China stoops to new low, country’s tech companies developing racist software and devices

The Chinese Communist  Party (CCP), under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, craves to establish China as a global power, a dominant force in the international arena. Xi Jinping believes that this goal can be achieved only if the identities of Chinese citizens have been consolidated into ‘one national identity’ by discarding their original vivid cultural heritage of Tibetans, Mongols and Uighurs.

In pursuit of this ‘national identity’, the Chinese government for decades has persecuted, harassed and practically enslaved members of minority communities, which make up 10 per cent of China’s population. From the monks of occupied Tibet to the Uighur Muslims of East Turkistan, the CCP has used every tool in its arsenal to suppress the rights and freedoms of these groups.

A recent patent application for software from Chinese telecom firm Huawei in collaboration with the Chinese government has revealed that the software covertly included Uighur detection analytics. As per a report published by IPVM, several Chinese tech companies other than Huawei have also been developing explicitly racist technology that includes devices and systems designed for Uighur and ethnic minority detection.

AI and facial recognition software are already widely used in China. Cameras with capabilities to detect facial features are used by police for security purposes. The advanced Chinese camera systems can detect whether a face is ‘Uighur’, ‘Han’ (the ethnic majority in China), or ‘other’.

The fact that the facial recognition software can only differentiate between Han Chinese and Uighur Muslims, while it classifies all other minorities as ‘Other’ is further proof that the CCP specifically targets Uighur Muslims, who are the ethnic minority that is already severely repressed in China. These criterions mentioned above are even included in the official CCP guideline when it comes to facial recognition. China’s three largest security camera manufactures- Hikvision, Dahua and Uniview – offer “Uighur analytics” as a selling point for their product.

As per IVPM, the patent application by Huawei and the People’s Republic of China was submitted in July 2018. The patent is for the “identification of pedestrian attributes”, Where it mentions that Uighur Muslims are one ‘race’ of people that can be detected using the software. So, using this technology, one can determine the gender, age, body type, clothing style and race of the targeted pedestrian, for example, wherein the pedestrian is Han Chinese or Uighur Muslim.

In December 2020, French football star Antoine Griezmann announced that he was ending his sponsorship with Huawei due to reports that Huawei was developing facial recognition technology that could help police identify and target Uighur Muslims in occupied East Turkistan and other parts of China. Huawei in its response stated that the company was against all forms of discrimination and that it was taking pro-active steps to amend its mistake.

The use of the word ‘proactive’ by the Chinese telecom firm is highly questionable because the company only got around to addressing the problem after IPVM and BBC exposed it. Moreover, it also implies that Chinese firms silently accepted the accusations.

China’s largest facial recognition start-up, Megvii, also applied for a patent in 2019. The patent was for a portrait retrieval device that extracts facial features. The patent specifically mentioned ‘ethnicity classification’, the ethnic classification mentioned in the Megvii patent confirmed with the PRC guideline and classified people as Han, Uighur, non-Han, non-Uighur and unknown. The Megvii patent also added that their device could be connected to the facial recognition infrastructure already built by the police. In December 2020, IPVM and The Washington Post exposed the fact that Huawei and Megvii both jointly tested something called ‘Uighur alarms’.

Similarly, China’s largest Al start-up, SenseTime, filed a patent application in July 2019 for a method and device meant for retrieving images. Within the patent, SenseTime classified ‘Uighurs’ as one of the ethnicities that could be actively searched for.

Alibaba, known as the ‘Amazon of China’ filed for a patent in 2018 for a “device and image recognition module”. The patent included the ability to choose race and ethnicity as possible options. While Uighur Muslims were not directly referred to, in the patent application, The New York Times reported last December revealed that Alibaba cloud offered Uighur recognition services on its API guide. After being exposed, Alibaba quickly took down its API guide.

 Ethnic Uighur Muslims are one of the most repressed minorities today in China. Uighurs largely reside in occupied East Turkistan (Xinjiang in China). Over the years, multiple reports have surfaced that revealed the detention of over a  million Uighurs in mass-detention centres operated by the CCP and the Chinese government. After being exposed, the CCP claimed that these  were mere “Vocational Education Training Centers.”

 As per the news outlet DW, the German Foreign Office released a report in 2019, wherein they termed these mass-detention centres as ‘re-education camps’ imposing  ‘draconian ideological training courses on the detainees.

What is occurring in Xinjiang is nothing short of a systematic campaign of ethnic profiling and arbitrary imprisonment of ethnic minorities outside of the law. In addition to setting up mass-detention centres, the CCP has also launched a large scale surveillance operation in Xinjiang for years through which they keep track of the movements and actions of the ethnic minorities in the region. The Chinese government has also been accused of forcing Uighurs to work on cotton farms. These allegations of slave labour were further confirmed by a report published by the Center for Global Policy titled ‘Coercive Labour in Xinjiang: Labour Transfer and the Mobilization of Ethnic Minorities to Pick  Cotton’.

Most of the cotton production in Xinjiang is done through forced Uighur labour. The US Customs and Border Protection stated on 13 January that they planned to detain all shipments of cotton and tomato products produced in Xinjiang province. While issuing the order, the CBP stated that there was enough information to indicate the use of forced labour by China. As per an ABC News report, the Chinese government documents and media reports revealed that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in occupied East Turkistan are forced to pick cotton by hand.

China’s activities in East Turkistan and its treatment of minority Uighur Muslims have been coming under the spotlight in recent months. China was also accused of forced sterilisation of the Uighur population in Xinjiang in 2020. The most recent revelation that some of the biggest tech/AI companies in China are developing software and equipment to aid the identification and persecution of Uighur Muslims will surely add to the mounting pressure that China is already facing from the international community due to its inhumane and discriminatory practices towards ethnic minorities.

Huawei, the Chinese tech firm that is developing racist technology has already been under scrutiny after the US and several other countries put a ban on its equipment and technology, declaring them a national security risk. All these factors indicate that China would continue with its pursuit of racism, ethnic discrimination and human rights abuses in the name of ‘One national identity’ policy. As soon as one tool of such inhuman acts come to notice of the world, China would rope in a new tool.

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