If we were to rank dictatorships by their abuse of technology in maintaining strict control over their population, China would have the dubious honor of placing first.
Much attention has been given recently to China’s mounting oppression of its Uighur Muslim minority in the western Xinjiang province, but what has made much of it possible is the rapid advancement of technology and the ability to adversely affect individuals (citizens and non-citizens) across geographical areas and well beyond its borders through the influence of social media.
In the wake of the Hong Kong protests, and, more recently, local elections that saw the consolidation of power of pro-democracy candidates,many Chinese users, both in China and other parts of the globe, saw their WeChat accounts shut down upon discussing the crushing defeat dealt to pro-Beijing candidates. What is most disturbing is not the decision to immediately censor Chinese residents who made such statements – a move to be expected from the regime – but even more drastically the ability to target Chinese speakers in the United States who dared go against the official narrative.
Applications like WeChat can also be manipulated in more sinister ways to serve the government. The arrest of scores of Uighurs and other Muslims has been made it easier to dip into the messaging system to find information on individual citizens – their locations, occupations, backgrounds – allowing the government to draw up a list of those it deems insufficiently submissive and quickly dispatching authorities to round them up.
Frightening parallels to past events do not end there. Facial recognition technology, ostensibly used as a means of targeting and tracking known criminals, is now used to differentiate between ethnic groups in Xinjiang. To further isolate minorities, the regime goes so far as to build a biometric database of every citizen’s DNA, fingerprints, blood type, and other personal bits of information. Such technology has also been exported to a multitude of authoritarian states including Venezuela, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia, where it is used to track and target dissidents and opponents of the regimes.
Behavior-based Points System (a-la “Black Mirror”)
Furthermore, one victory that may prove to be a double-edged sword in the battle against the abuse of such technology is the decision by some dictatorships to forego full out bans in favor of heavily curated ‘white list’ sites, or worse, the creation of domestic websites. Following deadly anti-government clashes in Iran, the government has circulated a letter to propose just that. Regimes are quickly coming to an understanding that bans on sites or users often lead to an immediate fixation on its actions and a wave of bad publicity.
Authorities in China may hold an iron grip on information, but a demonstrated willingness to reinstate the TikTok account of US teen Feroza Aziz after her ban for discussing the plight of the Uighurs suggests they aren’t immune to international condemnation. In Iran, the decision to shut down the internet seems to have simply drawn more international attention to the government’s actions. The creation of a list of ‘acceptable’ websites thus creates a false impression that regimes are willing to be more open-minded towards an exchange of information, if they are deemed ‘safe.’ Worse still, it further entrenches the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ by presenting its citizens with distorted and cherry-picked accounts of events.
The silver lining regarding this bad behavior is the incentive to utilize this technology for economic enrichment on a global scale. Iran, already a pariah suffering under punishing sanctions, will likely have a hard time convincing the international community of the innocence of its actions. However, a rising superpower like China cannot, in the long run, continue to export technology with the condition that its users adhere to the government’s strict censorship policies without alienating large swathes of global opinion.
As a result, we’ll likely see the rise of alternatives to popular Chinese-made applications, albeit without these strings attached. We can only hope this will temper Chinese behavior, or, at the very least, simply offer different avenues to utilize this type of technology.