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  • China Defends Record on International Human Rights Day

  • Translation: Netizens Voice Support for Hong Kong Protesters

  • Concerns Mount Over Adoption and Export of Biometric Surveillance


Photo: Yellow Mountain, China, by Lei Han

Yellow Mountain, China, by Lei Han (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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China Defends Record on International Human Rights Day

On Tuesday, International Human Rights Day, spokesperson Hua Chunying mounted a familiar defense of China’s rights record at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ regular press conference:

Q: It’s the Human Rights Day today. Certaincountry raises concerns over and criticize human rights in China. How do you respond?

A: Relevant country has made irresponsible accusations about China’s human rights situation in disregard of basic facts. China is firmly opposed to that.

The Chinese people have the best say in the human rights situation in China. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The past 70 years witnessed sea change in China and historic progress in its human rights cause. Seventy years ago, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, the Chinese people realized liberation and became their own masters. Over the past 70 years, the Chinese nation has found its feet and become prosperous and strong. The Chinese government and people attach great importance to human rights cause, espouses a people-centered view of human rights, integrates the principle of universality of human rights with national conditions, and regards the rights to subsistence and development as its primary and basic human rights, opening a new path of human rights protection with Chinese characteristics based on its national conditions. We ensure enough food and clothing for nearly 1.4 billion people, cut impoverished population by 850 million, provide employment for 770 million people, and offer basic security to 250 million elderly, 85 million persons with disabilities and more than 60 million persons that receive urban or rural minimum living subsidies. We have made a historic leap from poverty to adequate food and clothing, and to a moderately prosperous society for around 1.4 billion people. Besides, we have developed the largest national education system, largest social security system, largest medical system and largest community-level democracy system in the world, which composes an epic of China’s human rights progress, offers solutions for international human rights protection and enrich the diversity of human civilization. This is an undeniable truth for all impartial persons. [Source]

Hua went on to note that the MoFA and State Council Information Office would host the "2019 South-South Human Rights Forum" this week "with a view to adding new dimensions and injecting impetus into exchange and cooperation in the field of human rights." Her comments also included notice that the cases of detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been referred for prosecution on charges involving state secrets. She also responded to a question about American officials’ comments on China’s ongoing mass detentions in Xinjiang:

The remarks made by relevant people on the US side once again remind us of the fact that the US is not only a superpower in today’s world, but also a super liar.

[…] The Uighur ethnicity is part of the big family consisting of 56 ethnic groups in China, tightly united together like the seeds of a pomegranate. They are living a better life and fully enjoy the freedom and rights. China also enjoys friendly and close relations with the vast majority of Muslim countries in the world. It is understandable for the US to be envious. However, it is unacceptable if it is spreading rumors to smear and slander us. [Source]

Hua’s argument that "the Chinese people have the best say in the human rights situation in China" echoes the claim made by Xi Jinping in Moscow in 2013 that "’only the wearer knows if the shoe fits.’ As for whether a country’s developmental path fits, only the people of that country have the right to say." A number of online commenters subsequently complained that they had not been adequately consulted about the figurative comfort of their footwear. One, Wuyuesanren (@五岳散人), commented on Weibo:

My take on the shoe-and-foot question: Whoever buys the shoes has the last word. The common people pay taxes, so they have the right to say whether or not the shoe fits, as well as the style they want. A well-chosen pair of shoes also comes with a warranty and the privilege to exchange or return the items. The shoes themselves don’t have the qualifications to say whether they fit or not. Shoes that do aren’t shoes, they’re shackles. [Source]

The following year, activist Cao Shunli died in hospital after being denied treatment while in detention. Cao was being held after taking part in a two-month sit-in outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ headquarters, calling for public participation in the U.N. Human Right’s Council’s Universal Periodic Review.

George Washington University law professor Donald Clarke commented:

In a statement on Tuesday, the E.U. Delegation in China acknowledged China’s achievements, but noted that "having endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, […] China made a public commitment to the international community to uphold international human rights laws and to defend universal values."

China has made remarkable progress in the social and economic situation of its citizens, including poverty alleviation, gender equality, improved access to health and education, and reduced maternal and infant mortality.

At the same time, basic human rights in the civic and political field, including rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration and also in the Constitution of China, are not being guaranteed. China is yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights it signed in 1998.

