This article originally appeared in The Diplomat on April 25, 2018.
Recent developments shed light on the phenomenon’s immediate and long-term implications.
China’s authoritarian regime is taking systematic steps to expand its surveillance of people and communication channels within the country, and the tentacles of the apparatus are slowly extending far beyond China’s borders. A series of revelations and activist arrests over the past month provide insight on this project and what it means for the future of China and the world.
Xinjiang as incubator
As other observers have noted, the western region of Xinjiang is ground zero for the Chinese government’s expanding surveillance program. A dense network of video cameras, checkpoints, and human informants keep close tabs on most residents, especially those of Uighur or Kazakh ethnicity. This system is constantly being upgraded with new technologies. Some hotels in Urumqi now have facial recognition software to verify the identity cards of visitors. When the region’s new subway opens in June, ID cards will apparently be needed to purchase tickets.
Last July, authorities in Xinjiang demanded that residents install a special application on their mobile phones—Jingwang (“Clean Net”)—that scans devices for certain files like photos and videos deemed “dangerous” or overly religious and reports back to authorities. A technical audit of the app published on April 9 by the Open Technology Fund confirmed its intrusive capabilities, finding that “any user with this app installed will have every file stored on their device sent to an…