Yet while the speed and intent of this response to protect workers has been admirable in the absence of an effective US response at the national level, these Chinese companies are also embroiled in forms of outrageous human rights abuses.
Dahua is one of the largest providers of “Smart Camp” systems that Vera Zhou has seen in Xinjiang (the company says its facilities are supported by technologies such as “Computer Vision Systems, Big Data Analytics and Cloud Computing”). In October 2019, both Dahua and Megvii were among eight Chinese tech companies on a list preventing US citizens from selling goods and services to them (the list is designed to prevent US companies from supplying non-US companies which poses a threat to national interests, prevents Amazon from selling to Dahua but not buying from them). BGI’s subsidiaries in Xinjiang were placed on the US no-trade list in July 2020.
Amazon’s purchase of Dahua heat-mapping cameras is a reminder of an earlier moment in the spread of global capitalism, captured by historian Jason Moore in the memorable phrase, “Behind Manchester is Mississippi”.
What did Moore mean by that? Rereading Friedrich Engels’ analysis of the textile industry that made Manchester, England so profitable, he saw that many aspects of the British Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the cheap cotton produced by slave labor in the United States . Similarly, Seattle, Kansas City, and Seoul’s ability to respond to the pandemic as quickly as they did depends in part on how suppression systems in northwest China opened a space for biometric surveillance algorithm training.
Protecting workers during the pandemic depends on college students like Vera Zhou being forgotten. It means ignoring the dehumanization of thousands upon thousands of prisoners and unfree workers.
At the same time, Seattle stands too before Xinjiang.
Amazon is playing its own role in involuntary surveillance that disproportionately harms ethnic minorities as it works with U.S. Immigration and Customs to tackle undocumented immigrants and its active lobbying in support of a weak biometric surveillance regime. More specifically, Microsoft Research Asia, known as the “Cradle of Chinese AI,” has played a key role in the growth and development of Dahua and Megvii.
Chinese government funding, global terrorism discourses, and training in US industry are three of the main reasons a fleet of Chinese companies are now the world leaders in facial and speech recognition. That process was accelerated by a war on terror that focused on housing Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Hui in a complex digital and physical enclosure, but it now extends to the entire Chinese technology industry, where data-intensive infrastructure systems have flexible digital enclosures across the country produce, although not on the same scale as in Xinjiang.
China’s comprehensive and rapid response to the pandemic has further accelerated this process by rapidly implementing these systems and making it clear that they work. Because they expand state power in such a comprehensive and intimate way, they can effectively change human behavior.
However, the Chinese approach to the pandemic is not the only way to stop it. Democratic states like New Zealand and Canada, which have provided tests, masks, and economic aid to those forced to stay home, have also been effective. These nations make it clear that involuntary surveillance is not the only way to protect the well-being of the majority, even at the national level.
Indeed, numerous studies have shown that surveillance systems support systemic racism and dehumanization by detaining targeted populations. The past and current US government’s use of the entity list to stop sales to companies like Dahua and Megvii is important, but it also creates a double standard by penalizing Chinese companies for automating racial segregation while also penalizing American companies funded to do similar things.
More and more US companies are trying to develop their own algorithms to detect racist phenotypes, but through a consumer-centric approach based on consent. By making automated racialization a form of convenience in marketing things like lipstick, companies like Revlon are tightening the technical scripts available to individuals.
As a result, in many ways, race continues to be an ill-considered part of the way people interact with the world. Police in the United States and China see automated assessment technologies as tools they need to identify potential criminals or terrorists. The algorithms make it appear normal that blacks or Uyghurs are disproportionately recognized by these systems. They prevent the police and those who protect them from realizing that surveillance is always about controlling and disciplining people who do not fit into the vision of those in power. The world, not just China, has a problem with surveillance.
In order to counteract the increasing banality, everyday occurrence and automated racialization, the damage caused by biometric surveillance must first be made visible worldwide. The lives of the prisoners must be made visible on the verge of power over life. Then the role of world-class engineers, investors and public relations firms in neglecting human experience in shaping human reeducation needs to be made clear. The networking networks – as Xinjiang stands behind and in front of Seattle – must be made conceivable.
—This story is an edited excerpt from In The Camps: China’s high-tech penal colony, by Darren Byler (Columbia Global Reports, 2021.) Darren Byler is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University, specializing in the technology and politics of urban life in China.