‘There’s cameras everywhere’: testimonies detail far-reaching surveillance of Uyghurs in China
China’s surveillance machine has grown with the aid of Chinese and international technology companies. But few have faced repercussions
A camera is mounted on a watchtower at a high-security facility in Xinjiang, China, believed to be a re-education camp where Uyghurs are detained. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images
Abdusalam Muhammad recalls local police interrogating him and his family in their home of Yakan in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region as early as 1995. At the time, his family was deeply involved with the local mosque. His father was the imam, and his grandfather was the mosque’s secretary. As for Muhammad, he said he prayed five times a day, was a “non-smoker” and a “well-behaved man”. That was enough to raise red flags for local authorities charged by the Chinese government with monitoring religious activity of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, according to testimony Muhammad gave at a tribunal convened in London earlier this month.
“The head of the religious affairs of our village noticed me and reported everything to the police,” a translation of his statement submitted to the tribunal read. Muhammad was among dozens of survivors of Chinese detention and re-education camps who spoke at the first and second round of hearings of the non-governmental tribunal, which was organized by a group of lawyers, professors and advocacy groups such as the World Uyghur Congress, to bring attention to the treatment of Uyghurs in China.
In the two decades since Chinese authorities first started monitoring Muhammad, the mass surveillance apparatus that targets Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities has vastly expanded, with technology having enabled it to become more targeted and effective.
Camera surveillance has become pervasive in detention facilities and outside of them, the testimonies at the tribunal highlighted. The same machine that made Muhammad feel detention and arrest was inescapable is now equipped with tools such as facial recognition.
Buildings in China’s north-western Xinjiang region are believed to be a re-education camp for Uyghurs. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images
When Muhammad temporarily returned home in 2014 after being detained for a year, he said he found “whole communities” barricaded with iron gates; “and cameras … installed everywhere”.
The surveillance machine has grown with the aid of Chinese and international technology companies. Still, many of those companies have seen little to no consequences for their contribution, even as they have been flagged by the US government for aiding in a humanitarian crisis.
The US has accused China of committing genocide and crimes against humanity for running a mass detention, repression and sterilization campaign against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities. Countless reports have detailed detainees enduring torture, coerced abortions as well as re-education in what former secretary of state Mike Pompeo described as the “forced assimilation and eventual erasure” of Uyghurs by the Chinese government.
The surveillance system propped up by these often global companies serves to facilitate that genocide, argues Dolkun Isaa, president of the World Uyghur Congress advocacy group.
“The goal of these surveillance tactics is not only to instill fear in Uyghurs’ minds that every aspect of their behavior is monitored, but most importantly to single out Uyghurs for detention in the internment camp system,” Isaa said.
At a press conference leading up to the tribunal, China’s ambassador to the UK, Zheng Zeguang, called it a “farce” and said allegations of genocide were “absurd”. Zheng was banned from the UK parliament just days later.
‘Cameras installed everywhere’
By 2018, camera surveillance had become a feature of daily life for Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic minorities in China, both inside and outside the gates of the camps, testimony from survivors and experts at the tribunal detailed.
Baqitali Nur testified he was detained in 2017 ahead of a visit to sick relatives in Kazakhstan. Police accused him of attempting to flee the country and harboring “ideological problems”, he said, and he spent a year in a camp where he endured food deprivation and beatings and was forced to learn and sing Chinese songs.
“There were only singing songs and torture,” Nur testified.
Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region in China on 4 September 2018. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters
The camp, Nur said, was covered in cameras. “Inside the cell, here was a camera, there was a camera, on all sides and angles there were cameras,” he said. “The only camera-free place was where the toilet was.”
Nur was released in 2018, but he did not escape the watchful eye of the government. He was put under house arrest, warned not to talk about his experience in the camps and a camera was installed in his home, he said. “I was not allowed to go out.”
At least four other survivors who testified recalled cells and facilities that were surveilled from floor to ceiling, leaving them little to no privacy. When they were finally released, the cameras followed them, they said.
As the presence of cameras grew, so did the technological capabilities. Expert testimony at the tribunal detailed how companies like Huawei, the multinational hardware firm, and Hikvision, the largest global camera manufacturer, developed and tested technology that could play a role in the tracking and eventual detention of Uyghur and other ethnic and religious minorities.
