The New York Times's chilling multimedia package on China's use of "smart city" tech to create an open-air prison

One of my mottoes is that the important thing about tech isn't what it does, it's who it does it to, and who it does it for; this is especially important in discussions of "smart city" tech, which can easily be turned to systems of population-scale surveillance, control and oppression.

China's imprisonment of up to 1,000,000 ethnic minority Muslims in concentration camps in Xinjiang province is well known, but less-well-understood are the systems of oppressive technology that are being deployed outside of these prison camps: mandatory mobile malware that spies on every step you take, used in combination with DNA-level surveillance and other tools.

In a chilling, beautifully reported multimedia package, the New York Times's Chris Buckley, Paul Mozur and Austin Ramzy paint a picture of life in Kashgar, a historically significant city in Xinjiang where the majority of the population are drawn from predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities: Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Tajiks.

If Xinjiang is the living lab for oppressive technologies that China eventually rolls out across the whole country (and then sells to belt-and-road client states around Asia and Africa), then Kashgar is the lab for trialing new oppressive techniques before they are rolled out across Xinjiang.

The report paints a picture of a city forested with CCTVs, indoors and outdoors, where checkpoints every 100m are used to verify facial recognition biometrics and to spot-check that each person is running mandatory state malware on their mobile devices. The checkpoints are often staffed by Uighurs who are complicit in the oppression of their neighbors -- there just aren't enough Han Chinese in Xinjiang to accomplish this kind of artisanal, hand-crafted retail oppression. Whole, ancient neighborhoods have been razed to the ground and rebuilt to new streetplans that are easier to surveil and control.

People who are taken away to concentration camps lose everything -- including their children. Children of imprisoned people are kidnapped to orphanages, where they are subjected to harsh brainwashing to purge them of their parents' faith. Schoolchildren are quizzed about their parents' religious practices and a slip of the tongue can result in the whole family disappearing. Families also disappear when their neighbors rat them out, either out of fear or to settle some grudge.

The authors make the point that China sells its surveillance tech around the world as a "scalpel," but in Xinjiang, it is a "sledgehammer" -- an overwhelming show of force that is intended to instill terror to such a degree that even attempting to evade it is unthinkable.

How China Turned a City Into a Prison [Christopher Buckley, Paul Mozur and Austin Ramzy/New York Times]

(via Naked Capitalism)