However, while the speed of this response and the intent of this response to protect workers in the absence of an effective US response at the national level has been impressive, these Chinese companies are also constrained by forms of gross human rights abuse.
Dahua is a major supplier of “smart campers” systems that Vera Zhou lived in Xinjiang (the company says its facilities are backed by technologies like “computer vision systems, big data analytics, and cloud computing”). In October 2019, Dahua and Megvii were among eight Chinese tech companies on a list that prevents US citizens from selling goods and services to them (the list, which aims to prevent US companies from supplying non-US companies deemed a threat to them). National Interests, prevent Amazon from selling to Dahua, but don’t buy from them). BGI’s subsidiaries in Xinjiang have been placed on the US no-trade list in July 2020.
Amazon’s purchase of Dahua heat mapping cameras recalls an ancient moment in the spread of global capitalism captured by historian Jason Moore’s memorable phrase: “Behind Manchester stands the Mississippi.”
What did Moore mean by this? In his re-reading of Frederick 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. In a similar way, the ability of Seattle, Kansas City, and Seoul to respond as quickly as they responded to the epidemic depends in part on the way the suppression regimes in northwest China have opened up space to train biometric monitoring algorithms.
Protecting workers during a pandemic depends on forgetting college students like Vera Zhou. It means ignoring the dehumanization of thousands and thousands of detainees and unfree workers.
Meanwhile, Seattle also stands out before Xinjiang.
Amazon has its own role in involuntary surveillance that disproportionately harms racial and ethnic minorities due to its partnership with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target illegal immigrants and its active lobbying efforts to support weak biometric monitoring regulation. More directly, Microsoft Research Asia, the so-called “cradle of Chinese AI,” has played a fundamental role in the growth and development of both Dahua and Megvii.
Chinese state financing, global terrorism rhetoric, and US industrial training are three of the main reasons a fleet of Chinese companies now lead the world in facial and voice recognition. This process has been accelerated by the War on Terror that has centered on placing Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Hui within a complex digital and physical enclosure, but is now extending throughout China’s tech industry, as data-intensive infrastructure systems produce flexible digital enclosures across the country, albeit not at the same scale. As in Xinjiang.
China’s broad and rapid response to the epidemic has accelerated this process by quickly implementing and demonstrating these regulations they are working. Because they extend state power in such comprehensive and intimate ways, they can effectively change human behavior.
However, the Chinese approach to the epidemic is not the only way to stop it. Democratic nations such as New Zealand and Canada, which have provided tests, masks and economic aid to those forced to stay at home, have also been effective. These states make clear that involuntary surveillance is not the only way to protect the welfare of the majority, even at the nation level.
Indeed, several studies have shown that surveillance systems support systemic racism and dehumanization by making the target population vulnerable to detention. The use of the Entity List by past and present US administrations to halt sales to companies like Dahua and Megvii, while important, also produces a double standard, penalizing Chinese companies for automating racial discrimination while funding US companies to do similar things.
Increasing numbers of US-based companies are trying to develop their own algorithms to detect racial phenotypes, though with a consumer-based, consent-based approach. By making automated segregation a form of convenience in marketing things like lipstick, companies like Revlon are strengthening the technical texts available to individuals.
As a result, in many ways, race remains an under-studied part of how people interact with the world. Police in the United States and China are considering automated assessment techniques as their tools to spot potential criminals or terrorists. Algorithms make it normal for black or Uyghur men to be disproportionately detected by these systems. They prevent the police, and those who protect them, from realizing that surveillance is always about controlling and disciplining people who don’t fit in with those in power. The world, not just China, has a surveillance problem.
To counter the increasing, everyday, pettiness of automated racism, the harms of biometric monitoring around the world must first be made clear. The life of the detainee must be visible on the edge of the power over life. Then the role of engineers, investors, and public relations firms on a global scale must be clarified in the unthinking of the human experience, in designing human re-education. Networks of interconnectedness – the way Xinjiang stands behind and before Seattle – must be made thinkable.
– This story is an edited excerpt from In Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal ColonyWritten by Darren Bayler (Columbia Global Reports, 2021) Darren Bayler is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University, focusing on the technology and politics of urban life in China.