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How China is using digital surveillance to crack down on dissent

How China is using digital surveillance to crack down on dissent

China’s current internet infrastructure comprises highly advanced web crawlers and algorithms that monitor, track, and flag users across the internet for dissent.

Foreign companies in China are finding it hard to comply with strict local internet rules, with some saying they might pull out of the country as the Communist Party tightens its grip over the ever-expanding digital space. Apple Censorship, which monitors the status of apps on Apple Store, last week reported on the ouster of popular mobile and web applications like Yahoo Finance and CoinMarketCap.

The iOS maker has boosted its efforts to exclude apps and online outlets that are deemed critical of Beijing’s draconian internet legislations, collectively known as the Great Firewall. Critics say the smartphone giant is increasingly complying with China’s request to purge “unregulated” apps that exist within the country’s digital ecosystem in return for preferential treatment.

China’s fears of the rise of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin have been well documented. The country sees these digital currencies as a direct threat to its bid for the mass adoption and acceptance of a digital yuan. Prototype testing of digital renminbi is already underway in Mainland China. Though the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has allayed U.S. concerns that the new currency won’t challenge dollar hegemony, many in Washington remain skeptical about Beijing’s ambitions.

Religious Apps Take a Hit in China

In addition to cracking down on financial apps and websites, the Great Firewall has ramped its efforts to remove web-based religious platforms. According to BBC, Apple recently complied with China’s digital watchdog’s request to remove the Quran Majeed app from the Chinese version of the Apple Store. The expulsion coincided with the removal of Yahoo Finance and other apps with foreign content.

Quran Majeed is one of the most popular apps on Apple Store and Google Play Store. It is used by millions of Muslims around the world. The makers of the app said Apple told them it removed the product for containing “illegal” content. They added that Quran Majeed had approximately one million users in the country prior to its removal. The Quran Majeed purge was followed by the removal of Bible App.

The expulsion of religious apps comes amid China’s alleged violent treatment of the Uyghur population, a Muslim-majority group, in Xinjiang. Multiple human rights groups have reported on possible genocide and crimes against local ethnic groups in the so-called autonomous region. According to a BBC report, the country has forcefully placed more than one million Uyghurs inside concentration camps.

Beijing, on the other hand, claims it has been using these “re-education” camps as a means to counter Islamist militancy and separatism in Xinjiang or the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which is home to some 12 million Uyghurs and other ethnic groups. Locals say China wants a complete erasure of their culture, lifestyle, and religious practices.

Digital Surveillance Mangles Privacy in Xinjiang

According to The Gurdian, authorities have implemented a rigorous surveillance system in Xinjiang to monitor the local minority populations. Surveillance measures include CCTVs, recording chips inside smartphones, and biometric and facial scanners at public institutions such as malls, banks, hospitals, etc. Moreover, the state has ramped up the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning to capture the physiognomy of millions of Uyghurs to track suspicious behavior.

Overseeing this mass surveillance is Ijop (Integrated Joint Operations Platform), the all-seeing, all-revealing smartphone application to monitor checkpoints installed across Xinjiang. Ijop is a highly-sophisticated system that uses AI and deep learning to track and flag people it sees as possible suspects. It contains highly-detailed information like name, address, blood type, whether a user is on birth control, and how much gas they buy for vehicle, etc.

Internet advocacy groups have drawn similarities between Ijop and ‘Big Brother’, the collective conscience of the authoritian government of Oceania in George Orwell’s literary classic “1984”. In the dystopian novel, Ingsoc uses Big Brother to stoke feelings of fear and reverence for the Party among the masses; something which rights groups say is unerring similar to what the Communist Party is doing in Xinjiang and mainland China.

The Great Firewall Attempts to Silence Critics of CPC

At home, President Xi Jinping pins the case for sovereign states to choose their own path of internet development. However, his vision for the Chinese internet puts emphasis on a close watch and tight regulation of the digital space. The country’s sole governing party, the Communist Party, is seen to pool in more and more resources to monitor and regulate content online in recent years.

China’s current internet infrastructure comprises highly advanced web crawlers and algorithms that monitor, track, and flag users for dissent. Opinions that toe the official line and support nationalistic views are allowed to exist within the Great Firewall, which is the collective sum of legislations and technologies adopted by the Chinese government to regulate free speech online.

In recent years, Chinese regulators have blocked hundreds of thousands of accounts on the internet for voicing concerns about corruption, incompetence, and human rights violations. Sina Weibo, one of the most popular microblogging websites in the country, last month suspended more than two dozen influential accounts for criticizing the government’s financial and economic policies. This is one of the many instances where authorities have used their powers to quash dissent.

The increasing use of technology to quell freedom of expression, exchange of ideas and beliefs that do no serve the interest of the Communist Party, and views that defy new restrictions speak volumes about the government’s willingness to do whatever it thinks is necessary to propagate Xi’s ideology of removing any distinction whatsoever between the virtual and real world.

There’s no denying that China has the digital realm in a chokehold but the country’s unwillingness to accept the internet as a medium for exchange of creative ideas, expressions, and opinions is creating a growing sense of urgency and discomfort among many young internet users. The Communist Party might see the internet as a means to stoke feelings of fear and reverence among the people, but the internet also happens to be the place where a community thrives and grow the most.

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