By Benny Sun
“I begged them to kill me” Here, Mihrigul Tursun, a Uighur Muslim, describes her experiences in China’s infamous Muslim re-education facilities, evoking historic sentiments similar to those found during Nazi Germany’s brutal persecution of Jews in the 1930s and its meager international response. “I still have scars on my body from the constant beatings and pain in my wrists and ankles from the chains. I cannot hear on my right ear caused by heavy beatings”. As a sufferer under China’s systematic oppression, Mihrigul Tursun’s experiences are not a rare occurrence, but rather a part of a broader trend towards authoritarianism and human rights abuse now being propped up by the digital and internet age. With innovations in computer science, such as social media and artificial intelligence rapidly increasing, so too is a voracious wave of “techno-dystopia” utilizations that are threatening to sweep Asian countries in a flood of increasingly intrusive and prevalent surveillance.
A prominent manifestation of the surveillance state in Asia is China’s attempt to dismantle the livelihoods of ethnic Muslims across the Chinese region. Since its military occupation by China in the 1950s, the communist party has utilized the autonomous region of Xinjiang as a prison to oppress 10 million Uighur Muslim minorities through constant surveillance, burdensome restrictions, and dehumanizing policies. As a part of China’s “de-extremification policy”, Chinese officials attempt to coerce Uighur Muslims into relinquishing their Muslim beliefs and praising Chinese communist ideology. While China notoriously describes the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang as a part of the “peaceful vocational process” to inhibit “religious extremism” and “separatism”, investigative reports from the Economist, in contrast, paint a horrific narrative of coercive torture and inflicted violence.
Armed with state-of-the-art recognition software from recent technological advances which can distinguish between different facial features and skin tones, Chinese authorities can effortlessly target and track the movements of individual Uighurs. Every piece of biological data imaginable is entered into government records, with China storing fingerprints, blood samples, and voice recordings for each Uighur individual. On the internet, every single word on online chatrooms and social media is monitored by authorities where a single jab against the Chinese Communist Party may mean the difference between freedom and confinement. Overall, by silencing the minority voice through the extreme censorship of political expression, China has erected a technological surveillance state similar to that found in Orwell’s 1984, almost following it faithfully like a guidebook on the repression of rights.
China’s experiment in Xinjiang has also become a standard to be replicated by other authoritarian countries, with China exporting the same surveillance technology to over 60 countries, including Iran, Venezuela, and now India. Amid the rise of anti-Islamic views and Hindu-nationalism spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, more Muslims are increasingly under the control of blatantly exclusionary policies and enhanced government surveillance. For instance, over the summer of 2019, Modi passed legislation that erased the statehood for two Muslim-majority regions, Jammu and Kashmir. Modi also kicked off around nearly 2 million Muslims from citizenship in India, causing a divisive domestic and international uproar among Muslims who all protest in large groups across the country to fight off Modi’s tyranny. Unfortunately, this only served as a pretext for India’s further expansion of repression through surveillance and technology.
When delving more deeply into India’s treatment of its Muslim-majority regions, one can see glaring resemblances to China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. In these regions, India has cut off internet access and mobile and postal communication, measures even more extreme than those in China, isolating millions of Indian Muslims from the global world. In Kashmir, Chinese corporation Hikvision has set up thousands of CCTV surveillance systems, and India has also utilized its drones to monitor local mosques and movements of Muslims in India. Unfortunately, under this expanding surveillance state, this technology has already been used to oppress, with law enforcement agencies in India in February using facial recognition software to identify over 1,100 individuals at a recent riot for Muslim rights. Unlike China, however, there is still some hope left for India’s minority population; recently, local groups and even the United Nations Human Rights Council have sued Modi’s administration under India’s Supreme Court for violating an article under the Constitution which promotes equality among all citizens in India. As many of the justices in the Indian Supreme Court have been critical of Modi’s previous actions, many hope that their judgment could roll back months of racist legislation originating from Modi’s religious war on Muslim Indians. Even still, these actions cannot unduly reverse the destructive effects of Modi’s surveillance regime.
However, without regarding the consequences of religious discrimination, China’s and India’s actions betray the possible rise of a broader, dangerous trend across Asia this pattern of mass surveillance continues, a multitude of consequences could result. First and foremost, their actions could embolden dictatorships and democracies to encroach upon the precious privacy of its citizens, enabling politicians to discriminate against entire populations based on race, religion, and gender. On the bright side, although the Western World has adopted surveillance to monitor its people, Time Magazine writer Charlie Campbell explains that “Western democracies have enacted safeguards to protect citizens… while China [seeks]... to exploit it and weaponize it”. China’s actions to utilize its technology could leave behind a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world to follow, where more susceptible democracies such as Bolivia and South Africa could perceive China’s surveillance expansion as a greenlight to strip away their citizen’s own privacy as well. Therefore, many see China’s rise in surveillance sales as a new opportunity for China to export its model of authoritarianism and dictatorship over democratic ideals.
Moreover, the rise of techno-digital dystopia could be further impacted by other crises, primarily China’s own coronavirus outbreak. With a rising number of coronavirus cases quickly becoming a global pandemic, New York University’s Rina Chandran predicts that Asian countries such as Malaysia and Thailand could be using the COVID-19 epidemic to clamp down on free speech via the use of Big Data to and AI to track and locate protestors of their governance. Unfortunately, by suppressing potential criticisms in these governments, it is also slowing down the spread of awareness for the Coronavirus. For instance, China, expanding its surveillance technology from Xinjiang into the mainland, imposed strict information controls while also arresting and punishing people who criticized Chinese authorities for mishandling the outbreak. “There’s a danger that when you increase surveillance and information controls, it can undermine the public health system,” said Chandran, who cites the instance of a Chinese doctor who initially warned the international community about the virus and was subsequently arrested.
With more governments in Asia seeking surveillance as a method to control crises and gain greater control, many must first understand the political implications of such a decision: it’s potential to drive dictatorship and fall under corruption. Thus, Chandran concludes: “Surveillance itself can never be a solution”.