Facial-recognition analytics that China uses to oppress the marginalized peoples of Xinjiang could soon spread through Central Asia.
Kausar and Hadiqe, two 16-year-old Uyghur girls, glide through the dusty backstreets of Afghanistan’s capital in their abayas, chattering to each other. Their long gowns and niqabs keep them anonymous — the way the Taliban like it since they retook power in Kabul in August 2021.
Often marooned at home, forbidden to go to school since the Taliban’s ban on education for girls, they keep in touch with the outside world on the one mobile phone their families share. They chat over WhatsApp complaining about their new rulers to their heart’s content. They search online for schools to continue their studies albeit in a more chaotic form. No one checks their phones for suspect apps or listens to their private frustrations.
This might be about to change. So far, the 3,000 Uyghurs living in Afghanistan have slipped under the radar of the government’s Islamic fundamentalist gaze. Many of them have lived there peacefully since the 1950s, when they fled religious persecution at the hands of the ascendant Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Now, an August 2023 agreement between the Taliban and Huawei, China’s giant telecommunications and surveillance technology company, could soon see the rollout of cameras equipped with facial-recognition capabilities in every province of Afghanistan, putting Uyghurs on high alert.
In China, software and hardware from Huawei and companies such as Hikvision have enabled the CCP to usher in a total surveillance state in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which shares a 57-mile border with Afghanistan high in the Pamir Mountains.
In September 2023, Beijing sent Zhào Xīng 赵星 to be ambassador in Kabul, joining Iran, Russia, and neighboring Pakistan on the list of countries to maintain ties with the Islamic fundamentalist government since its insurgency ended the U.S. military occupation of 20 years.
“Any further cooperation or economic ties between China and the Taliban regime will raise alarm bells for the community because of what has unfolded in the Uyghur homeland with Uyghurs being unjustly labeled as terrorists,” Julie Millsap, Government Relations Manager at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told The China Project.
The Taliban’s security problems
Since the Taliban retook power, it has been trying to eradicate violent opposition and control global jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda, whose members often hide within its borders. At least 60 brutal assaults, including suicide bombings, car bombs, and grenade and mine attacks, often by unnamed groups, have been recorded since the Taliban’s return.
Enter Huawei’s cameras, which the Taliban will use to hunt down insurgents and terrorists. A Taliban enemy, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K, or more commonly ISIS-K), has 6,000 militia hiding in the east and parts of the north of Afghanistan. Its targeted bombing sprees include deadly attacks on the Russian Embassy in Kabul and a hotel used by Chinese businesspeople. Moreover, ISIS-K has threatened to bomb the embassies of China, India, and Iran.
Despite an uneasy peace since the Taliban took over, random guerrilla raids in Kabul are carried out by the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, a coalition of former Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban fighters. Afghan citizens still live fearfully day to day.
“We say goodbye every morning not knowing if we will ever see our loved ones again,” Hadiqe’s mother, Zainab, told The China Project. “We are tired of this life.”
A history of racial profiling
Huawei achieved notoriety when it was revealed that its facial-recognition technology had race-specific capabilities that Chinese authorities used to hunt down Uyghurs beginning in 2016, when the CCP began a campaign of mass arrests in the name of security.
More than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples were rounded up under orders from Chén Quánguó 陈全国, the then newly appointed CCP General Secretary for Xinjiang. Many Uyghurs were detained extrajudicially and sent for so-called reeducation — sometimes for years — before being shipped off around China and forced to work for little or no money making goods for Western markets.
Huawei cameras were there right at the start of Chen’s campaign, monitoring street activity from Ürümqi to Kashgar and cities in between. As Chen’s policies unfolded, simple tracking devices morphed into more sophisticated tech with facial-recognition capabilities rolled out incrementally over housing complex entrances, in doorways, along landings, in places of worship, inside buses and private taxis, and even along mountain trails and resorts frequented by tourists. Many had the Huawei logo. Soon Huawei’s eyes were on every Uyghur in the region.
