BEIJING — Chinese tech giants including ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, and Huawei Technologies are working closely with the Communist Party to censor and surveil Uighur Muslims in China’s western region of Xinjiang, according to a report published Thursday.
New evidence of links between the security apparatus and China’s biggest tech companies come just days after TikTok shut down the account of an American teenager who’d sought to highlight China’s human-rights abuses in Xinjiang during what began as a makeup tutorial.
After widespread condemnation for censoring an American, TikTok backtracked and reactivated 17-year-old New Jersey high school junior Feroza Aziz’s account.
In a detailed new report, experts at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Center concluded that many Chinese tech companies “are engaged in deeply unethical behavior in Xinjiang, where their work directly supports and enables mass human rights abuses.”
“Some of these companies lead the world in cutting-edge technology development, particularly in the [artificial intelligence] and surveillance sectors,” Fergus Ryan, Danielle Cave and Vicky Xiuzhong Xu write in the report. “But this technology development is focused on servicing authoritarian needs, and as these companies go global (an expansion often funded by [Chinese] loans and aid) this technology is going global as well.”
This should give Western policymakers pause, they said.
Many Western policymakers have become increasingly concerned about the potentially nefarious capabilities of Chinese technology.
Some members of Congress have asked American intelligence services to determine whether the TikTok, a short-video app that has exploded in popularity among young people, poses national security risks. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has blacklisted Huawei, concerned that the Chinese government will have access to information that passes through its new 5G technology.
These concerns relate to the use of the technology abroad, but the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report says China’s powerful security apparatus is already harnessing the power of the country’s innovations to further its aims at home.
This is most evident in the western region of Xinjiang, where at least 1 million Muslims have been detained in reeducation camps designed to wring their culture and religion from them and make them assimilate with the country’s Han majority.
Testimony from numerous people who have escaped China and troves of leaked documents all show that the camps are not the vocational training centers that the Chinese government says they are.
ByteDance did not respond to request for comment on the report’s findings Thursday afternoon.
The report said the company has been “collaborating” with the Chinese government to disseminate its propaganda about Xinjiang.
Xinjiang Internet Police began working with Douyin, the local version of TikTok, last year and built a “new public security and Internet social governance model” in 2018. Then in April, the Ministry of Public Security’s Press and Publicity Bureau signed a strategic cooperation agreement with ByteDance to promote the “influence and credibility” of police departments nationwide, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute experts said.
The agreement also reportedly says ByteDance will increase its offline cooperation with the police departments, although the details of this cooperation are not clear.
Over the same period, ByteDance has flourished. Its TikTok app has been downloaded 1 billion times, of which nearly 100 million came from the United States, and it has a valuation of $75 billion.
ByteDance has also been working with Xinjiang authorities under a program called “Xinjiang Aid,” whereby Chinese companies open subsidiaries or factories in Xinjiang and employ locals who have been detained in the camps. Its operations are centered on Hotan, an area of Xinjiang considered backward by the Communist Party and where the repression has been among the most severe.
ByteDance has been guiding and helping Xinjiang authorities and media outlets to use its news aggregation app and Douyin to “propagate and showcase Hotan’s new image,” according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report.
ByteDance is uniquely susceptible to being used by the Communist Party because of its close ties to the censorship and surveillance apparatus of the party-led state, the authors wrote.
“Beijing has demonstrated a propensity for controlling and shaping overseas Chinese-language media,” the authors wrote. “The meteoric growth of TikTok now puts the [Chinese Communist Party] in a position where it can attempt to do the same on a largely non-Chinese speaking platform — with the help of an advanced AI-powered algorithm.”
Leaked documents have previously shown how ByteDance censors content that the Chinese government disapproves of, including Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.
A Section on 11/29/2019