Each year a significant number of people are still sentenced to death and executed by the Chinese authorities, also for many non-violent crimes. The EU urges China to reduce the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty, subsequent moratorium and ultimately abolition of the death penalty.

The EU is concerned at the continuously worsening human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and in Tibet. Reports point to severe restrictions of the freedom of expression and association, and of the freedom of religion or belief in all of China; as well as continuous large-scale extra-judicial detentions. Destruction of mosques, temples and other religious sites take place systematically. Mass detentions of Uyghurs and other minorities in political re-education centres and intimidation of citizens by mass surveillance in Xinjiang still continue. Uyghurs abroad, including in the EU, are being harassed and in some instances returned to China involuntarily.

[…] The EU is also concerned at the continuous arrests, detention and imprisonment of human rights defenders, lawyers and other citizens exercising fundamental human rights. Human rights defenders and activists including Ilham Tohti, Tiyip Tashpolat, Wu Gan, Tashi Wangchuk, and Huang Qi, human rights lawyers Wang Quanzhang, Li Yuhan, Gao Zhisheng and Yu Wensheng have been convicted, detained, or forcibly disappeared. Released activists, such as Jiang Tianyong, have been put under heavy surveillance that amounts to a house arrest and are denied medical treatment. [Source]

The U.S. Consul General for Hong Kong and Macau Hanscom Smith argued similarly in an op-ed at South China Morning Post:

Sadly, not all nations respect their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Chinese government, for example, has forced more than 1 million Uygurs and members of other Muslim minority groups into internment camps in Xinjiang since 2017, demolished numerous Christian churches and has repressed the religion and culture of Tibet for decades.

[…] Engagement with the Chinese people on these important issues would lead to greater mutual understanding yet, on the mainland, our ability to communicate directly – the same way Chinese diplomats are allowed to communicate to the American people – is sadly curtailed.

On this International Human Rights Day, the United States reiterates its unwavering support for Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms, legal system and way of life. It is the United States’ long-standing policy that China honour its commitments to protect those rights, as outlined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, an international treaty filed with the United Nations. [Source]

At Hong Kong Free Press, the Uyghur Human Rights Project’s Omer Kanat commented on the ‘South-South Human Rights Forum’ hailed by Hua Chunying, as well as on China’s efforts to undermine rights mechanisms at the U.N. (the subject of an in-depth 2017 report from Human Rights Watch).

In 2017, three days before Human Rights Day on December 10, Beijing hosted the ‘South-South Human Rights Forum.’ The event took place as the Chinese authorities were interning vast numbers of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in concentration camps. More than 300 delegates from 70 countries attended. The outcome document, the ‘Beijing Declaration,’ affirmed states should “choose a human rights development path or guarantee model that suits its specific conditions.” In sum, China sought an international clearance for the concept of ‘human rights with Chinese characteristics’ sublimating individual and collective freedoms to the needs of the state.

[…] Among the enablers of Xi Jinping’s repression are states with disreputable records attracted to a possible exemption from universal standards that ‘human rights with Chinese characteristics’ affords. And again, if we could freely ask the populations who reside in these states how they feel about such a concept, there would be few advocates. Therefore, on Human Rights Day, we have a responsibility to defend those who defend universal values and be clear ‘never again’ has meaning. There is injustice everywhere and we must fight it. Uyghurs are among them, for example, the imprisoned Ilham Tohti, and in exile Rebiya Kadeer, Nury Turkel, Rushan Abbas, and Gulchehra Hoja, whose families have been detained and disappeared in East Turkestan because of their advocacy. The second ‘South-South Human Rights Forum’ is opening in Shanghai for this year’s Human Rights Day. The dangerous fiction of the ‘Beijing Declaration’ that there are exceptions to the universality of rights should be firmly resisted. [Source]

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Translation: Netizens Voice Support for Hong Kong Protesters

What began six months ago in Hong Kong as a protest against a proposed (and now withdrawn) extradition bill has widened in scope to address collective concerns for the future of the relative freedoms and democracy enjoyed there. Amid the demonstrations, Beijing has been attempting to present a counternarrative against pro-democracy protesters to the domestic audience and to the world at large: that the movement is a foreign-backed assault on Chinese sovereignty by a violent and radical minority. However, events on the ground suggest otherwise: pro-democracy candidates experienced sharp victories in local elections late last month, and a massive rally last weekend on the six-month mark of the initial protests indicate that far more public support exists in Hong Kong than Beijing is willing or able to admit.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s efforts to suppress expressions of solidarity from Chinese in China or abroad, coupled with steady media reports on nationalist counterprotesters at support Hong Kong rallies in international cities, serve to suggest near unanimous Chinese opposition to the demands of demonstrators in Hong Kong. Support, however, can be found, despite the substantial risk that comes with it

