From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”
Today: Under Xi Jinping, China is pioneering a new form of governance by surveillance. In the first of a two-part series, my colleague Paul Mozur on how China piloted that system on one minority group in the country. It’s Monday, May 6.
Paul, we’ve actually never met. You are in town from China. I’m hoping you’re going to tell me why.
Yeah, so I’ve been reporting in and around China for about 12 years. And there’s always been a lot of control. I think people are aware of that. They’re aware there’s censorship. They’re aware that people can be followed, and there is a certain amount of surveillance. But in the past five years, things have really changed and taken a much more dramatic and darker turn, really, when it comes to, especially, surveillance. And that coincides with the rise of Xi Jinping. China’s president who came into power about five years ago has really doubled down on control. And he has been not shy at all about using technology to exert that control. And there’s a lot of things that are invisible in how that works, but one of the very few visible symptoms are the cameras. There were always some cameras in China, but recently, past couple of years, the cameras have just gone in in this dramatic way. Some of them look like these baroque modernist sculptures or something. It’s like four cameras stretching off of a different pole, or you have a camera hanging from a tree. There’s these almost hidden cameras in the subway cars, these little holes. And if you look closely at them, you say, oh, my God, that’s actually a lens. I counted the cameras on my way to work one day, which is a two-subway-stop ride. And I passed, I think, 250 cameras.
In what kind of places? Where are you seeing them?
All kinds of places. Every intersection will have dozens of cameras to catch people’s license plates as they drive by. About every 50 yards, you’ll have a camera on a pole that’s a dome camera that can zoom in and grab their faces or follow somebody if you have to. And when you walk down stairs, there’s these high-powered facial recognition cameras aimed at your face, with the idea of trying to figure out who you are as you walk by.
And who’s on the other side of those cameras?
Yeah, it’s what I always wonder. We don’t always know. And this is the thing about China, is that it is an autocratic system with very little transparency. For the most part, what we assume is a newly empowered police force is using these to try to learn as much as they can about the population and track them.
But to the degree that there’s a rationale for this, what is it?
Security. Safety. We want to make sure that if something bad were to happen in our neighborhood, we could protect ourselves. But in some recent reporting, what we discovered is the true breathtaking ways in which the police are already assembling lists of faces of people that they’re worried about, and even using it to mark people based on ethnicity and race, and track them and keep a record. It’s as if you were just counting only one group of people as they went around a city and keeping tabs so that you can go back and see which person that was. And in America, this would be horrendously unconstitutional. But in China, it had been happening for almost two years without anybody even noticing.
And why would China want to do that? Why would it track a group of people by race through cameras and this classification system?
Right. So China has had this long issue with a Muslim minority known as the Uighurs, who live out in western China, this massive province, a fifth the size of China’s landmass, called Xinjiang. It’s mostly desert and really high mountains. It’s the old Silk Road. And these people have lived there for more than 1,000 years in these tiny little oasis cities around the desert. And China has occupied their land for several hundred years now. And as China has occupied it, for the most part, until maybe the past 50 or 60 years, it’s mostly just been a far-flung place. But under the Chinese Communist Party, they’ve really solidified power. And they’ve started to change the demographics. So they’ve created all these passive incentives to move Han Chinese into this region.
To basically make it less Muslim? More Chinese?
Exactly. And so, 50 or 60 years ago, there were almost no Chinese, and it was all Uighurs. Now it’s 50 percent Chinese, 50 percent Uighur. And that’s created all of these conflicts.
But everything really changed in 2009. What happens is, there’s violence in this small factory in southern China. And it turns out that there was a rumor that these two Uighur factory workers raped a Chinese woman, and then when the ethnic Chinese confront the Uighur population at the factory, a big fight breaks out, where, ultimately, two Uighurs end up beaten to death.
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And there’s a video of this on YouTube, and it goes around.
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And in a tinderbox like Xinjiang, where you have all of these other tensions there, it becomes one of the main causes for this massive outburst of rioting and anger in the capital of Urumqi.
Thousands of Uighurs take to the streets, some with knives, and they murder about 200 Han Chinese.
So it’s a brutal and large-scale race riot.
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And following that, the military is mobilized. The internet is cut off in Xinjiang, so you cannot get online. Even phone calls outside the country are no longer allowed. It’s a new level of suffocating technological response. And so in the ensuing decade, what they’ve tried to do is figure out methods to systematize it. And so they’ve turned to the police, and they’ve turned to technology.
Have you been back there recently?
Yes. So I went back in October to Kashgar.
It’s a transformed place. It’s one of the most bizarre places I think I’ve ever been. We’re, of course, followed by secret police wherever we go. There are checkpoints every couple hundred yards. And they’ve created these things called convenience police centers. So think of a convenience store, but it’s a police station instead. So these small concrete boxes with constantly flashing lights. And they’re every couple hundred yards, and police are in them. And they’ll set up checkpoints there. But the idea is to blanket the city with this very suffocating level of police presence and surveillance. This is an old, mud-brick city, filled with bazaars.
