The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s alarming AI surveillance of Muslims should wake us up

Muslim men arrive at the Id Kah Mosque for the morning prayer on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, June 26, 2017. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

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, artificial intelligence has made civilian surveillance far easier, and far more invasive. AI is rapidly becoming the new best friend of dictators everywhere.

The most sweeping and stifling surveillance program in human history is being employed against the mostly Muslim Uighur minority in northwestern China. A million Uighurs, about 10 percent of their total population, are held captive in what Chinese authorities call “reeducation and training” camps. Uighurs have been sent to the camps for a wide variety of infractions, including for religious practices such as reading the Koran 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 Independent said Uighur inmates have allegedly “been tortured, forced to consume pork and alcohol, and ordered to renounce their religion.” Other Uighurs allegedly have “disappeared” into the camps.

One reason Uighurs have a surveillance crosshairs on their collective foreheads is simple sectarian violence. Over the past few decades, China has been resettling members of the majority Han race in Xinjiang. A province that 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.

This has created a humanitarian crisis for the Uighurs. But two factors make the full implications far wider.

First, AI, especially facial recognition, allows 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 unnerve Chinese and other totalitarians. In my Christian faith, for example, the Bible teaches that we are citizens of both an earthly and a heavenly kingdom. As such, we are 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.

Religious persecution in the country has often focused on government officials’ treatment of Christians. And, not surprisingly, the automated authoritarianism of the Chinese government is being turned against Christians as well. In Beijing, officials recently banned the 1,500-member Zion church after its pastor refused to install surveillance cameras. 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 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,” Eva Pils, a professor of law at King’s College London, who focuses on human rights, told the Guardian.

“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. “[Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s response is much more invasive and it is in some ways returning to Mao-era attempts to control hearts and minds.”

In large part, AI-powered surveillance is proving effective at reshaping 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.

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 reeducation 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. On the one hand, they said, much of Kashgar is still an ancient city, composed 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,” the Times reported.

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 underwater,” he told Wired. “You cannot breathe. Every breath you take, you’re careful.”

Surveillance extends to the youngest Uighurs. “In the kindergarten, they would ask little children, ‘Do your parents read the Koran?’ ” one woman told reporters. “My daughter had a classmate who said, ‘My mom teaches me the Koran.’ The next day, they [were] gone.’”

Even Uighurs who have escaped to Turkey or to the United States 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 disappear. As a result, most Uighurs have stayed silent, even as the basics of human freedom and dignity have been stripped away.

Former president John F. Kennedy famously said in the face of an earlier totalitarian threat that we are all citizens of Berlin. Now, AI increasingly means we are all Uighurs.

Tim Weinhold is the Chief Content Officer (CCO) of AI and Faith, a multifaith nonprofit focused on bringing the values of the world’s great religions into the developing discussion regarding ethical AI.