Last week the New York Times ran an article chronicling yet another authoritarian abuse of technology to oppress a minority people group in China. At times, it feels like the Chinese regime relishes these types of revelations because it gives them more reason to flaunt their power over the weak and remind the world of how they define morality and liberty down. Nearly every story of human rights abuses contains comments from a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member spouting off the fact China cares for its citizens in ways nations like the United States can only dream.
This time is no different as they justify the coercive methods to collect DNA samples—often without basic consent or knowledge—from people groups like the Uighur Muslims, who are being detained the Xinjiang region in western China. These free health checks are said to be another way the government cares for its citizens, but recent revelations like this New York Times story show that health checks are nothing more than a convenient cover-up of these travesties against other human beings. These perverse collection methods are then used to create facial maps for facial recognition systems. This sounds sort of sci-fi creepy, and it is.
The deployment of facial recognition systems has caused many municipalities around the United States and other nations to take a hard look at the ethics of this technology, with some governments banning their use entirely. This is because while these facial recognition systems have evident benefits like public safety and the possible reduction of crime, they also invade basic levels of privacy and intrude on many personal liberties that we enjoy in the West. They take away any shred of dignity as people are tracked as mere pawns in the Chinese scheme to dominate the world’s stage.
Facial recognition systems are widely used throughout China already, and the collection of DNA samples to recreate facial maps has emboldened the CCP to strengthen its hold on the Uighurs and other people groups because the facial maps will by most estimates increase the power and effectiveness of the facial recognition systems already deployed.
While it seems like the plot out of a sci-fi movie, the use of DNA to recreate facial images is a dangerous sign of how far the Chinese government will go to exert its dominance over anyone in its midst. To recreate a facial image from DNA, scientists use a process called DNA phenotyping which can determine the ethnicity, skin color, eye color, and other defining features. They use artificial intelligence systems to recreate a basic facial image. While not perfect or able to take into account characteristics such as age or weight, these DNA-based images do allow the systems to track and determine the location of a broad swath of potential people to be detained by police. DNA phenotyping can show distinct features of certain minority people, making it easy to spot them in cities and detain them. Chinese police often use facial recognition technology to carry out the state’s agenda to detain and reeducate minorities by whatever force necessary.
China is not the first, nor will it be the last, to utilize this type of system. These systems have already been deployed in places like Maryland and North Carolina by law enforcement for use in murder cases and missing persons. There are real benefits to this type of technology when used within a system of checks and balances. But when it is unleashed into the hands of an authoritarian regime, we will see this technology used to oppress dissidents and increase the Communist Party’s hold over the Chinese people.
Trying to Steal Souls
The Chinese government currently detains well over one million Uighur Muslims in what it claims are benign facilities that offer cultural and vocational training, but it is clear these are more akin to concentration camps than training facilities. At the camps, people are involuntarily held against their will, forced to give up DNA samples, and are fed countless droves of propaganda in hopes of changing these people into good Chinese citizens who renounce their religious convictions and swear loyalty to the Communist Party.
The understood goal of these DNA phenotyping technologies is to strengthen the already expansive facial recognition systems used throughout the Chinese mainland. China has one of the most expensive facial recognition camera systems in the entire world, with major cities teeming with cameras on every corner. Not only does Chinese leadership track their own people, as it was just recently announced that facial scans will be required for all new mobile phone numbers, but Chinese companies also have openly marketed their AI-based camera systems to target minority people like the Uighurs.
While the government promotes the talking points that these measures are for public safety and fighting crime, it is apparent the end goal of these moves is to oppress the souls of the people, forcing them to bow to the Communist Party’s agenda and give up any freedom they may believe they have.
But while the Chinese might be investing in DNA phenotyping and facial recognition systems, they will never be able to exert the level of control they ultimately desire. Despite their best efforts, the Christian church is thriving in the country, albeit underground and out of sight because of intense persecution. The regime’s goal of the total dominion of the whole person will ultimately fail because the soul of the people cannot be crushed under its authoritarian hand.
Continued Advocacy and a Future Hope
Despite the Chinese government’s constant attempts to oppress its people and intimidate other nations, we thankfully are beginning to see leaders around the world take notice of these blatant abuses of power, and many are beginning to speak out on these violations of human dignity and freedom. This past August, Vice President Mike Pence met leaders at the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, which helped illuminate the persecution and human dignity issues in China.
But more must be done on this front to combat China morally, not just economically as the Trump administration has sought to do over the last year. While it remains to be seen whether economic sanctions might alleviate some of the trade disparity, we must not let economics drive the entire conversation with President Xi Jinping and Chinese leadership. The world must speak up for those who do not have a voice and for those whose basic dignity is being robbed through DNA sampling and heavy-handed surveillance.
Left unchecked and unchallenged, China will continue to abuse emerging technologies such as AI and facial recognition to oppress people created in the image of God. The United States has the best opportunity of anyone in the world to push for changes in China, but we will not have the moral authority to speak to these issues with credibility if we continue to allow China to gain the moral high ground as well as lucrative economic partnerships with our allies around the world through deals between these nations and technology companies like Huawei.
Not only should Christians stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout China, but we must also stand with other minority religious groups declaring that while Chinese leadership might illegally harvest DNA from people like the Uighurs in order to strengthen their abilities to demean, they will never be able to command ownership of the soul as created by God. Let us pray for freedom, transparency, and lasting changes. But also pray for those who are bravely standing and fighting back against the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party, often at the cost of their own freedom and even lives.