And now what you have is that look with these tremendously powerful facial recognition cameras hanging from a mud-brick wall, and there are cameras absolutely everywhere.
And so you have this very bizarre contrast of a place that in some ways feels like it could be timeless and 1,000 years old, with these hyper-modern technological solutions attempting to understand and track the populations.
So tell me about that tracking. So clearly, China is very anxious that this Muslim population is going to revolt or just generally disobey the desires of the Chinese government. So how does that translate into this surveillance apparatus? What are they going to do with the image of a Muslim man or woman in this place that’s going to stop that?
Well, so they’ve already thrown about a million people in camps.
Well, they call them re-education camps. And we don’t have a lot of understanding of what happens inside. But it seems to be day-long classes and people being made to sit and hear Chinese Communist Party theory and propaganda and things like that. They need excuses to put people in these places. So if you have this massive surveillance system, you can find people that you think might be dangerous or might be risky. But the thing is, it’s so over the top and so extreme, people get thrown in because they’re an academic, because they’re influential, because they use technology, because they wouldn’t shave their beard, because they read the Quran. There’s a million different ways. What they’ve done is just tracked everybody all the time in a way that nobody even can go out their door without feeling the weight of the gaze of the state.
Right. Everything you just described would be something that you could capture on camera. You would see someone with a beard. You might see someone reading the Quran. And that could be the trigger.
Right. And they’ve hung lots of cameras in mosques. So the Id Kah Mosque is this beautiful, mustard yellow mosque that sits in the center of old Kashgar. It’s the heart of Uighur Islam. And I think I counted more than 200 cameras inside the mosque, trying to capture worshippers who would come and go. And there aren’t many worshippers anymore, of course, because who’s going to go walk in front of those cameras and show their faces? And then that very easily can just go into a database, and then they have a data point. They know that Michael was right outside the Id Kah Mosque at this time. And then when he leaves the Id Kah Mosque, he’ll have to give his ID again. And then when he goes down to the marketplace, he has to give his ID again. And that way, you can build a comprehensive map of where you’re going. If you want to go to the bank, if you want to go to a grocery store, you have to do this. If you want to enter the old city, you have to do it. And so, it effectively just makes it impossible to do anything in this society without constantly giving up your private information to the state and to the police.
And what you’re describing is the definition of dystopia.
Yeah. And it goes even deeper than this. Around 2017, 2016, in Kashgar, we’ve heard that many people were called in for compulsory medical checkups. And they never got the results of the medical checkup. But what the medical checkup was was they had to give a blood sample, and their faces were scanned. And they had to give a voice sample, irises were scanned. And so just a mass collection of a single ethnicity’s biometric information. And we don’t really know entirely what they’ll do with all of that. In our reporting, we’ve seen parts of this. We’ve seen some of the dossiers. And so they can map people’s family relationships.
Wow. And what might the Chinese government do with that information? About family members, all those connections?
They use it to lean on people. And they use it to intimidate people. And they use it to show that they are so powerful that there would be no point, in a way, to resist or push back. And you could see it in the population, the fear.
I’m trying to understand where this leads to, because this doesn’t seem like an effort to acculturate people or to encourage them toward a Chinese identity. If anything, the people who are being subjected to this would most likely resent the Chinese government, right?
Right. I think the thinking goes further than that. The hope is ultimately to, I think, change the population fundamentally — to re-engineer a new way of life for these people that is basically Chinese. And I think the ultimate goal here is to eradicate Uighur culture. And the thing is, if they fail, well, then they have a culture so completely in their control that it’s no longer a threat in any way.
Paul, what’s the relationship between what’s happening to the Uighurs and the larger surveillance state in China? If the rest of China is already Chinese, how does this all connect?
So a lot of people like to call Xinjiang the laboratory for Chinese surveillance. So if you have any kind of draconian solution to tracking somebody or figuring out what somebody is doing on their phone, you can try it out in Xinjiang, and then see what happens. In Xinjiang, they can get away with a lot more, because you have an ethnic minority that is already so beset that they can’t really push back.
A group without any power.
Right, exactly. In the rest of China, you see something that’s a little bit more passive, but you see a constant creep.
On the subway, for instance, you start to see more checkpoints. The police just sit out where people are transferring, and they just stop people at random, and they scan their ID card, just like what happened in Xinjiang. And one of the things our reporting showed is that it’s not just Uighurs they’re looking for in these cities. They’re making lists of people’s faces depending on what kind of group they are. So they are making lists of the mentally ill. They’re making lists of people with a past history of drug use. They’re making lists of people who would petition the government or complain about the government. But they also have lists of every single person registered to live in that city. So the idea isn’t just to track these small groups. It’s to track everyone, with the idea that if somebody were to get out of line, then you know everything about them to begin with.
So this is about every single person in China?
I’m struck that all of this is happening at the same time that China is becoming a world power whose influence is growing so much overseas, because those things don’t quite seem to be consistent. In fact, they seem to be very contradictory.
