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A nationwide surveillance experiment

China’s facial recognition cameras, DNA collections, ID checks, and other forms of tracking are turning the country of 1.4 billion into a surveillance state

A nationwide surveillance experiment

A surveillance camera monitors people in Shanghai. (Zhong Yang/AP)

Mass disappearances. Secretive detention camps. GPS trackers installed in every car. Police checkpoints every other block. Mandatory health checks to collect DNA samples.

It sounds like a dystopian blockbuster, but this is everyday reality in the Xinjiang region of China. Xinjiang is home to the Muslim Uighur population, a Turkic ethnic group that has long striven for autonomy. In response to separatist violence and occasional terrorist attacks, China clamped down on the region with an iron fist, labeling every Uighur a potential terrorist.

The Chinese government spent an estimated $6.8 billion on public security last year, using hand-held scanners to detect encrypted chat apps on smartphones, employing facial recognition surveillance cameras, and requiring frequent ID checks. Authorities collected DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents between the ages of 12 and 65 through a mandatory free physical exam program called “Physicals for All.” A knife salesman interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said the government required him to laser etch a QR code that connects to the customer’s ID card information onto the blade of each knife he sold.

Several thousand Uighurs, seeing extremism as their only solution to fight back against the Chinese government’s heavy-handedness, have now joined the Turkistan Islamic Party, a militant group allied with al-Qaeda in Syria. Some Uighur activists are working to convince Uighur refugees arriving in Turkey not to join extremist groups, which promise new recruits money and weapons training. “We are losing the deradicalization battle,” activist Seyit Tumturk told the Associated Press. “Why? Because we cannot convince our people that hope and human rights exists in the world.”

While surveillance is severest in Xinjiang, many believe the high-tech measures will roll out to other cities. Facial recognition cameras are already installed throughout China in public and private areas: roads, offices, apartment buildings, banks, and even public toilets. The government claims that by using artificial intelligence, the surveillance network can help spot criminal behavior, track dissidents, and even predict crime. Censors are also spying on private communications: Police jailed a construction supervisor from the city of Puyang for five days last fall after he posted, in a WeChat group chat, a joke about a rumored love triangle involving a high-level official.

Some provinces are trying out apps that incentivize reporting on neighbors. One app, called “Safe Zhejiang,” allows citizens to notify authorities of everything from a crosswalk problem to a neighbor’s domestic dispute to people who may “affect social stability,” such as Falun Gong members or drug addicts, The Wall Street Journal reported. Users of the app must submit their real names, and are rewarded with discounts for coffee shops or music streaming services. Yet the digital tattling isn’t gaining traction with locals: Reports on corrupt officials are censored, and smaller complaints about government mismanagement could elicit trouble from local authorities.

The Chinese government is also creating a nationwide social-credit system that uses data collected on each citizen—spending habits, political leanings, time spent playing video games, criminal records—to determine his or her trustworthiness. Those whom the government sees as untrustworthy would be barred from buying plane tickets, taking out a loan, or buying property.

For instance, journalist Liu Hu found himself on the government blacklist in early 2017, when he was barred from purchasing a plane ticket. Liu had been arrested in 2013 for blogging about official corruption, according to The Globe and Mail, and a court ordered him to either apologize on his social media account or pay $115. He paid the fine, yet the judge raised the fee to $2,900. As he attempted to appeal the decision, he found himself on the blacklist without any advance notice.

“What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it,” Liu told The Globe and Mail. “You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

Best investigative stories in China: 2017 was a bad year for Chinese journalism, with censorship tightening more than ever before. Yet entrepreneurial journalists are still doing investigative journalism within these tight constraints, and here are some examples. Most of these stories target corrupt companies: In China, focusing on corruption in the government or on another societal issue will result in a story getting cut. Still, it’s encouraging to see journalists digging for truth in a dangerous and difficult environment.