China testing facial recognition technology in Muslim region of Xinjiang

Critics fear 'alarm project' is transforming autonomous region into high-tech police state

Lucy Pasha-Robinson
Thursday 18 January 2018 11:35 GMT
Security cameras are seen on a building in Shanghai
Security cameras are seen on a building in Shanghai (Reuters)

China is trying out a new facial recognition system that tracks targeted people when they stray beyond designated ”safe areas”.

Authorities in Xinjiang, an autonomous border region dominated by China’s largely Muslim Uighur minority, have been testing the software since 2017, according to reports.

Police are alerted when tracked individuals venture more than 300 metres from their home or workplace, Bloomberg reported.

But critics have raised concerns the “alarm project”, led by state defence contractor China Electronics Technology Group, is transforming the region into a high-tech police state.

“A system like this is obviously well-suited to controlling people,” said security expert Jim Harper, executive vice president of the libertarian-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute. “‘Papers, please’ was the symbol of living under tyranny in the past. Now, government officials don’t need to ask.”

The Xinjiang region – home to 10 million Muslim ethnic Uighurs - borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and has become one of the world’s most heavily policed places.

The facial recognition drive forms part of a bigger campaign to increase domestic surveillance across the country.

In October, President Xi Jinping laid out his vision for China to become the next superpower, and accelerated its surveillance programs.

Striking a decidedly nationalist tone, he told the Communist Party Congress China must revitalise its culture, oppose “erroneous” ideology and promote religion that is “Chinese in orientation.”

While it is unclear which people will be targeted by the alerts, almost four fifths of southern Xinjiang’s population is of Uighur descent.

It comes just days after children in neighbouring Gansu province were banned from attending religious events during the winter holidays, as authorities step up control of religious education.

School pupils in Linxia county in Gansu province, home to many members of the Muslim Hui ethnic minority, are prohibited from entering religious buildings over their break, the district education bureau said in a notice posted online.

Students must not read scriptures in classes or religious buildings, said the notice, which also ordered pupils and teachers to work to strengthen political ideology and propaganda.

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