many have shut down and the few that remain open are largely deserted. But surveillance is pervasive throughout Kashgar, not just at religious gathering spots. “Surveillance cameras are everywhere. In streets, doorways, shops, mosques.” In less than a block, “we counted 20 cameras . . . In nearly every shop, cameras are watching.”
All Uighurs have been required to give police DNA and blood samples, to record voice samples, and to pose for facial recognition photos. Police also check phones to ensure Uighurs have installed compulsory software that monitors all communications.
Every few hundred yards is a police monitoring station, where Uighurs are required to present their IDs. Many stations employ facial recognition systems, adding a high tech aura to the decision of whether or not an individual is permitted to pass.
Halmurat Harri, a Uighur activist now living in Finland, described the psychological impact of this pervasive surveillance, including near-constant police checks. “You feel like you are under water,” he says. “You cannot breathe. Every breath you take, you’re careful.”
Surveillance extends even to the youngest Uighurs.“In the kindergarten, they would ask little children, ‘Do your parents read the Quran?’” One woman told the reporters, “My daughter had a classmate who said, ‘My mom teaches me the Quran.’ The next day, they [were] gone.’”
Even Uighurs who have escaped to Turkey, or to the U.S., live under the long shadow of Chinese surveillance. Those who have dared to speak about abuses back home have had family members in Xinjiang threatened, imprisoned, or disappeared entirely. As a result, most Uighurs have stayed silent, even as the basics of human freedom and dignity have been stripped away.
Why All the Surveillance?
So why do the Uighurs have a surveillance crosshairs on their collective foreheads? Part of the answer is simple sectarian violence. Over the past few decades, China has been resettling members of the majority Han race in Xinjiang. The result is that a province which historically had been mostly Uighur is now split 50-50 with Han. In turn, race riots broke out some years back and people were killed.
But there is another, deeper answer. The Uighurs are people of faith. As such, they are effectively citizens of two kingdoms. They offer allegiance to the government, but direct their ultimate devotion to God. To the Chinese authorities, such divided loyalties are necessarily a threat, to be dealt with harshly.
As noted earlier, this has created a humanitarian crisis for the Uighurs. But two factors make the full implications far wider. First, AI technologies — especially facial recognition — allow authoritarian governments to surveil target populations to an extent previously unimaginable. This has already effectively immobilized the Uighurs, who are afraid to voice their true thoughts even to their closest family members.
The second factor is that all people of faith share the divided loyalties that so unnerve Chinese and other totalitarians. In my own Christian faith, for example, the Bible teaches that we are citizens of both an earthly and a heavenly kingdom. As such, we are pointedly commanded to obey earthly authorities — except when such obedience conflicts with our ultimate loyalty to God. Totalitarians find such conditional allegiance deeply alarming — whether from Christians, Uighurs, or any other faith community.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the automated authoritarianism of the Chinese government is being turned against Christians as well. In Beijing, officials recently banned the 1500-member Zion church after its pastor refused to install surveillance cameras. Across the country, hundreds of unofficial ‘house churches’ have been shuttered, including one of the largest, Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, whose pastor, Wang Yi, and his wife, remain in prison. Other churches have bowed to the inevitable, accepting surveillance cameras as a necessary accommodation to the authorities. The government is even working on its own version of Scripture, appropriately edited and annotated to ensure a ‘politically correct interpretation.’
“What happens in Xinjiang and what happens to house churches is connected,” said Eva Pils, a professor of law at King’s College London, focusing on human rights. “Ten years ago, we used to be able to say the [Chinese communist] party was not really interested in what people believed internally,” said Pils. “Xi Jinping’s response is much more invasive and it is in some ways returning to Mao-era attempts to control hearts and minds.”
AI and Totalitarianism
Why? In large part, because AI-powered surveillance is proving so effective at (re-)shaping behavior. In fact, AI technology has freed authoritarian governments from narrowly focusing on just their high-risk populations. After all, if behavior can be shaped to match the state’s wishes, why not exert that control over everyone?
China is steadily progressing toward that goal. By 2020, analysts estimate the country will have installed nearly 300 million cameras and police will be spending $30 billion per year on surveillance technology. “This is potentially a totally new way for the government to manage the economy and society,” said Martin Chorzempa, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The goal is algorithmic governance” — of the entire citizenry, not just the religious.
JFK famously said in the face of an earlier totalitarian threat, ‘we are all Berliners.’ Now, AI technology increasingly means we are all Uighurs.