How the West built Huawei’s genocidal surveillance complex in China

How the West built Huawei’s genocidal surveillance complex in China
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Britain’s capitulation to China’s Huawei is nothing new — for years, Western firms have profited from the world’s largest authoritarian surveillance project

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Official documents and reports reveal that some of the West’s biggest technology giants — from IBM to Microsoft — helped Huawei build the Chinese surveillance regime being weaponised against the Uighur minority. Now an Austrian firm, Frequentis, is using Huawei technology to supply ‘public security agencies’ in Britain, Europe and beyond. Boris Johnson’s love affair with the Chinese tech giant is only the latest episode. In this exclusive story, we reveal not only how Huawei played an integral role in the emergence of China’s repressive domestic security apparatus used today to round-up the Uighur minority, but how US, British and European companies have aided and abetted the rise of Huawei with no regard for the horrifying consequences.

A new study in the journal Laws by Ciara Finnegan of the National University of Ireland’s Department of Law concludes that this evidence points to a pattern of “cultural genocide” by Chinese authorities, designed to erase the existence of the Uighur minority as an independent cultural identity. Other experts agree.

According to Dr Joanne Smith Finley, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Newcastle University’s School of Modern Languages, China is reconstructing “the Uighur body, mind, language, religion and culture as an existential and biological threat to the Chinese nation” — in effect, a form of “genocide as social control.” She describes the ‘re-education’ programme as “a ‘final solution’ to defeat a perceived anti-colonialist movement and erase the Uyghur identity as that movement’s lifeforce.”

Laying the groundwork for China’s first police-state

Later that year, it was IBM that went on to establish Karamay as the first smart city pilot project in the Xinjiang region.

According to a 2012 IBM investor deck titled ‘Smarter Cities’, the company had established 82 IBM branches across the country encompassing research, innovation, and software development — including in Xinjiang’s ‘smart city’ of Karamay.

In short, while IBM created the initial design for Karamay’s ‘smart’ approach to public security, Huawei went on to build it.

I asked IBM about its relationship with Huawei at this time, and its involvement in establishing the foundations for the smart city infrastructure — especially on “public safety” — that permitted the rapid expansion of mass surveillance across the Xinjiang region.

“The model of smart cities as developed in Western countries — and to that extent it is worth remembering that the very term smart city comes from IBM — has often been extremely privacy invasive and about the systematic collection of citizens’ data. It’s no wonder now that other countries are doing the same. This is a pattern we unfortunately see too often with government surveillance: Western countries decide that a new system or a new law is acceptable since it all falls under the rule of law but we eventually see the very law or system being reproduced abroad, sometimes with worse consequences.”

Dance with the devil

Karamay was just the first project in a bigger plan which involved building 5,000 4G mobile stations across Xinjiang’s 16 main cities and 63 counties, in the first half of 2014 alone. By the end of that year, 12,000 4G base stations would be built.

“Using the massive amount of accumulated crime data over the past decades, the command platform has pre-integrated a variety of early warning scenarios. When exceptions are detected, the analytics platform automatically generates a prioritized alert. The affect is a broad reduction in the rates of crime committed and the broad maintenance of social stability.”

Over the last decade, Huawei has established dozens of Safe City programs across China in cities including Shanghai, Jiangsu, Guangdong and beyond.

“Every year Huawei spends more than $100 million inviting IBM’s consultant team to help manage the company,” the Communist Party paper pointed out — “why such a big investment?”

Zhengfe’s reply was that the price is worth it: “Starting from producing products worth about 10,000 yuan, we moved up the value chain to make products worth tens of billions of dollars to hundreds of billions of dollars. With their help, Huawei is making steady progress, so every year we are spending more than $100 million on consulting fees.”

A 2017 edition of Huawei’s self-published ICT Insights magazine focused on its Safe City program included fawning contributions extolling the program’s benefits from Accenture, Boston Consulting Group, the British Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (BAPCO), and IHS Markit.

“Foreign companies have the opportunity to leverage technological, operational and management advantages to participate in smart city construction in areas such as smart governance, smart industry and smart public services.”

Three months later, Trump’s Commerce Department partnered with the Chinese government-funded Shanghai Pudong Smart City Research Institute to host the ‘US-China Smart Cities Forum’ in Shanghai.

“As a leader in smart cities technology, US technology and service providers are uniquely positioned to capitalize on this new shift in China. Smarter technologies will help China tackle urban challenges, creating unparalleled opportunities for innovative US technology and service providers.”

The British government has also attempted to capture China’s attention, providing direct funding through its China Prosperity Strategic Program Fund (SPF) for joint smart city projects in both UK and Chinese cities.

Microsoft and Huawei, sitting in a tree

Another US tech giant which has had few qualms about profiting from China’s mass surveillance drive is Microsoft.

In March 2019, Microsoft was accused of partnering with the Chinese firm SenseNet, which monitors Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, by allowing the company to run its controversial biometrics surveillance technology on Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services — a relationship which was eventually denied by Microsoft.

Whatever the truth of that case, like IBM, Microsoft’s role in China’s surveillance cities is more subtle and insidious.

In April 2019, Microsoft launched its third and largest ‘AI and IoT Insider’ lab in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area to work with unspecified Chinese firms and multinational companies. The lab was slated to build prototypes to support “digital transformation” across industries including manufacturing, retail, healthcare, and the “public sector” — which of course entails any services run directly by government authorities, potentially including police and security agencies.

Many of Microsoft’s smart city projects in China are clearly benign. One is an urban air quality project with the Beijing government and Ministry of Environment Protection to use big data for monitoring and forecasting air quality. In another project, Microsoft is working with the Wuhan government to use a chatbot to answer routine citizen questions on city services, such as how to obtain a driver’s license.

This is the culmination of years of engagement. In 2014, Microsoft had signed a range of cooperation agreements with several Chinese provinces and cities, including Yunnan, Zhuzhou, Changchun, Yangzhou, and Wenzhou, as part of the firm’s CityNext initiative to develop them into smart cities.

There is no evidence that with these initiatives, Microsoft has worked specifically on surveillance-related projects directly with the Chinese government.

But in 2016, Microsoft’s China subsidiary delivered a seminar for the Ministry of Public Safety at the firm’s China Center One facility in Beijing, showcasing “public safety” solutions. A candid description of the seminar by Arthur Thomas, Microsoft’s managing director for public safety and national security, is available on Microsoft’s website.

“Microsoft has the right analytics solutions for assessing potential emergencies, determining their projected impact, and then facilitating the execution of incident action plans,” explained Thomas. “We do so by combining information from different sources (e.g., location, tracking, sensors, video, traffic reports, hospital status, weather reports, social media, and other dynamic data) with GIS data (e.g., imagery, elevations, streets, and critical infrastructure).”

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