In July 2018, Huawei filed for a patent on the ability to detect whether someone was Han or Uyghur, according to security research group Ipvm. Hikvision developed similar capabilities to detect Uyghurs and minorities and was awarded government contracts to implement vast facial recognition systems in re-education camps and at the entrance of at least 967 mosques, according to an Ipvm report. Dahua, the second largest global camera manufacturer, developed alarms that would alert clients when an Uyghur was detected and a feature that purportedly recognized Uyghurs with “hidden terrorist inclinations”, internal documents show.
Surveillance cameras are seen near the headquarters of Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China. Photograph: China Stringer Network/Reuters
Huawei did not respond to a request for comment . Hikvision said it “takes all reports regarding human rights very seriously” and that it is engaging “governments globally to clarify misunderstandings”. Dahua pointed the Guardian to a blogpost denying developing solutions that detect a single ethnicity. The company previously stated internal documents that described Uyghur facial recognition solutions were “historical” and Dahua would not provide those features “in the future”.
The proliferation of face detection to monitor Uyghurs was a direct “outcome of state policy”, Ipvm’s government director, Conor Healy, said in his expert testimony submitted to the tribunal. The feature is “routinely specified in tenders for public surveillance projects”, he wrote.
In a December 2017 draft policy, for example, China’s ministry of public security listed “ethnicity recognition: (Uyghur/Non-Uyghur)” as one of the requirements of facial recognition systems that the government implements, Healy wrote.
The status of that draft policy is unknown but several government projects across China have since included various forms of Uyghur analytics in its facial recognition systems, he noted.
Of the 11 companies reported at the hearings to potentially play a role in the Chinese surveillance state, six have been placed on the US entity list for complicity in human rights violations.
Hikvision, Dahua, Huawei and SenseTime, China’s largest facial recognition startup which filed a patent in 2019 that included the ability to classify Uyghurs from non-Uyghurs, landed on the list in 2019. In addition to prohibiting US firms from exporting technology to the companies, the US government with the designation signaled loudly that the companies were complicit in China’s mass detention of Uyghurs.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) took those limitations further and banned the use of federal funds to buy products from Huawei, Dahua or Hikvision. On 3 June 2021, Joe Biden also issued an executive order prohibiting US investments in 59 Chinese companies including Hikvision and Huawei for facilitating “repression or serious human rights abuses”.
Still, despite the prohibitions imposed, it’s been somewhat business as usual for many companies.
SenseTime, which filed to go public in Hong Kong, wrote in its IPO prospectus that “the entity list addition has not had any material adverse impact” on its business. SenseTime’s not included in Biden’s executive order addressing the “threat posed by the military-industrial complex” of China, permitting US entities and funds to invest in the soon-to-be-public company. SenseTime maintains there is no ground for the entity list designation, according to company spokesperson Simon Chang. The 2019 patent which described the ability to classify Uyghurs “was neither designed nor intended in any way to discriminate against that or any other groups as such an action is a violation of our company values,” Chang said.
Huawei’s surveillance cameras are on display during the China Public Security Expo in Shenzhen, China. Photograph: Andy Wong/AP
Local and state entities in the US also continue to purchase equipment manufactured by some of these companies. Since 2019, at least 375 organizations have bought Dahua and Hikvision products, government procurement data shows. In California, the two largest contracts for Dahua or Hikvision equipment were both confirmed to have originally utilized federal funding, potentially violating the NDAA. In San Bernardino, Hesperia Unified School district used federal Cares act funding to purchase Hikvision thermal bullet cameras and accessories for a total of $271,745. In Modesto, the local school district confirmed in February it used federal funding to purchase cameras for contact tracing for about $257,000. After both districts were approached by reporters earlier this year, the source of the funding was changed.
Other companies that reportedly developed Uyghur detection features have largely evaded scrutiny. Alibaba’s cloud services provider, the largest in China, lists “Is [the face] Uyghur?” as an attribute it can detect and filed a patent for ethnicity detection in 2016, according to a 2020 Ipvm report. The company said it was “dismayed” when it learned an ethnicity detection feature was being tested and that it was eliminated from the product offering and would not be used in the future. “This trial technology was not deployed by any customer,” said Brion Tingler, AliBaba’s head of external affairs in the US, in a statement. In addition to other companies such as Tiandy and Uniview, which also reportedly developed Uyghur face detection, Alibaba has not appeared on any of the ban lists.
Louisa Greve, the director of global advocacy at the Uyghur Human Rights Project argued that those companies deserve scrutiny and that the Biden administration should expand its executive order to include all the firms that are on the entity list.
“Governments should impose sanctions that do not allow these companies to freely profit despite being an integral part of a genocidal crackdown,” she said.