As Chen oversaw the buildup of a network of secret detention facilities to “reeducate” vast numbers of Uyghurs and Turkic peoples, Huawei’s tech was there to capture every movement, every glance, and every stray word between prisoners.
Despite vigorous denials, Huawei has been caught developing facial-scanning software that can trigger an alarm when an unsuspecting Uyghur walks by a Huawei camera. Huawei filed patents for Uyghur-detection analytics, which was exposed in 2021 by the Internet Protocol Video Market (IPVM), a security and surveillance industry research group based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
An IPVM video describes a document detailing Huawei’s collaboration with Chinese AI company MEGVII to test and validate Uyghur recognition, thus giving Chinese state police the tools to track Uyghurs across China. The finding in the video directly contravenes Huawei’s claim that it protects human rights.
Over a dozen police departments across China use analytics that track Uyghurs. The companies Hikvision, Dahua, and UNIVIEW also offer Uyghur-tracking capabilities.
Huawei and other Chinese surveillance companies such as Hikvision, Dahua, and UNIVIEW, having perfected their facial-recognition systems in Xinjiang on Uyghurs, are now rolling them out around the world for authoritarian governments to use in the oppression of their own people. A number of African countries are a case in point.
Nervous Uyghurs in Afghanistan
Uyghurs and other marginalized minorities living in Afghanistan are watching the Taliban and Huawei closely.
Zainab, a second-generation Uyghur-Afghan woman whose family escaped China over treacherous mountain passes during the Cultural Revolution, said she is gathering names as fast as she can, hoping to help as many Uyghurs in Afghanistan to move to Canada, where the government has promised to bring 10,000 Uyghurs to safety.
“We have been treated well all these years, but now the Taliban has returned, we are terrified,” Zainab told The China Project over the phone from Kabul.
The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, technology was not a factor and Kabul’s relationship with Beijing had yet to be established. The news that Huawei might have its foot in the door horrified Zainab.
“We know what is going on in Xinjiang to our brothers and sisters,” she said. “This has been largely tech-driven and the thought that it might come here is terrifying.”
Millsap said that the Taliban’s adoption of Huawei technology is a slippery slope toward the kind of full surveillance practiced across the border in Xinjiang, where it is used to detain Uyghurs on a whim for the shade of their skin, the shape of their nose, the slant of their eyes. The tech’s Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) — a compulsory app on every smartphone in Xinjiang — enables the Chinese government to see every download, every illegal app, and every text and email, in effect, monitoring the entire contents of each smartphone in real time.
“Huawei’s movement into the region will likewise potentially make facilitation of repatriation, arrests, or other potential targeting of Uyghurs much easier,” Millsap said.
Even before the announcement of Huawei’s agreement with the Taliban Uyghurs feared an increase in Chinese transnational repression.
“With Huawei’s technology present, the arrests and deportations to China will significantly increase and make it easier for China to track Uyghurs,” Zumretay Arkin, World Uyghur Congress (WUC) Program and Advocacy Manager, told The China Project from her base in Munich.
Huawei is already well known in Afghanistan for its trade through local Kabul-based bricks-and-mortar retail partner Khalid Lemar.
The manager of the Khalid Lemar shop in downtown Kabul told The China Project that his customers trust Huawei “100%.” Afghanistan’s citizens have little idea that Huawei’s mobile phones have been banned in several countries around the world for their spying capabilities.
Huawei took a hit when several democratic countries nipped the rollout of Huawei’s 5G network in the bud, banning its equipment and ordering removal of existing stock. The U.K. ordered all Huawei equipment to be removed from Britain by 2027.
But Huawei told Computer Weekly in April 2021 that it was “driving efforts to fully unleash the value of 5G” and that it would “help carriers around the world roll out their 5G networks, meeting the demands of consumers and industries alike, while boosting its own delivery efficiency.”
