In a recent article for Time magazine, Charlie Campbell explored “What the Chinese Surveillance State Means for the Rest of the World” and reported that “surveillance in China’s restive region of Xinjiang has helped put an estimated 1 million people into “re-education centers” akin to concentration camps, according to the UN.

“Many were arrested, tried and convicted by computer algorithm based on data harvested by the cameras that stud every 20 steps in some parts.” Do we dispassionately sit back and watch this blatant removal of civil liberties, including freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and individual choice, because it is happening in China?

Uighur Suppression: Some Context

In November 2019 the New York Times (NYT) published an exposé detailing the mass detention of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim minority, in the Xinjiang region. Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley reported that papers amounting to 403 pages were leaked by “a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity and expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Mr. Xi [China’s president], from escaping culpability for the mass detentions”. It is true that the detentions were in response to terrorism—Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and occupy a region that is mineral rich and abundant in natural gas, have resisted Chinese rule for decades. Violence has been increasing in the region since 2009, with a government crackdown beginning in April 2014 just after a horrific attack at Kunming railway station. Attackers entered the station with knives and slashed at people regardless of age, purportedly even slashing a five-year-old child. Mr. Xi’s response, the NYT reports, was to call for “an all-out ‘struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism’ using the ‘organs of dictatorship,’ and showing ‘absolutely no mercy.’” Mr Xi further stated that China should adopt elements of America’s “war on terror” with Chinese officials saying that terror attacks in Britain had occurred because of policies that put “human rights above security.” This hints at an interesting mutuality of interests between China and the US, since the US—at immigration control points—is also  initiating means of expanding social control through the same facial recognition technology used by China. In this piece, we consider whether the US—and the West in general—is similarly reversing the priorities of human rights versus “security”.

On 6 February 2020, the World Uyghur Congress stated in an online report that the United Nations and United States estimate “more than 1 million and as many as 3 million Uyghurs and other indigenous peoples” are in mass detention and that there are reports of “overcrowding, malnutrition, physical and sexual abuse, organ harvesting and other grave human rights abuses”. These extreme human rights abuses were made possible in the first instance by surveillance technologies.

Exporting Chinese Surveillance

Edin Omanovic , a global surveillance expert,  points out that Ecuador’s surveillance system may have only some 30 people monitoring what is a nationwide camera system. Nevertheless, if has a powerful deterrent effect on the population. People moderate their own behaviour because they might be under surveillance, “and they don’t know how that information might be being used”.

In a 12-minute documentary for the NYT, Jonah M. Kessel exposes China’s exporting of surveillance technologies to autocratic rulers, using Ecuador’s ECU-911 (cameras that hang from the Galápagos Islands to the Amazonian jungle) to prove the point. In 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, China used the opportunity to sell their state-of-the-art surveillance set-up to visiting delegates. Ecuador was game but didn’t have the money. Martha Roldós, an Ecuadorian economist, politician and investigative journalist, explains how China and Ecuador got around this small inconvenience—Ecuador gives China oil and China gives Ecuador money—but there’s a catch: the money is usually for buying surveillance equipment from the Chinese and hiring Chinese enterprises. As of 2019, Ecuador had 4000 national security cameras which had been set up for them by the Chinese who also generously showed them how to use them. Interestingly though, some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods do not boast cameras, whilst opposite the home of Colonel Mario Pazmino (a critic of the former president, Rafael Correa) there is a lone camera that can see right into his living room and even into his daughters’ bedrooms. Campbell’s article for Time cites a 2018 Freedom House report stating that Chinese firms have been supplying “high-tech surveillance tools to at least 18 nations from Venezuela to Zimbabwe.”

Closer to home, in October 2017, delegates travelled to Shanghai, China, to learn how to improve South African policing. They were shown Shanghai’s impressive Municipal Public Security Bureau’s 24-hour command center—24 million citizens, 50 000 policemen and 31 000 cameras with facial recognition and websites for naming and shaming people who didn’t wait for the little green man to flash before crossing the road. In 2016 the Chinese-owned fibre company, Yangtze Optics, invested R150 million in South African fibre cable manufacturing. In February 2019, Vumacam used fibre-to-home technology to improve CCTV camera quality and in March 2019 it was announced that they planned to put up 15 000 cameras throughout the northern suburbs in Joburg. In February 2020 they announced their “excitement” over their plans to set up cameras in Soweto. According to Heidi Swart, writing for The Daily Maverick, Chinese surveillance technology company Hanghzhou Hikvision Digital Technologies has sold thousands of security cameras in SA and “South Africa’s State Security Agency – with its own shady past – has enjoyed a close relationship with China’s security forces.”

Here in South Africa, with the high rates of crime, CCTV security is obviously big business, but it would be naïve to deny the potential for hacking, leaks and most alarmingly, state abuse of information. These threats are always going to be present.

It creates a situation that Shoshana Zuboff of the Harvard Law School calls “surveillance capitalism”, leading on from Silicon Valley and “behavioral futures markets” in which predictions of behaviour are bought and sold: we end up resembling “a controlled ‘hive’ of total connection that seduces with promises of total certainty for maximum profit—at the expense of democracy, freedom, and our human future.”

Meanwhile, in the good old land of the free, American Customs and Border Protection (CBD) said in October 2019 there should be no limits to expanding facial recognition tech at airports and borders repeatedly saying of their biometric face-scanning programme “[this is] absolutely not a surveillance programme”. Also in 2019, San Francisco chose to block police in the city from using facial recognition software last year.

The Panopticon and Liberal Values

In 1791 the Utilitarian English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, designed the Panopticon, a model for an institutional building that allowed for all inmates (prisoners or mental patients) to be watched by a single security guard without knowing when or if they were being watched. Clearly a pragmatic system designed to facilitate control over the inmates: prisoners, with no rights to privacy. As a millennial, I grew up playing with a toy cellphone (wanting a real one); as a teenager I had a flip cellphone and conducted some of what seemed to be the most important conversations of my life on Facebook, and I experienced a sense of wonder at the emergence of touch screen phones—thought they were cool. I was in control of amazing media for communications, and privacy didn’t seem much of an issue then. Smart phones threw me a bit: why would you want your phone to be “smart”? But then, there’s email on your phone, fitness apps, and of course WhatsApp. But, with all this communication technology, we’ve been building our own, very glossy, gilded Panopticon, where privacy and liberty simply no longer seem that important. A state of mind all too easily exploited by the state.


Up till now, the point of democracy has been to allow people a measure of autonomy, choice and freedom. At the moment, we are allowing technological initiatives to be implemented in the background of our own addiction to social media. What we are actually doing is building ourselves a very gilded cage and signing-away our power, because as we change technology, we are allowing technology to change us. What is happening to the Uighurs in China is evidence of surveillance taken to a level entirely out of our hands, and to discount the social repercussions of that technology is to discount the pain and suffering of an entire people. China’s current presence in Africa hints at neocolonialism. Is this Chinese world what we want? A world where the price of being different or refusing to submit to imperial rule is detention camps and terrible abuses?

At the end of the day, surveillance and social credit are nothing less than systems of control over prisoners. Civil liberties must give way to the total control of personal behaviour in the interests of “security”. From the perspective of this author, liberty is far too essential to be sacrificed to surveillance capitalism.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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