A totalitarian surveillance city in China should be a warning to us all
June 22, 2020 | The Washington Post | By Bill Drexel
Bill Drexel was a 2018-2019 Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he researched Chinese state surveillance.
Large red X’s smeared across the doors of each home. Transformers ripped from their sockets. A lone child’s tricycle, abandoned in the street.
It was around 10:30 one night in the fall of 2018 when I fumbled around the darkness of Kashgar’s historic Yarbeshi neighborhood, famous for being the last authentic holdout of traditional Kashgari culture. Locals and recent travel blogs had both assured me that, although guards blocked foreigners’ entry to Yarbeshi during the day, I would find a vibrant night market if I snuck in after 10 p.m. Instead, I was confronted by evidence of a mass disappearance.
A stone’s throw away, a festive night market was in full swing in a re-creation of Kashgar’s historic district — where the Uighur culture on display was cheap, bubbly and state-approved. There, residents were helpful and smiling, but had a curious tendency to avoid eye contact for any length of time. Of course, furtive glances and nervous smiles in a surveillance state like Xinjiang are not unusual, but the atmosphere of Kashgar was decidedly more perverse. As tech companies renegotiate their relationship to policing technologies in light of recent protests, the extraordinary example of Kashgar is prescient, demonstrating the most sophisticated use of surveillance technology for minority repression in the world today.
My research for the Uyghur Human Rights Project has shown me the reasons for Kashgar’s unprecedented plight: In China’s ongoing vivisection of the Uighur body politic, Kashgar represents the heart of the Uighur people. The Chinese state is mutilating the whole of Xinjiang, but in Kashgar it is also trying to induce a new pulse.
Unlike the rest of Xinjiang, in which surveillance tech was largely retrofitted into cityscapes, Kashgar has been entirely rebuilt from the ground up to support more comprehensive urban surveillance, vast economic exploitation, and — uniquely — an immersive set of normalizing rituals to inject a new Uighur culture into Xinjiang. Indeed, in the past two decades, Kashgar has gone from being the “cradle of Uighur culture” and the ancient “Pearl of the Silk Road” to a neo-totalitarian ethnic theme park, urban gulag and crucible of state conformity.
Despite the protests of UNESCO, the European Parliament and international media, the old city of Kashgar was razed between 2009 and 2014, destroying more than 90 percent of the city’s irreplaceable, centuries-old architecture. The old city was then rebuilt in an artificial semblance of its old self, reengineered for better surveillance and ethnic tourism.
The government leased this new, synthetic heart of Uighur society to the Beijing Zhongkun Investment Group, which advertised it as a “living Uighur folk museum,” just as government incentives brought waves of Chinese investors and settlers to “develop” the rest of the city. Part of that development was the growth of Chinese surveillance technologies — now a multibillion-dollar industry in its own right — largely trained off of data from places such as Kashgar.
Kashgar’s homes were once evenly distributed around centuries-old community mosques; now, they are evenly distributed around “convenience police stations” systematically built every couple of blocks. Instead of mosques’ community traditions, these hubs of surveillance order society through intimidation and real-time analysis. The facial recognition cameras lining the streets create an urban, high-tech apartheid: automatically clearing thousands of Chinese and foreign tourists to wander about freely, while managing the spaces and speeds at which the Uighurs can move in their own cultural capital. Indeed, the Chinese tech company Hikvision has even advertised artificial-intelligence cameras that can automatically identify Uighurs based on their phenotypes.
Under thousands of watchful, analytic eyes, many customs such as traditional burial rites or praying have been entirely erased. But other traditions must be performed — with sufficient patriotic flair — lest China’s Uighur experiment reveal some of its inhumanity. In this way, the city’s bustling cultural activities have taken on a zombie-like quality, animated by surveillance-induced restlessness.
The recent campaigns of mass incarceration, internment and forced labor give a hard edge to the city whose infrastructure, economics and customs were already comprehensively wired to dismantle a people and force them into a gigantic, normalizing urban ritual. The government now aims to put 20 percent of Kashgar’s entire Uighur population into forced or involuntary labor, even while the public face of the city is operated by Uighurs constrained to commodify and perform their ancient culture to the outside world as though nothing is wrong.
The power of surveillance technology to work against minorities is considerable, and nowhere is this clearer than in Kashgar. It should be a warning. Some companies — such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft — have voluntarily restricted their facial recognition businesses for fear of contributing to racial bias. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) It’s time for others that are still contributing to China’s repressive surveillance ecosystem to take a hard look at their policies.
As Kashgar shows, these corporate decisions are weighty. Total surveillance-control of a minority has already been achieved, with sobering efficacy. It must not spread further.