Chinese surveillance companies, driven and largely controlled by Beijing, could just be the tip of the iceberg of Beijing’s involvement in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative. As China aims to build an oil pipeline from the Arabian Sea through Pakistan to Xinjiang, and moves to mine rare mineral deposits thought to be worth $1 trillion in Afghanistan, railways and roads could be accompanied by Chinese tech providing surveillance for security.
The Taliban — a perfect partner for Beijing?
Afghanistan has already benefited from China’s largesse to the tune of $37.4 million, but with Beijing’s long to-do list in the country, experts fear Afghanistan will descend the same slippery slope as neighboring Pakistan, now creaking under a Chinese debt burden of more than $30 billion.
The buildup of Beijing’s increasing geopolitical power makes China’s repression of Uyghurs globally possible, “particularly within Central Asia,” Arkin of the WUC said. “Beijing’s economic influence and foreign policy objective of national security has gained China myriad allies who will support the brutal repression and genocide of Uyghurs.”
Victorious over the departing U.S. military, the Taliban rampaged through Kabul in August 2021, and China’s state-run propaganda newspaper Global Times quoted a Chinese businessman there, Yú Mínghuī 余明辉 saying, “It is a sunny day in Kabul.”
“The Afghan workers who have guarded the Chinatown for a whole night are sleeping. Breakfast stalls appeared again in the streets with smiling vendors, happy that no official may come to fine them for a while,” Yu told the Global Times, upbeat about the day when the Taliban would need China’s help with “infrastructure and production.”
In July 2021, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of the Taliban, met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson announced at the time that China “fully respected Afghanistan’s sovereignty” and its right to decide its own future.
The Taliban “expected China to participate in their rebuilding and development” and would “never allow any forces to use Afghanistan’s territory to harm China,” the Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. He stressed “China’s respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.” China would “never interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs,” he said.
Afghanistan under the Taliban could be “China’s perfect partner: dysfunctional, dependent, and happy with whatever China can do for it,” said the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
In two years in power, the Taliban government has entrenched its ideals and version of Islamic law, bringing Afghanistan once again to its knees, causing poverty, mass unemployment, and a disappearance of women’s freedoms and the education of girls.
Minorities have been of special interest to the Taliban, who, until now, have only been able to hunt them down in the old-fashioned way. Ethnic Hazara people have targeted for their own interpretation of Islam and independent spirit, and Afghanistan’s substantial Uyghur community cowers in fear of being deported to China should Beijing give the word.
Many of the hundreds of Uyghurs who fled into Afghanistan over the years from the 1950’s call the land they left behind “East Turkestan.” They spread through Afghanistan making new lives for themselves. Uyghurs and their Afghanistan-born children for years have been known locally as Afghans, or even “Chinese,” but they never forgot where they came from.
Neither did Beijing.
By calling on Huawei’s help to rein in its own terrorists, the Taliban is following in Beijing’s footsteps.
“When authoritarian states, or non-state actors such as the Taliban, want to control their populations, making sure that there’s no vibrant civil society and no uprising, they look to China as the most advanced example, the master of Orwellian control,” Rayhan Asat, a Harvard-trained Uyghur lawyer and human rights activist based in the U.K., told The China Project.
China’s primary security concern in Afghanistan is the perceived threat from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, ETIM, a Uyghur group that Beijing claims aspires to liberate Xinjiang and the Uyghur people from Chinese government control and impose an Islamic Caliphate.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Beijing, taking a page from Washington’s “War or Terror,” designated ETIM a terrorist organization and pressured other governments to do the same. P.R.C. officials at the United Nations in New York claimed the Uyghurs were directly linked to Osama bin Laden.
Needing China’s support in the War on Terror, Washington appeased Beijing by labeling ETIM terrorists, a move that emboldened the CCP to label all Uyghurs a potential threat.
