China's 21st Century Gulag

China's 21st Century Gulag

The controversy over China’s treatment of its Uighur population is growing, with a chorus of international critics accusing Beijing of building a 21st century surveillance state and gulag system in Xinjiang province, in the country’s far northwest.


Some background, in case you haven’t been following: the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim, Turkic ethnic group that is distinct from China’s Han majority, account for a little under half of the 24 million people Xinjiang, a vast, resource-rich region roughly 3 times the size of Texas. Over the past decade, flaring ethnic tensions and a string of attacks by Uighur separatists have prompted a heavy-handed response from the ruling Communist Party. China says it’s providing security and “vocational training” in a province that’s prone to bouts of terrorist violence, but a growing number of witness accounts and satellite images of alleged internment camps suggests a broad and systematic campaign of ethnic repression is underway. Last month, a UN human rights panel threw its weight behind reports suggesting that up to a million or more Uighurs have been detained.

In recent days, the controversy has escalated: The New York Times detailed a “high pressure indoctrination program” in which detainees were required to listen to lectures, sing Communist Party songs, and write “self-criticism” essays. Human Rights Watch published a report offering evidence of “mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment” in Xinjiang.

Now the Trump Administration is considering sanctions against the senior Communist Party boss in Xinjiang and other Chinese officials. A bipartisan group of US lawmakers is also pushing for curbs on Chinese tech companies that sell cameras and facial recognition software that helps power the Xinjiang surveillance state, which also reportedly includes fingerprint and iris scans, DNA sampling, and government spyware installed on mobile phones.

A few thoughts:

  1. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in a country with a system as opaque as China’s. But something ugly is happening in Xinjiang, and the government’s aggressive use of technology gives the situation an extra air of menace. It’s another example of how digital technologies that have brought billions of people closer together and created new economic opportunities around the world can also be used in disturbing ways – in this case, to help a government sort and segregate an ethnic minority.
  2. Human rights might not be the only reason the Trump administration and Congress have become interested in the issue. Sanctions against Chinese tech companies could also be a useful source of leverage in Washington’s ongoing trade and technology confrontation with Beijing.
  3. Many countries around the world struggle to manage the tension between ethnic diversity and social stability. In authoritarian systems like China’s, there are few if any curbs on how far the government can push things, particularly when it values stability above all else. Yet by cracking down so aggressively, China may just be storing up more trouble for later. Using electronic surveillance to track a minority population’s every move or forcing Muslims into re-education camps won’t wipe out ethnic and religious fault lines in Xinjiang, it’ll just make them wider by driving dissent offline and underground, where it is bound to fester.
A blue graphic using 1's and 0's to form an image of roads leading into a city

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To maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of our data use, we need privacy regulations to serve as our global rules of the road that preserve our ability to use and share data across borders, supported by innovative tools and solutions that protect privacy and empower individuals. As we reframe our focus to support data use, let’s examine the regulatory approaches that have been working, and develop new approaches where needed to enable the responsible use and sharing of data. To read more about Microsoft’s approach to protecting data infrastructure, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, our parent company, has opened this year’s GZERO Summit with a provocative speech on the near future of international politics. Here are the highlights.

Are the United States and China now locked in a new form of Cold War? Their governments behave as if they are.

But Bremmer isn’t buying it. He’s not predicting that Washington and Beijing will become more cooperative with one another, but that both will be too preoccupied with historic challenges at home in coming years to wage a full-time international struggle.

In Washington, the main worry will be for America’s broken political system. US politics is becoming even more tribalized as TV and online media target politically like-minded consumers with hyperpartisan news coverage. Widening wealth inequality fuels the fire by separating white and non-white, urban and rural, and the more educated from the less educated. Deepening public mistrust of political institutions will fuel future fights over the legitimacy of US elections.

Beijing’s burden centers on how to extend decades of economic gains while moving away from a growth model that no longer works, as higher wages in China and more automation in factories elsewhere cut deeply into China’s manufacturing advantages. China is still a middle-income country. To reach the prosperity level of wealthy nations, it needs 6-7 percent growth for another 20 years.

But China must spend less in coming years to keep giant, deeply indebted companies afloat and more to care for the largest population of elderly people in history. And its leaders must accomplish this at a time when China’s people expect ever-rising levels of prosperity from their government.

The domestic distraction of US and Chinese leaders will create new opportunities for European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and other political and business leaders to contribute toward international problem-solving. But other governments aren’t the only new players stepping into this power vacuum.

Technology companies are fast becoming important geopolitical actors. We’re entering a world in which economic winners and losers, election outcomes, and national security will depend on choices made by both governments and by the world’s big tech firms.

Bremmer calls this a “techno-polar moment.”

The idea is simple but transformative: Just as governments make the laws that determine what can happen in the physical world, tech companies have final authority in a digital world that’s becoming both more expansive and more immersive.

The biggest tech companies will establish sovereignty by defining the digital space and its boundaries, the algorithms that determine what happens within that space, and the “terms and conditions” that decide who gets to operate in this world.

For skeptics, Bremmer poses this question: Who will do more to influence the outcome of next year’s US midterm congressional elections: The president of the United States or the CEO of Meta? According to Bremmer, since the vote will be influenced by both real-world rules changes and the online flow of information, the answer isn’t obvious.

How will tech companies try to expand their power? Some will behave as “globalists” by trying to reach consumers and influence politics everywhere.

Others will act as “national champions” by aligning with individual governments and their goals.

Still, others will behave as “techno-utopians,” companies that expect historical forces and tech innovations to help them replace governments in important ways.

The relative success of these models over the next decade will decide how government and tech companies share power over the longer-term and whether democracy or autocracy will have the upper hand.

What’s to be done? “Think adaptation, not surrender,” says Bremmer. Steps can be taken to limit the sometimes negative influence of tech companies in the political lives of democracies. But just as climate change can be limited but not avoided, so we must understand and adapt to a world in which governments and tech companies compete for influence over our lives.

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How is China able to control their tech giants without suppressing innovation?

For Ian Bremmer, one important reason is that there's a big difference between Jack Ma questioning Chinese regulators and Elon Musk doing the same to the SEC.

"In the United States you've got fanboys if you do that; in China, they cut you down," Bremmer told CNN anchor Julia Chatterley in an interview following his annual State of the World Speech.

Still, he says China knows it cannot kill its private sector because it needs to keep growing and competing with American tech firms.

So, who's winning the global battle for tech primacy?

Right now, Bremmer believes the US and China are at tech parity — thanks to their tech giants.

"When we're talking about tech supremacy, we can't just talk about governments anymore."

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