Last month, a special page on Facebook titled @WeSupportHongKong (內地生撐香港) was launched to allow mainlanders living abroad a place to anonymously express their feelings about the Hong Kong movement. Twitter-user @midwaydude, one of the page’s administrators and co-founders, describes the page as a “tree hole” (树洞) project where Chinese supporters of the Hong Kong movement can share their thoughts despite the environment of peer pressure they likely live in. (The phrase “tree hole” comes from the fairytale “The King With Donkey Ears,” and has gained new currency as an online space where netizens can enjoy anonymous and free online expression). CDT has translated @midwaydude’s introduction to the Facebook page:

In cooperation with Twitter account 中流青年 (@midwaydude) we are launching this “tree hole” campaign to gather and anonymously publish personal comments supporting the anti-extradition bill movement in Hong Kong from mainlanders employed or studying in Hong Kong or abroad. 

@midwaydude’s statement has been re-posted below:

It is abundantly clear, the escalating state of affairs that have forced demonstrators into extreme circumstances is a conspiracy.

Setting this aside, I guess that 70-80% of the mainland students in Hong Kong take a position no different from that of a mainland official.

However, what I’m interested in is the opinions of the remaining minority, those who speak Mandarin, but have connected with the Hong Kongers.

For them, life in this rapidly changing environment of protest must be very difficult, as they face the official information warfare from the mainland along with peer pressure and the inherent distrust of the Hong Kong people.

Perhaps you can’t make it to the frontlines, and even peacefully marching comes with significant psychological pressure. This I can understand. 

But the conversation isn’t only made up of those on the frontlines and those behind them, it also includes you all from the mainland who support their resistance.

Your information, your blessings, your proposals for donations…all of that speaks for itself. 

This is a hard time for all, this is easy for no one. It’s all very difficult, and I am not sure what the ending will look like.

This page can be used by mainlanders in Hong Kong and abroad as a “tree hole” to share the thoughts and opinions of friends who understand the anti-extradition movement with everyone. If you want people to hear your story, you are extremely welcome here.

We are open for submissions, you can post to this special page. Submissions will be anonymous, as private messages will be deleted after they are published.  [Chinese]

Since the page launched on November 14, a steady stream of anonymized messages of support have been shared. CDT has translated a few examples:

“Once I Too Was a Protester”

Once I too was a protester. Corrupt officials sold the villagers’ land, and the villagers had no way to appeal. They could only protest in the streets and block the road. What they got was only violent suppression, just like in Hong Kong today. Some people were choked out by armed police, others were knocked down unconscious and nobody took notice. No news outlets and no journalists dared to report on this because of directives from above. The internet was sealed off, not even a word or a photo could be made public. When mainlanders face the government, they are powerless, helpless, and hopeless.

But the Hong Kong people, they still have hope, they still have a future. I only hope that Hong Kong won’t follow in the footsteps of the mainland, they must continue to walk their road towards their own future!  

Glory to Hong Kong!

(This is a tree hole project to support Hong Kong sponsored by this page and Twitter-user @midwaydude. You are welcome to contribute your thoughts to the tree hole.) [Chinese]

“[Ideological] Repression Within a Circle of Mainland Professors in Hong Kong”

I am not a mainland student, but a professor with a background in the mainland (I hold a Chinese passport but serve as a professor in Hong Kong). Today at major Hong Kong universities, the vast majority grasp to an ideology like Xu Jiang [the teacher at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who in a gesture of support for Beijing gave a Chinese flag to a student at graduation] does. As one of a minority of people who support Hong Kong’s democratic movement and who understands the demands of the youth in Hong Kong, I am often quite depressed. I’m afraid that if my political opinions were known to my colleagues, or if I even say something that shows sympathy with the youth and the demonstrators, I’d be pushed aside by my colleagues. So, since the anti-extradition campaign began, I’ve been bottling up my feelings. 