China has a historically checkered relationship with the Taliban amid fears that it might be harboring these so-called militants who might take advantage of growing instability in the north of Afghanistan to mount an attack on Chinese territory.
But only a small number of violent incidents initiated by Uyghurs since 9/11 can be construed as terrorism, according to Sean Roberts, a George Washington University professor of international affairs and the author of the 2020 book The War on the Uyghurs.
Extensive interviews and Uyghur-language sources led Roberts to conclude that the few guerilla-style attacks documented on the ground in China were carried out not by heavily armed terrorist cells but by disgruntled Chinese citizens of Uyghur descent frustrated that they were suffering stark inequalities and abuse of their human rights.
“In reality, there is no conclusive evidence that ETIM or any organized and capable terrorist group has ever been able to establish sophisticated operations within Xinjiang,” Roberts wrote in his book.
ETIM being labeled terrorist was founded on “sloppy research” by so-called international terrorism experts who, in turn, relied on unverified accusations against Uyghurs hyped up by the CCP, Roberts said.
Interviews with Uyghur prisoners at the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suggested that ETIM, or something like it, existed in 2001 to train Uyghur youth in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, but that its operations were rudimentary, ill-equipped, and “highly disorganized,” Roberts wrote. After the death of ETIM’s leader, Hasan Mahsum, in 2003, the group all but fizzled out, Roberts noted.
ETIM was removed from the U.S. terror list in November 2020 and there has been no reported evidence of its existence since. But China continues to cling to and perpetuate the myth. It still fears Islamic extremism will spill over from Afghanistan into northwestern China despite a Taliban promise in July 2021 that it would not allow foreign fighters to use Afghanistan as a base to attack China.
The Taliban’s dilemma
The Taliban walks a narrow tightrope between appeasing atheist China and agreeing to hand over Uyghur militants, and those within its own ranks such as the hardline Islamic Haqqani faction, which sympathizes with the Uyghur cause.
“The more China demands the Taliban denounce other Islamist groups, the more vulnerable the Taliban becomes to propaganda from ISIS-K and other global jihadi groups that wish to portray the Taliban as ‘sellouts’ to neighboring countries,” according to a paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They can show that the Taliban have given up religious purity in exchange for economic benefit.”
Still, on August 14, Huawei representatives met with Taliban Interior Ministry officials to discuss the tech deal. Ministry spokesman Mufti Abdul Mateen Qani said the hardware was being considered in “every province of Afghanistan,” but a later Huawei email told Bloomberg, “No plans or agreements were discussed.”
Despite Huawei hedging its bets and keeping its next move close to its chest, Etilaatroz, the last online Afghan media outlet standing, now exiled from Kabul to a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., reported Abdullah Mukhtar, the deputy of security affairs of the Taliban’s Ministry of Interior, saying in his ministry’s newsletter, “We are considering to activate the advanced camera system in every province of Afghanistan, we can accept projects that are good in terms of quality and price.”
Mukhtar said he was pleased to report that “Mr Victor,” a Huawei representative, had committed to working under Taliban rule, and that in return, the Chinese company could be assured full cooperation and safety.
“China already has extensive power within Central Asia and its partnering countries are using Chinese mass surveillance technology for social control, including the tracking and extradition of Uyghurs to China,” Arkin said. “China’s longtime ally and Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan, has since the 1990s actively collaborated with Chinese authorities to arrest and extradite Uyghurs.”
In mid-October 2023 Pakistan ordered around 20 Uyghur families without correct documentation to leave its borders before November 1, or risk deportation, including Uyghurs who have fled Afghanistan without the right papers. This scenario worries Millsap, who sees the writing on the wall for Uyghurs living in Afghanistan.
“As the Taliban becomes more and more economically beholden to China, the level of control that the Chinese authorities will be able to exercise extraterritorially and extrajudicially will no doubt begin to mirror what we have seen unfolding in other countries with similar investment ties,” Millsap said.
Source: The China Project