We in the West love our apocalyptic sci-fi, in which evil cartoon authorities relentlessly oppress all who wonder about their sheer power, enforced through ubiquitous surveillance technology. Think The Hunger Games, Blade Runner 2049, V for Vendetta, just to pick up some. Well, to bring out that infamous William Gibson line, the future is here, it’s unevenly distributed.
Annual Reminder: Unless you are over 60, you were not promised flying cars. They promised you an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia. Here you have.
– Kyle Marquis (@Moochava) July 10, 2013
I’m thinking of Xinjiang, in northwest China, which, according to a number of reports last year, has become an oppressive surveillance police state – Georgetown’s Professor James Geward conjures it:
On your way to work or on an errand, every 100 meters you pass a police station. Video cameras on street corners and lamp posts recognize your face and track your movements. At various checkpoints, police officers scan your ID card, your irises, and the contents of your phone. At the supermarket or bank, they scan him again, X-ray his bags, and an officer passes a wand over his body. […] The system crunches all of this into a composite score … [Based on it] You may or may not be allowed to visit a museum, go through certain neighborhoods, go to the mall, check into a hotel, rent an apartment, apply for a job, or buy a train ticket. Or he can be detained for reeducation.
It’s the little details that really drive home the real-life dehumanization of the surveillance state. “Installation of cameras in the houses of some people.” “The officers recorded their voices, took photographs of their heads at different angles, and collected hair and blood samples.” They focused on “people who have received a phone call from abroad.” (Both from NYT).
Fuel stations are surrounded by barbed wire. Passengers must dismount outside the station; only allowed inside the driver after strict identity and security checks […] A tourist who tried to buy a knife uploaded a video about how the knife was registered according to the buyer’s identification, the identification number was laser stamped on the blade, and his facial recognition was recorded.
– Suhasini Haidar, in an excellent travel piece in The Hindu.
The first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Xinjiang, driving from the airport to the city, is the propaganda. Is everywhere […] The other thing that is always in your field of vision is the police. Oh, the police. They are literally (literally) everywhere. […] Xinjiang is a police state, and it is open to that. Evident […] “Their conversations are being listened to, their GPS is being recorded. If you do something stupid over the phone, the police will come in less than 30 minutes and take you ” […] Inside both entrances and exits, there is a metal scanner, an ID card reader, and in some (not many) you place a facial recognition camera. All places have a computer and a small box that is used to download all information from smartphones. […] (Xinjiang still uses 3G signals, not LTE, I wonder why) […] Yes [restaurants] they want to keep things a secret by blocking the windows, they have to have surveillance cameras inside […] We saw life under a complete multi-layered surveillance system that has basically no blind spots.
– Vadim Mikhailov, in another fantastic Palladium first-person travelogue.
There are “many credible reports that China detained a million or more ethnic Uighurs in the western Xinjiang region and forced two million to undergo re-education and indoctrination.” The Australian Institute for Strategic Policy analyzed 28 camps across Xinjiang. and found that they had increased 465% in size since 2016, “reports The Guardian.
Wait, it gets worse: “Highly trained intellectuals, academics, scientists and software engineers are in these facilities,” says Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch. “Satellite images and previously unreported official documents indicate that a growing number of detainees are being sent to new factories, built in or near the camps, where inmates have no choice but to accept jobs and follow orders,” according to the NYT.
Why the repression? Partly because Xinjiang is a key hub of China’s massive new “Roads and Highways Initiative,” China’s massive $ 900 billion project that China is building to improve infrastructure connections and stimulate trade with other nations. . (See also the NYT report on McKinsey in China, and his pick of Xinjiang for a corporate retreat last year.) Partly because two years ago the leader of Xinjiang was replaced by the famous politician-turned-politician Chen Quanguo.
(It is easy to imagine that this quote was, to some extent, a strategy directly outside of Machiavelli’s plans.) Prince: “In order to clarify himself in the minds of the people and win it over himself, he wished to show that, if any cruelty had been practiced, it had not originated with him, but in the cruel nature of his minister.”
But also, partly because may– Because this dystopian surveillance police state technology is now cheap and reliable enough to be deployed on a large scale. It’s hard not to get chilled by that … or by visions of what the next generations of scalable technology will be used for. Xinjiang is not just a humanitarian crisis, it is a living warning to all of us.