China’s rollout of 5G base stations in Xinjiang will boost surveillance, experts say
China’s rollout of thousands of 5G base stations throughout its far-western Xinjiang region has raised suspicions that the technology will not be used for economic development but for enhanced digital surveillance of Uyghurs and other Muslims, experts say.
The build-out in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is part of a nationwide expansion of the fifth-generation, or 5G, technology standard for broadband cellular networks that mobile phone companies began deploying worldwide in 2019. China is rolling out 5G to further digitize its economy and society.
With an area of 642,800 square kilometers (248,200 square miles), Xinjiang has the largest land area of all the provinces and autonomous regions in China, though most of the vast region consists of uninhabited deserts and mountains.
Xinjiang’s regional capital Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi) was one of China’s first cities to adopt 5G technology in October 2019, followed by a network rollout that covered other urban areas in prefecture-level cities.
The 5G network rollout across the entire region will augment an existing pervasive digitized system that monitors the movement of residents through surveillance drones, facial recognition cameras, mobile phone scans as part of China’s efforts to control the predominantly Muslim population, experts said.
China has built more than 30,000 5G base stations in Xinjiang, adding another roughly 10,000 this year at a cost of 1.65 billion yuan (U.S. $230 million), according to an Oct. 10 report by state-run Tianshan Net-Xinjiang Daily, the official news website of Xinjiang.
There are nearly a dozen 5G base stations for every 10,000 people in the region with a total population of roughly 12 million, the report said. All prefecture-level urban areas and county urban areas, and 90.5 percent of townships and towns, now have 5G network coverage.
“The 5G network will further deepen the coverage of counties and townships, and ‘county and county access to 5G’ will further consolidate the foundation of digital Xinjiang,” the report said.
5G applications are “injecting strong impetus into enabling the digital transformation of the manufacturing industry and promoting high-quality economic development,” the state-run report said. Xinjiang already employs technology in more than 70 5G applications, primarily in manufacturing, agriculture, medical care, education and cultural tourism.
But experts on surveillance in Xinjiang say that the new 5G infrastructure is helping authorities keep a closer eye on the Uyghur population, already subject to tight digital scrutiny for years.
“It’s definitely an interesting development. I have to imagine it will only make surveillance that much more pervasive and efficient,” said Josh Chin, a journalist with The Wall Street Journal and co-author of Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control.
‘See everything, know everything’
China has used digital technology to monitor and censor Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in Xinjiang, amassing huge amounts of data from cell phones, personal computers, and security cameras to impose political and social control of the Muslim groups.
For years, Chinese authorities have subjected Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang to arbitrary arrests and restrictions on their religious practice and culture.
Geoffrey Cain, a U.S. journalist who wrote the book The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future, said the rollout of 5G base stations across the vast, sparsely populated region is “overkill.”
“It’s very extreme, and it also strikes me as very suspicious,” he told RFA.
Any technology deployed in Xinjiang will be used for surveillance, Cain said.
“The government of China has made it clear that the purpose of technology is first to develop the region, but that’s the optimistic version,” he said. “The second reason is to control the people of the region, to control the Uyghur people, and the goal is to create a total security state. The government of Beijing wants to be able to see everything and know everything.”
This year, China introduced a fleet of 20 driverless electric patrol vehicles in Karamay (Kelemayi), an oil-rich city in the northern part of Xinjiang as a new method of surveillance. The self-driving cars are equipped with eight surveillance cameras that can rotate 360 degrees and equipped with facial recognition and tracking technology to collect data on suspicious incidents to send to the Integrated Joint Operation Platform, the main system for mass surveillance in Xinjiang.
As part of the repression, it is believed that as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslims have been held in a vast network of internment camps purportedly set up to prevent “religious extremism” and “terrorism” in the region. Beijing has insisted that the camps were vocational training facilities and that they are now closed.
“One of the reasons the government is closing camps and releasing the Uyghurs people is because they’ve turned the whole region into one concentration camp,” Cain said. “They have the tools they need to monitor everyone to control them, and they don’t need to spend all this money on camps to make it happen.”
The predominantly Muslim groups have also been subjected to torture, forced sterilizations and forced labor, as well as the eradication of their linguistic, cultural and religious traditions, in what the United States and several Western parliaments have called genocide and crimes against humanity.
A report issued by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in late August documented widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including torture, arbitrary arrests, forced abortions, and violations of religious freedom, and said the repression there “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
“This is a very extreme form of surveillance because a data network is the easiest way to spy on people,” Cain said. “More than any other technology that we have for the population, installing a data network all over the region will guarantee that everybody is constantly being monitored.”
“Their data is on the network,” he said. “They cannot escape the network no matter where they go.”
Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.