Xi Jinping’s 21st Century Authoritarianism

Lynx Asia Regional Analyst Nick Carpenter

 

Long championed as the undoing of authoritarian regimes the world over, technology has come to be the favored tools of oppression used by Xi Jingping and his Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Accounts of social ranking systems being tracked by smartphone apps, and excessive electronic surveillance have poured out of China as Xi has cemented his grip on power. One part of China where Xi has taken this technological based control far above the rest of the country is the western province of Xinjiang.

 

Xinjiang, has for all of China’s history, remained on the periphery of Beijing’s control. In past centuries local nomad tribesmen have resisted Han Chinese rule. In contemporary times China’s central government has had a decades long often violent secessionist struggle with the local Uighur Muslims. Bombings and stabbings have occurred all over China and ethnically fuel riots between Han and Uighurs have killed hundreds in Xinjiang. Tensions have been inflamed by Beijing’s relentless push to assimilate the culturally Islamic and Turkic Uighurs into the dominant Han Chinese culture. All the while, the specter of Global Jihad hangs over the Uighur secessionist movements. Hundreds if not thousands of Uighurs have gone to fight in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan on behalf of Al-Qaeda or ISIS. China’s neighbor to the west, Pakistan has seen Uighur militants housed in Al-Qaeda training camps. The CCP’s fear is that one-day these militants will return to Xinjiang bringing their newfound radical ideology and capacity for extreme violence with them.

 

The CCP’s response to the unrest for the past several years has to initiate violent crackdowns. Large contingents of security forces were moved into Xinjiang. Police raids, military checkpoints, and arbitrary arrests became the norm. Earlier this year however, the CCP has begun to implement new technology-based strategies to further its grip on Xinjiang.

 

It began with the gathering of biometric data of the Uighur population. Biometric data is data that is created from human biological characteristics. Often without prior knowledge or consent, the authorities have collectedDNA samples, eye scans, fingerprints, and blood types from millions of adult Uighurs. The streets of Xinjiang’s cities are now lined with cameras outfitted with facial recognition technology. The government has mandated that all Uighurs put GPS tracking in their cars and on their personal cell phones that the government can track at any time without due process or probable cause.  According to some reportspolice instantly begin electronic surveillance on any person suspected of militancy who travels near sensitive areas such as government buildings or more than 1,000 feet from his or her home, or workplace.

 

Beijing has not simply collected this biometric data and surveillance technology either. The central government has used these technologically advanced capabilities to track down, arrest, and detain hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in secretive “re-education” centers. Many of those that are arrested are not militants or involved with Xinjiang’s secessionist movements. Instead, these camps are filled with men and women who have expressed their Muslim or Uighur identity, such as wearing a Muslim style beard or skullcap. The accounts that come out of these prison camps are harrowing. One Muslim man who recounted his experiences in a Washington Post articleclaims that he was detained for travelling outside of China. He was forced to read communist propaganda and chant slogans praising Xi Jingping for hours. Those who disobey or refuse to take part in these activities are beaten, water boarded, or forced to sit in painful positions for extended periods of time.

 

This development in Xinjiang has lasting implications for the future of Xi’s time as leader of the CCP. A common CCP strategy for enacting controversial policies is to test them at the province level before implementing them nation wide. The CCP’s actions in Xinjiang could point to an impending nation wide-crackdown. Xi has largely quelled any internal political opposition to his rule and in March of 2018 he eliminated term limits cementing his role as leader of China indefinitely. With no limits on how long he can remain in office and virtually no checks on his power, it is likely that this technological based authoritarianism will be turned on any remaining dissent to Xi’s rule in every Chinese province. What Xi and the CCP have done in Xinjiang is an innovation in oppression. Now that advanced technology has been coupled with more traditional methods of despotism how long will it be before dictators around the world take notice?