In my community of mainland professors, everyone often discusses how to suppress the demonstrations, support the police, and stop the riots. A recent affair was hard for me to accept. There was an online vote touching on Annie Wu Suk-ching, and mainland professors one-by-one called on everyone to cast their support for Ms. Wu. I think what Annie Wu said is extremely malicious, going so far as to say that she “given up on two generations of youth,” meaning the youth protesting, and also those currently in elementary and middle school. It’s a given that ordinary patriotic “little pinks” [online cyber-nationalists]” support this kind of argument. But, if within a group of mainland professors everyone is supporting this, it makes me very uncomfortable and angry. As educators, everyday we all come into contact with so many Hong Kong students, and directly because of these Hong Kong students our university gets government funding and we have dignified, high-paying jobs. We have these good jobs, and we ought to give back to these students. How can we say we “give up on the youth”?! 

In my classes, there are numerous Hong Kong locals, on the backs of their laptops they stick “Recover Hong Kong, Era of Revolution” slogans, and some will deliberately wear masks in class in resistance to the anti-mask measures. However, they still respect my role as their teacher, ask questions, and take their assignments seriously. Why would you completely deny people for making small political demands? If you won’t accept these young people and you give up on them, why would you continue to teach at their colleges? Do you deserve the high salary of HKU? Ms. Wu said she “gives up on the youth,” but still runs Maxim restaurants on each and every campus, grabbing profit from them. Now that Maxims have been vandalized, from my point of view it was deserved. While you are teaching the youth of Hong Kong and collecting high government-subsidized salaries, out of the other side of your mouth you say you “give up on the youth,” how can you say that!?

In contrast to Xu Jiang, we also have upright, brave, empathetic, and conscientious mainland professors who stand with the Hong Kong students. On November 8, there were also mainland professors who mourned the death of Chow Tsz-lok  with HKUST students. This is our duty as professors.  

Thanks for this page. I registered a new FB account specifically to [come here] and enjoy a bit of free speech.

(This is a tree hole project to support Hong Kong sponsored by this page and Twitter-user @midwaydude. You are welcome to contribute your thoughts to the tree hole.) [Chinese]

“Resist Fear”

Beloved Hong Kong People, I feel very sorry for my cowardice. 

Hong Kong is the first place in my life where I’ve experienced freedom. The 6/4 candlelit vigil was one example, and I walked in the July 1 march because of freedom. So far I can only speak shoddy Cantonese. 

In June I began incessantly sharing information on the anti-amendment movement, and due to this I was taken by police and questioned for a long stretch. Under that pressure, I began self-censoring, I stopped forwarding news related to Hong Kong. I accept the pressure that the state machine puts on me, and I also accept that I am my timid self. But what I’m unable to accept is that without free expression all I can do is watch the police and not dare to forward any news.

I wish to support your expression of opinion, but that’s difficult to do. I wish to offer you all warmth, to let you know that your hardships are not lost on all Chinese people, that many of my friends are empathizing with your suffering.

Even as I write this I am very uneasy, my self-censorship machine is working at full speed, perhaps I am scared amid this resistance.

(This is a tree hole project to support Hong Kong sponsored by this page and Twitter-user @midwaydude. You are welcome to contribute your thoughts to the tree hole.) [Chinese]


Hello, I want to share with you the influence the Hong Kong demonstrations have had on me.

I grew up in the mainland, and was always a “little pink.” A volunteer fitty-center, a little pink brimming with pride. Once when I was young, I did something foolish: “I didn’t bring my national flag to the conference like the textbook [said I should], this won’t do, I’ll make a flag out of this pink tablecloth.” The other people at that conference, mostly foreigners and some Chinese, all gazed at me like I was an idiot. That was the first time I reflected that what was taught in the textbooks wasn’t true, that this isn’t the way to interact with people internationally. Foreigners and Chinese who’ve spent a fair amount of time abroad surely think I must’ve been humiliated. I haven’t told anyone else about that incident, because I was indeed ashamed.

After being abroad for a dozen years of observation and learning I can certainly tell which place has a better system. But, I’d often use the myths I learned at home to persuade myself, to exonerate [China] on [its] domestic affairs. This was until the Hong Kong demonstrations.

