How China's brutal crackdown against the Uighurs has spawned copycats
"The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil."
The name of the newsletter Dreams of Electric Sheep is a play on Philip K Dick’s magnum opus, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the impetus for the Blade Runner movies. The books and movies together address a question that humanity wrestles with: what qualities make us human – is it our physical idiosyncrasies or our thoughts themselves? Can something feel human without actually being human?
In every war, lines have been drawn in the sand when it came to who was inhuman. To declare someone as inhuman allows unspeakable crimes to occur and as Hannah Arendt described, most bureaucrats are too intellectually lazy to think about the moral consequences: in fact, as the Eichmann trial showed, they don’t think at all. Common sense evaporates when the madness of crowds takes hold. We’ve observed this madness throughout history, from the crusades to the witch hunts of Salem, and now with the Blitzkrieg against Uighurs in China without so much as a fight from the rest of the world.
It’s barbarism with a human face. The Uighur concentration camps have scaled so quickly only with the aid of technology built by Chinese companies. At the end of the day, technology is about leverage: how we can squeeze out greater output with fewer inputs. Needless to say that it allows despots to leverage their ideology across all citizens – one would shudder if a tyrant like Nero or Caligula had access to the firepower and weapons of mass destruction leaders have today.
Until now, we haven’t seen many dictators truly capable of harnessing technology for their own tyrannic utopia. Truthfully, Xi Jinping might be the first to do so in his quest for China’s two century goals – the first step is crushing the Uighurs.
Might is Right
The battle in Xinjiang between China and the Uighurs has been raging for several decades, since the early 2000s. The CCP was worried that Uighur women of Muslim descent were avoiding the workforce and refusing to marry Han Chinese. To solve this, they started the now-infamous labor concentration camps, first rounding up these women. Yet tensions erupted in 2009 after the July 5 protests; Uighur men razed the streets of Urumqi to the ground in a scene of fire and blood because for them, a Kamikaze attack was better than dying as a slave.
“On July 5, 2009, Abudushalamu was hiding with his father on the 10th floor of an office tower in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region that is home to the Turkic Uighur ethnic minority. By a park, he spotted a bus on fire. Then he heard a crack as a motorcycle nearby exploded.
Hours later, when he and his father stepped out to sprint home, he saw crowds of Uighurs stabbing Han Chinese in front of a middle school. The bodies of half a dozen people lay scattered on the streets — just a fraction of the estimated 200 killed that night…Analysts say the Urumqi riots set in motion the harsh security measures now in place across Xinjiang, where about 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims are estimated to be held in heavily guarded internment camps. Former detainees have told The Associated Press that within, they are subject to indoctrination and psychological torture.”
2009 was an inflection point that cemented China’s crackdown on minorities: either the Uighurs willingly integrate into mainstream Chinese culture or in the name of “ethnic unity,” the CCP will force them to do so.
The 2010s were racked with ever-increasing levels of violence. Xi Jinping was hardened during his first visit to Xinjiang in 2014 when Uighur men blew up a train station, killing three and injuring over 40 others. Afterwards he gave a speech arguing that China’s ethnicity need to be integrated like “the seeds of a pomegranate.” Then, in 2016, vocational training centers (read: concentration camps) were suddenly built and used to herd thousands of Uighurs like sheep unbeknownst into their deaths.
In the camps, detainees had to give up everything they once held dear: their Islamic beliefs, their loved ones, and even food and sleep. Orwell claimed that it takes a great deal of effort to see what is right under our noses; we have a modern-day Gulag in our midst, but it avoids the attention of the world order.
In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn claims that one of the worst parts of his ordeal was watching former colleagues instantly devolve into monsters within the prison – they lorded their power over prisoners simply because they could. We’re seeing this mentality play out with the Uighurs; they’re viewed as inhuman and a commodity used to build products for nameless, technology companies. Much like the Voight-Kampff test in Blade Runner, the concentration camps take out the strong; those who survive are willing to completely change their indentities for the CCP – they’re basically replicants. Is that the future that lies in store for the rest of the world?
Orwellian facial recognition
In 2018, China accounted for more than half of the total facial recognition market; now over 52 countries are following in lockstep behind their lodestar. Whether you persue the aisles of the supermarket; or you’re having a casual walk through the streets; or even if you’re driving for more than a few hundred yards, cameras and policeman are never far behind. Talking back to a police offer permits officials to pull up video with said individual’s home address. The message is crystal clear: the state can stomp on you like a bug anytime. Why resist at all?
The Humans Rights Watch has stated that Chinese company, iFlyteck, has also doled out speech recognition software allowing the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to freely listen in on conversations. And Huawei is known to parade how much crime falls by installing their cameras. The overall ban of religious talk on Whatsapp or public gatherings make it no surprise why play-by-plays of the Uighur atrocities haven’t escaped China. For anyone raised on Western ideals, its jarring to see the Chinese follow the exact opposite playbook: they treat the Uighurs as guilty until proven innocent, but the proof never comes.
This dystopia is becoming a norm elsewhere as governments wish to fight back against protestors. The beat-down of Hong Kong protestors is a metaphor for those who wish to fight back against regimes: if you do so, the state will use its unstoppable, technological force to destroy you and your family. To this end, Chinese companies have supplied their hardware and software to Uganda, Mongolia, and even Australia as they import the base materials from America. As Marshall McLuhan once exclaimed, “the medium is the message.” The United States not making a decisive stand is the message to anyone watching – we implicitly accept the current state of affairs.
While the world has indeed made a stark choice in the debate between privacy and security, they often pay no heed to securing a user’s privacy whatsoever. Cybersecurity firm, Comparitech, found China to rank the lowest of 50 countries on how biometric ID and surveillance systems are utilized with protections on user data. The irony is that these governments go to enormous lengths to procure said data yet treat it with a toddler’s whimsy.
Obviously, America is spying on its own citizens, enemies, and allies, but which country is the lesser evil? Ceterus paribus, I’d prefer to live in a world where individual privacy isn’t passé, although I’m unsure that such a world is realistic anymore. If anything, the destruction of the coronavirus is permitting authorities to institute further Patriot Acts that will never be unwound in our lifetimes.
The Manichean battle between privacy and security is an inherently murky question that has vast ramifications for the governance models of countries now and in the future. Facial Recognition researcher, Stephanie Hare said it best regarding these state of affairs: “U.S. companies, for all the lip service they pay to technology and ethics, are also building surveillance tech, and indeed supplying Chinese companies that produce it. This leaves everyone else with a decision: be spied on by the U.S. or by China?”
If you liked this piece, check out ‘Video is eating software.’