Information about China’s dystopian social credit system has been leaking out for the past few years, but a new set of documents shows just how far the country has gone to spy on its own people. Nicknamed the “China cables” by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, these documents contain information on how the government runs the mass internment camps where up to a million Uighurs are believed to be held and how it targeted individuals for detention in the first place.
First, there’s the “Telegram,” dating from 2017 and signed by Zhu Hailun, then-deputy secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party. At first glance, it appears to describe strict standards for a “vocational skill training center.” The rules for said center might raise eyebrows at any facility not run by Nurse Ratched. For example:
Adhere to the comprehensive combination of personnel defense and technological defense to strictly implement measures meeting requirements to prevent escape, noise, earthquakes, fire, and epidemics. It is strictly forbidden for police to enter the student zone with guns, and they most never allow escapes, never allow trouble, never allow attacks on staff, never allow abnormal deaths, never allow food and safety incidents and major epidemics, and they must ensure the training center is absolutely safe and free of risk.
If this were a movie or video game instead of real life, you’d find the above written on a tattered scrap of paper inside the smashed remains of whatever Evil Research Facility the creature you were tracking had just escaped from. Public schools may have gotten a bit dystopian since I last attended one, but I’m fairly certain your average employee handbook doesn’t include admonishments not to shoot the kids. The document goes on to explain how students are locked into their dorm rooms when not in class and are imprisoned for up to a year at a time (refugees who have escaped have stated that the actual length of imprisonment varies, though it’s typically at least several months).
There’s an App for That
As part of its surveillance operation in Xinjiang, the Chinese government has weaponized an app called Zapya (referred to in Chinese documents as “Kuai Ya”). The ICJI writes that the app allows smartphone users to send videos, photos, and other files without being connected to the web. Chinese officials have targeted Uighur Muslims who use the app to share quotes from the Quran. The document linked here discusses how the app is installed on 1,869,310 devices before breaking down into subsets of individuals of particular interest to the Chinese government. The spying via Zapya is part of a larger program of mass surveillance and “predicted policing” known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, or IJOP. IJOP is used to compile a huge amount of information on individuals, as seen in the video below.
The Chinese government has denounced these leaks as ‘fake news,’ claiming “First, there are no so-called ‘detention camps’ in Xinjiang. Vocational education and training centres have been established for the prevention of terrorism.”
Keep in mind, we’ve already seen the rules that those vocational centers operate under. They look a lot like the kind of rules you’d enforce at a prison, only written in euphemistic language so as to preserve some semblance of humanity and plausible deniability. China maintains that the only people it’s imprisoning in these vocational camps are individuals who are terrorists, but numerous reports and further ICJI research has undercut that argument. The ICJI writes:
A Uighur-language sentencing document from a regional criminal court that details the allegations against a Uighur man imprisoned for inciting “ethnic hatred” and “extreme thoughts.” The allegations feature such seemingly innocuous acts as admonishing co-workers not to use profanity or watch pornography. The document is unclassified, but in a political system with little transparency, Xinjiang court documents are rarely seen by outsiders.
So far, we haven’t seen much awareness of this issue penetrate mainstream America, and there haven’t been any high-profile incidents of major companies engaging in censorship to protect Chinese feelings on this issue. But China doesn’t want people talking about this, either, and Chinese authorities have imprisoned some of the family members of journalists who dare to report on these topics. But we should be talking about them — both in terms of how China is using technology to create a truly frightening authoritarian state, the likes of which George Orwell scarcely could have imagined, and in terms of how seriously the United States wants to be intertwined with an authoritarian nation that commits human rights abuses on a mammoth scale.
We don’t talk much about the moral or ethical sides of technology, but I don’t see how Google, Microsoft, Facebook, or other companies are going to be able to avoid those discussions going forward. China isn’t investing in Big Data analytics because it wants to find hidden insights into cancer or invent new antibiotics. They aren’t even working towards more mundane, banally evil goals, like designing perfectly microtargeted ads guaranteed to make you want a new iPhone. They’re building a 21st-century Panopticon, and part of what they’re relying on to make it happen is the silence and acceptance of everyone involved.
The ICJI has published a fairly extensive series of reports on the China Cables and we’d recommend them for further review.
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