This was the first time since I’ve been abroad that I’ve been exposed to first-hand information about demonstrations. This wasn’t like the Cultural Revolution, or the June 4 1989 movement where you had to listen to what older people said. And it wasn’t like Xinjiang or Tibet, where there were no reporters. During the demonstrations, there were eight or nine channels and dozens of video cameras all broadcasting. You could see the reactions of all sides online. For the first time, I realized just how shameless the domestic media reports are. I used to think that CCTV was just selectively reporting, but now I know that CCTV is surely a fraud. 

All along I’ve been concerned about Hong Kong, been cheering the Hong Kong people on and hoping that they remain unharmed. Sometimes, I wish that I could find a small town or an island in Australia, and we could move all the Hong Kongers who love freedom there. This place [HK] can go to the small group that supports the CCP, and we can let the CCP watch its decline. The place where the majority of real Hong Kongers go, it’ll be prospering in less than ten years. 

But I also know that many Hong Kong people want to protect the place where they grew up, and don’t want CCP encroachment. This I can only admire. I hope more people can wake up, be they in China or abroad, and not let Hong Kong people fight on their own!

(This is a tree hole project to support Hong Kong sponsored by this page and Twitter-user @midwaydude. You are welcome to contribute your thoughts to the tree hole.) [Chinese]

See also CDT’s translation of supportive netizen comments on a YouTube video of a Cantonese version of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, performed by a group of Hong Kong students. For more on @midwaydude’s campaign, see “‘Tree Hole’: Where Mainland Chinese Confess Their Support For The Hong Kong Protests” from SupChina.

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Concerns Mount Over Adoption and Export of Biometric Surveillance

At The Financial Times on Friday, Yuan Yang and Madhumita Murgia offered an overview of facial recognition technology’s adoption in China, public reception, and widespread export:

What do Uganda’s police force, a Mongolian prison and Zimbabwean airports have in common? All three are in the process of testing facial recognition systems and all three have used Chinese technology to do it. At least 52 governments are doing the same thing according to research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[… "Chinese] companies are particularly well-suited to provide [advanced surveillance capabilities],” says [Carnegie fellow Steven] Feldstein, “but also they are willing to go to markets that perhaps western competitors are less willing to go to.”

[… Huawei], which was blacklisted for allegedly posing a threat to US national security this year, has supplied surveillance equipment — including facial recognition — to roughly 230 cities worldwide stretching from western Europe to large swaths of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. It supplies more countries with AI video surveillance than anyone else according to Carnegie.

[…] But the question of who is driving the surveillance rollout is not straightforward. “I would beware of the idea that Africa is a blank slate, where the Chinese arrive bringing their oppressive ways,” says Iginio Gagliardone, author of China, Africa, and the Future of the Internet. “Companies are spinning their products to fit the political demands of African elites.” [Source]

Last week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released an AI- and surveillance-focused expansion of its ambitious Mapping China’s Tech Giants project, which now tracks the global footprint of 23 companies and other entities through more than 26,000 data points. ASPI’s Danielle Cave commented on the FT report:

Subsequent tweets highlight examples from the Philippines, Ecuador, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

At The Wall Street Journal on Friday, Liza Lin and Newley Purnell focused on another new report (also cited in the FT piece) on the global proliferation of video and facial recognition surveillance:

The report, from industry researcher IHS Markit, to be released Thursday, said the number of cameras used for surveillance would climb above 1 billion by the end of 2021. That would represent an almost 30% increase from the 770 million cameras today. China would continue to account for a little over half the total.

Fast-growing, populous nations such as India, Brazil and Indonesia would also help drive growth in the sector, the report said. The number of surveillance cameras in the U.S. would grow to 85 million by 2021, from 70 million last year, as American schools, malls and offices seek to tighten security on their premises, IHS analyst Oliver Philippou said.

Mr. Philippou said said government programs to implement widespread video surveillance to monitor the public would be the biggest catalyst for the growth in China. City surveillance also was driving demand elsewhere.

[…] Chinese companies Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co. Ltd. and Dahua Technology Co. are the biggest camera manufacturers by far, accounting for almost 38% of total installations, according to the report. But there are major non-Chinese names in the business as well, including South Korean maker Hanwha Techwin, and Panasonic Corp. of Japan. [Source]

The report notes that the U.S. currently has more security cameras per capita than China, although only 3% of those in the U.S. are part of city surveillance schemes. Both countries ranked poorly in a recent Comparitech study of biometric data handling around the world. China received the worst score of the included countries, while the U.S. ranked fourth from bottom. Comparitech’s Paul Bischoff wrote that these and other low-ranking countries showed "a concerning lack of regard for the privacy of people’s biometric data. Through the collection, use, and storage of biometric data, these countries use biometrics to a severe and invasive extent."

