What drives the Hong Kong protesters? Fear. They dread 2047 when Hong Kong comes completely under the jurisdiction of the Communist Party and is subject to the CCP’s rule of law rather than Hong Kong’s own laws under the current “one country, two systems” regime. According to the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, after the handover from Britain to China in 1997, Hong Kong will have fifty years to live as a democratic society. Young Hongkongers in particular fear that the unique Hong Kong identity will be subsumed by the Party’s social engineering along with their freedoms.
Several protesters have pointed to the Uyghur people in the Xianjing province (The Uyghur Autonomous Region) as living through the very scenario that they fear for Hong Kong, as The Atlantic learned:
If we stand down, nothing will stand between us and mainland China, they said. They talked about Xianjing, and what China had done to the Uighur minority. I’ve heard about the fate of the Uighurs from so many protesters over the months. China may have wanted to make an example out of the region, but the lesson Hong Kongers took was in the other direction—resist with all your might, because if you lose once, there will be a catastrophe for your people, and the world will ignore it.Zeynep Tufekci, “The Hong Kong Protesters Aren’t Driven by Hope” at The Atlantic (November 12, 2019)
Artists from Hong Kong have captured these anxieties in films and exhibits such as the Countdown Clock, counting down to July 1, 2047, the date Hong Kong’s special status expires and traditional civil liberties cease to exist.
Oxygen, a 2016 short film [here] by Yip Yuen-ching which won the 2016 Hong Kong youth film award, captures the fear of technological authoritarianism. In a gritty post-apocalyptic Hong Kong ,fifty years after 2047, the once-thriving metropolis is transformed to a dingy industrial wasteland. Amid dire conditions, everyone has a surveillance chip as a neck implant.
Total oppression is still a dystopic future in Hong Kong but it is currently being used in an attempt to obliterate the way of life of the Uyghurs of Xianjing.
HongKongers fear the fate of the Uyghurs
Xianjing is presently a surveillance state whose public square and way of life are being replaced by CCP-sanctioned building projects and state-run “re-education centers” that are really internment camps. A recent extensive New York Times report based on leaked documents outlined Beijing’s extensive high-tech monitoring of suspicious activity, namely any mention of religion or religious practices. As “Absolutely No Mercy” (November 16, 2019) by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley records, the capital of Xianjing, Urumqi, is now under complete video surveillance. Most inhabited areas are under some kind of CCTV surveillance, and the Uyghur population’s online activity is constantly monitored.
This past week, IPVM, an independent organization that provides information on video surveillance, reported that Hikvision (one of China’s three major facial-recognition companies) advertised on its Chinese website “an AI camera that automatically identifies Uyghurs.” That is, the camera can distinguish between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Uyghurs already endure discrimination; they are popularly considered terrorists in various parts of China. Surveillance technology that, at least in theory, can distinguish between ethnicities would only make discrimination worse. When IPVM contacted Hikvision about their product, the company simply deleted the advertisement.
But high-tech surveillance doesn’t stop with the Uyghurs. Bitter Winter, a magazine that reports on religious persecution in China, reports that these same surveillance tactics are used elsewhere in China on religious believers. For example, in Hubei province, congregants entering a Three-Self Church (a government-sanctioned Protestant church) must undergo a facial recognition scan and a fingerprint scan. This biometric data is placed in a file along with the names of family members, with information as to whether any family works for the government.
State-sanctioned churches have little freedom and surveillance is so extensive that cameras are placed in locations that most other countries would deem inappropriate or illegal:
Clearly, hi-tech surveillance has become an essential tool for the CCP to regulate and suppress religious belief. Unlike house churches, members of Three-Self churches are seemingly allowed to hold religious gatherings. In reality, though, intrusive surveillance systems, such as the Sharp Eyes Project, have long been introduced into state-run churches, with cameras installed even in washrooms of some places of worship, to ensure comprehensive monitoring.”Cai Congxin, “Want to Enter Church? Scan Your Fingerprints and Face” at Bitter Winter
Other churches have had the same technology installed so attendees of any gathering of people can be accounted for by government authorities.
China’s Sharp Eyes Project
While Hongkongers are worried about 2047, the Chinese government is building toward another deadline: 2020. The CCP’s goal is to have 100% nationwide video surveillance coverage next year, an effort known as the “Sharp Eyes Project” or “Xueliang Project”. It began in 2016 and is meant to cover all rural areas, in the hope of eventual “blind-spot free monitoring,” although IPVM says that, realistically, Sharp Eyes goals will likely not be completed in 2020.
According to IPVM, those goals include:
- The coverage rate of video surveillance in key public areas must reach 100%
- The video monitoring coverage rate of important parts of key industries and fields must reach 100%
- The coverage of video surveillance in public areas of residential communities should reach 100%.
- The proportion of newly- built and reconstructed high-definition cameras must reach 100% (“China Public Video Surveillance Guide: From Skynet to Sharp Eyes” by Charles Rollet, IPVM, June 14, 2018).
A key part of this project is connecting all of the video data to a central network, the Public Security Police Cloud, where facial recognition technology coupled with algorithms can identify people and predict whether they pose a threat. This database would include biometric data, family history, and medical records, as well as other personal data that would allow authorities to look for aberrations in behavior so they can preemptively stop crimes. In the past, pre-crime has been treAted as science fiction. We will see.
Video surveillance is widespread internationally but no country uses it to the same extent as China. Apart from the fact that, as IPVM says, Western uses are more limited in scope and intent, their citizens can push back on unwanted surveillance through lobbying and at the polls. For example, a digital rights group in the U.S. has been calling for more limits on the use of facial scans in Washington, D.C.
Is this the future? In the film Oxygen, Hong Kong residents’ tracking chips are activated by a government official who is then seen monitoring the main character’s chip as she meets with other rebels. The film concludes with the line “In a panopticon, dissent will never be heard.”
But surveillance doesn’t stop at China’s borders. China has helped several countries along their Belt and Road plan to construct “smart cities” by providing them with cameras and facial recognition technology. As we’ll see in my next article, many observers have expressed concern that equipping the beneficiaries with surveillance gear will considerably expand China’s own surveillance network.
Here are some of Heather Zeiger ’s recent reports on the high tech battle for freedom in Hong Kong:
Tiananmen Square 30 Years On: Words Still Have Power Back then, students fought oppression via the fax. They depended on free media in Hong Kong to tell the world
Hi-tech Freedom Game in Hong Kong: Technology can oppress a people group or it can give them a voice
Can China really silence Hong Kong?
The unadvertised cost of doing business with China: It’s a big market, with one Big Player, and some strange rules. In China, censorship includes democracy, human rights, sex, George Orwell’s 1984, and Winnie-the-Pooh (because the stuffed literary bear has been compared by some Chinese bloggers to their President). Such censorship, say many, minimizes the value of the internet.
China: What You Didn’t Say Could Be Used Against You An AI voiceprint could be used to generate words never said.
In China, high-tech racial profiling is social policy. For an ethnic minority, a physical checkup includes blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recordings. The Chinese government seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law.
The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself. China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uyghurs, a strategically critical minority.