How China’s Government Is Using AI on Its Uighur Muslim Population
A still from the FRONTLINE documentary "In the Age of AI," which in part explored the Chinese government's use of AI technology on the ethnic Uighur minority.
It’s been estimated that China’s government has detained as many as a million members of the country’s Muslim population in so-called “re-education camps,” in part of a campaign that has alarmed human rights activists across the world.
This week, drawing on 403 pages of leaked government documents, The New York Times published new details of how the ongoing crackdown took shape under Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leadership in the Communist Party of China, how government workers who resisted the plan were sidelined, and what officials were instructed to tell young people whose families had been detained.
“They’re in a training school set up by the government to undergo collective systematic training, study and instruction,” the talking points read, adding, “You have nothing to worry about.”
The Chinese government’s campaign against those it says have been exposed to extremism is centered on an autonomous region, Xinjiang, where nearly half of the 25 million residents are a Muslim people called the Uighurs.
Earlier in November, a FRONTLINE documentary called In the Age of AI examined how, as part of its crackdown involving the Uighurs, China’s government has made Xinjiang a test project for forms of extreme digital surveillance.
Among those efforts, the film reported, is an artificial intelligence system that the government claims can predict individuals prone to “terrorism” and detect those in need of “reeducation” at scores of recently built camps.
“The kinds of behavior that’s now being monitored — you know, which language do you speak at home, whether you’re talking to your relatives in other countries, how often you pray — that information is now being Hoovered up and used to decide whether people should be subjected to political reeducation in these camps,” Sophie Richardson, China Director for Human Rights Watch, tells FRONTLINE in the below excerpt from the documentary:
Surveillance and artificial intelligence technologies are being deployed all throughout China. Cameras with AI-powered facial recognition are everywhere, and various pilot projects use AI to give people a “social credit” score, punishing some for certain behavior and rewarding others for what the government considers good citizenship.
But the ends to which this technology is being used on the Uighur population, activists in the film say, are particularly alarming.
“They have bar codes in somebody’s home doors to identify what kind of citizen that he is,” lawyer and a prominent Uighur activist Nury Turkel says, warning that China’s government is using new technologies to help carry out mass punishment of an ethnic group.
Though China’s government says conditions inside its “re-education camps” are very good, as the film says, there have been reports of torture and deaths inside them.
The documents published in part by The New York Times this week were leaked, the Times said, by “a member of the Chinese political establishment” who hoped to help hold party leadership accountable for detaining Muslim citizens en masse.
Following the publication of the Times’ story, a Chinese government spokesman defended what he called “a series of preventive counterterrorism and de-extremism measures” that he said had been successful in preventing violent terror attacks in Xinjiang. The Xinjiang regional government responded more forcefully, describing the Times reporting as “total nonsense and a pack of lies.” Chinese officials have not disputed the authenticity of the leaked documents.
For more on how the Chinese government is deploying AI tools on its people — including the Uighers — watch In the Age of AI in full.