China only managed to scrape back one mark for its lack of a biometric voting system. However, the voting system is very heavily controlled, which perhaps rids the need for biometric voting. It also scored maximum points across all of the other categories for:

  • Using biometrics in passports, ID cards, and bank accounts.
    Not having a specific law to protect citizens’ biometrics.
  • Its extensive nationwide biometric database is currently being expanded to include DNA.
  • Its widespread and invasive use of facial recognition technology in CCTV cameras. As our previous study, Surveillance States, found, facial recognition cameras are now being used to track and monitor the country’s Muslim minority, Uighurs, among other things. Beijing is also trialing facial recognition technology at security checkpoints on the subway so it can divide travelers into groups, something they’re hoping to expand to include buses, taxis, and other travel services. And, at the time of writing, China has also introduced facial recognition checks for anyone getting a new mobile phone number.
  • Its lack of safeguards for employees in the workplace. Companies have even been permitted to monitor employees’ brain waves for productivity while they’re at work.
  • The majority of countries require a visa to enter China and all of the visas issued contain biometrics. Fingerprints of anyone entering China are also taken. [Source]

At Sixth Tone, Cai Xuejiao reported on recent public opinion data from China:

A survey conducted by Nandu Personal Information Protection Research Center — a think tank affiliated with the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper — revealed that 80% of respondents were concerned about their personal information being leaked due to a lack of security. The research institute surveyed 6,152 people between October and November to explore public attitudes toward the application of facial recognition at transport hubs, schools, residential complexes, and shopping malls.

[…] Despite the technology’s increasing usage, a majority of survey respondents said they were concerned about financial fraud and “deepfakes,” or manipulated videos that can potentially be used to spread misinformation. More than 73% said they would prefer alternatives to sharing their facial data, and 83% said they wanted a way to access or delete the data.

Last month, a law professor in the eastern Zhejiang province filed a landmark lawsuit against a local safari park for implementing a mandatory face-screening measure. He accused the park of collecting unnecessary personal data and not letting visitors opt out.

[…] Privacy concerns aside, many of the survey respondents — between 60% and 70% — also agreed that facial recognition is convenient and ensures safety. [Source]

For more on privacy concerns in China, see a World Economic Forum post from last month by New York University’s Winston Ma Wenyan—describing the public backlash against corporate data gathering and handling, the beginnings of official regulation, and its likely effectiveness—and more from CDT.

In his ChinAI newsletter this week, Oxford University’s Jeffrey Ding highlights a recent WeChat post by Tsinghua law professor Lao Dongyan, who argues against the adoption of facial recognition on the Beijing subway system. Although "it’s not a piece representative of all discussions of the ethics of facial recognition in China," he writes, "it does go farther than any other piece by a Chinese scholar I’ve seen in its strong opposition to facial recognition technology." From the newsletter’s summary of his full translation:

The essay is structured into four arguments against the use of facial recognition in the Beijing Subway as well as rebuttals to four possible counterarguments. The four arguments:

  • The relevant organizations and institutions have not proven the legitimacy of their collection method for sensitive personal information
  • The legitimacy of the new facial recognition measure is undercut without a hearing of the public’s views (e.g. the Beijing subway undertook a broad solicitation of the public’s views on a fare adjustment a few years earlier)
  • The standards for how the Beijing subway will conduct screenings are not transparent, could be arbitrarily set, and could be discriminatory.
  • There is not enough evidence to show that the use of facial recognition in subways can improve transport efficiency; even if there is evidence to prove this, efficiency itself is not a sufficient basis for implementation.

[…] Her conclusion sticks the landing: “If this society has not yet fallen into a state of persecution and paranoia, it is time to say enough on security issues. The hysterical pursuit of security has brought to society not security at all, but complete suppression and panic." [Source]

Like facial recognition, DNA collection and analysis has been a longstanding focus of concern regarding biometric data, its security, and its potential abuse, particularly in Xinjiang. At The New York Times last week, Sui-Lee Wee and Paul Mozur reported on an area of convergence between the two, as researchers in China and elsewhere attempt to generate accurate facial images from DNA samples.