Right. And I think they’ve basically proved that wrong, that you can have censorship and you can have a closed society, in some ways, and a controlled society, but also have a booming tech sector. And this is the first time in probably 30 years that we’ve had an autocratic state alongside the United States at the cutting edge of technology. So if you think about it, democracies have dominated technological creation since the fall of the Berlin Wall, effectively. Now China’s coming along, and they’re making technologies, but these technologies are suited for their purposes. And in a lot of cases, those purposes have some authoritarian component to them, or some point of control to them. Very intentional control. And in fact, as they’ve risen, they’ve used all of this as a selling point. So think to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. This is China’s coming-out party as a new superpower.
They’ve outfitted the capital with tons of security to make sure it goes well, to make sure there’s no protests, but also to make sure there’s no attacks or anything. And so they load up the city with 300,000 cameras that the government was controlling.
Because, of course, this is a moment where you actually do want a lot of security.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So they really pulled out all the stops.
But then what they did when all these international leaders arrived to see the Olympics is they took them into the back rooms where you could see all these cameras operating. They show the screens. They show, this is how our policing system works.
So who is in there?
So we don’t know everybody that visited. But what we do know is that countries like Ecuador sent delegations — places that might be struggling with democracy or even already being led by strongmen, who have come to check this out. And there’s screens up with video footage from these thousands and thousands of cameras. And they can see how the Chinese security forces can see everything. They look at it, and they say, well, this is pretty powerful. I wonder if we could get this. And that’s where it starts. And so now what we’re seeing is those technologies are beginning to flow to the world. And so all of a sudden, on the streets of Quito, you see the same cameras that you would see in Shanghai. And that’s not just happening there. That’s happening in Venezuela. That’s happening in Bolivia. That’s happening in Angola. That’s happening in Pakistan. It’s happening around the world.
Paul, what do you make of this global spread of surveillance, starting in China? What does it tell you about the changes you’ve seen in China in recent years and where all this is headed?
It tells me that, I think, the Chinese government believes it has created a different model and a new model, and they want to propagate it. They want to spread it. And they want to give other countries the ability to do what they’ve done and, in that way, influence the world. So this is — governance by data, governance by mass surveillance, is, in a way, the Chinese model now, and they want to bring it to the world. And what this encourages is authoritarianism, because it uses technology unapologetically to consolidate power by understanding what everybody’s doing and where they are at any given moment. And I think it’s an important moment for democracies like the United States, because they need to recognize this is happening, but also say, well, what does the United States stand for in all this? Do they stand for data collection, as well, without telling anybody? Do you stand for something else? Because the United States at this point is so lost in its own debates —
Right. So do we stand in contrast to that?
Right. Exactly. And that’s the thing — as I write about this from China, it’s unclear where the United States stands in all of it.
In a world where this model that you’re describing is spreading around the world, how exactly does China benefit from that? Because there are fewer and fewer places where a democratic government without surveillance challenges it?
I think the idea is if you give the people you’re dealing with these systems, you increase their power. And that means the people you’re dealing with are more likely to keep dealing with you and be the ones in power. So there’s a sort of perpetuation. But I think there’s also just a broader sense of the more countries around the world that do this, the more it’s deemed acceptable by the world, and the more that they have reliable partners who are following what they’re doing and reliant on them and allow them to push how governance works. And so in a way, they become the axle, and all of these different places become the spokes in this wheel, the new version of global governance, a new alternative to the messy democracies of the past.
Governance by data.
Governance by data and surveillance.
Paul, thank you very much.
On Sunday, The Times reported that the Trump administration has decided not to confront China over its repressive treatment of the Uighurs, for fear that it could disrupt the final stages of a major trade deal between the two countries. The administration had considered imposing economic sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the repression, but has since backed away from that plan. In Part 2, we’ll hear from one Uighur man living in the U.S. who is trying to fight for his family in the camps in China.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today.
On Sunday, fighting between Israel and Gaza escalated into the worst combat since the full-blown war between them in 2014. Four Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinian rocket and missile attacks, prompting Israel to take aim at individual militants in Gaza, killing at least nine of them and as many civilians.
- archived recording (benjamin netanyahu)
During a news conference, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, promised massive attacks against the militants in Gaza.
- archived recording (benjamin netanyahu)
The Palestinian rocket attacks mostly struck civilian targets in southern Israel with no military value, including a building that houses a kindergarten and the oncology department of a medical center. The violence is the latest in a long-running series of clashes that have produced temporary ceasefires that are quickly broken. And President Trump on Sunday said that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should not testify before Congress, setting up another confrontation with congressional Democrats, who have requested Mueller’s appearance. In a tweet, the president said that Mueller’s report was conclusive and that Americans do not need to hear from him again. “No redos for the Dems,” he wrote. Because Mueller was appointed by the Department of Justice, which answers to the president, it appears that Trump has the authority to prevent Mueller from testifying.
That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.