In the long term, experts say, it may even be possible for the Communist government to feed images produced from a DNA sample into the mass surveillance and facial recognition systems that it is building, tightening its grip on society by improving its ability to track dissidents and protesters as well as criminals.

Some of this research is taking place in labs run by China’s Ministry of Public Security, and at least two Chinese scientists working with the ministry on the technology have received funding from respected institutions in Europe. International scientific journals have published their findings without examining the origin of the DNA used in the studies or vetting the ethical questions raised by collecting such samples in Xinjiang.

[… E]xperts widely question phenotyping’s effectiveness. Currently, it often produces facial images that are too smooth or indistinct to look like the face being replicated. DNA cannot indicate other factors that determine how people look, such as age or weight. DNA can reveal gender and ancestry, but the technology can be hit or miss when it comes to generating an image as specific as a face.

Phenotyping also raises ethical issues, said Pilar Ossorio, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The police could use it to round up large numbers of people who resemble a suspect, or use it to target ethnic groups. And the technology raises fundamental issues of consent from those who never wanted to be in a database to begin with. [Source]

On Twitter, Wee and Mozur described their findings, the reporting process, and Xinjiang officials’ efforts to disrupt it:

In a follow-up report, the two focused on these ethical issues:

Two publishers of prestigious scientific journals, Springer Nature and Wiley, said this week that they would re-evaluate papers they previously published on Tibetans, Uighurs and other minority groups. The papers were written or co-written by scientists backed by the Chinese government, and the two publishers want to make sure the authors got consent from the people they studied.

Springer Nature, which publishes the influential journal Nature, also said that it was toughening its guidelines to make sure scientists get consent, particularly if those people are members of a vulnerable group.

[…] When Western journals publish such papers by Chinese scientists affiliated with the country’s surveillance agencies, it amounts to selling a knife to a friend “knowing that your friend would use the knife to kill his wife,” said Yves Moreau, a professor of engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

[…] The science world has been responding to the pressure. Thermo Fisher, a maker of equipment for studying genetics, said in February that it would suspend sales to Xinjiang, though it will continue to sell to other parts of China. Still, Dr. Moreau said, the issue initially received little traction among academia. [Source]

Elsewhere, IPVM recently reported on the use of Intel and Nvidia chips in ethnicity detection systems in Xinjiang, noting that "Intel promptly condemned the usage while NVIDIA remains silent to IPVM inquiries."

In an essay at Nature last week, Moreau described China as "the most striking case" in a global trend of DNA database adoption. "With stringent safeguards and oversight," he argued, "it is legitimate for law-enforcement agencies to use DNA-profiling technology. But these uses can easily creep towards human-rights abuses."

A much broader array of stakeholders must engage with the problems that DNA databases present. In particular, governments, policymakers and legislators should tighten regulation and reduce the likelihood of corporations aiding potential human-rights abuses by selling DNA-profiling technology to bad actors — knowingly or negligently. Researchers working on biometric identification technologies should consider more deeply how their inventions could be used. And editors, reviewers and publishers must do more to ensure that published research on biometric identification has been done in an ethical way.

[…] Over the past eight years, three leading forensic genetics journals — International Journal of Legal Medicine (published by Springer Nature), and Forensic Science International and Forensic Science International: Genetics Supplement Series (both published by Elsevier) — have published 40 articles co-authored by members of the Chinese police that describe the DNA profiling of Tibetans and Muslim minorities, including people from Xinjiang. I analysed 529 articles on forensic population genetics in Chinese populations, published between 2011 and 2018 in these journals and others. By my count, Uyghurs and Tibetans are 30–40 times more frequently studied than are people from Han communities, relative to the size of their populations (unpublished data). Half of the studies in my analysis had authors from the police force, military or judiciary. The involvement of such interests should raise red flags to reviewers and editors.

In short, the scientific community in general — and publishers in particular — need to unequivocally affirm that the Declaration of Helsinki (a set of ethical principles regarding human experimentation, developed for the medical community) applies to all biometric identification research (see Unethical work that has been published in this terrain must be retracted. [Source]

Launching off from Moreau’s mention of Chinese genomics giant BGI, science writer Mara Hvistendahl recapped the company’s history and involvement in Xinjiang on Twitter, concluding that "BGI’s work in Xinjiang deserves a LOT more scrutiny."

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