Advanced technological tools that enable the Chinese regime to eavesdrop on smartphone conversations not only in China but also in Canada and other countries is putting regular people under inescapable surveillance, says the director of Human Rights Watch, an organization that champions human rights around the world.
“And the Canadian government is caught like a deer in the headlights,” said the Washington-based Sophie Richardson at a recent panel discussion in Ottawa on the need for Canada to craft new strategies for engaging with an increasingly human-rights violating Chinese regime.
Her co-panelist David Kilgour pointed out that silent tolerance of China’s human rights violations in the name of increased trade and investment has not yielded any economic benefits to Canada. In fact, it has been counterproductive, he noted.
“This has only resulted in Canadian jobs being outsourced to China, and increases in bilateral trade and investment deficits,” said Kilgour, former Secretary of State for Asia Pacific, international human rights activist, and expert on China’s persecution campaign against Falun Gong adherents.
Spying Via WeChat
Richardson said at the May 8 event, which was hosted by the Canadian International Council, that Human Rights Watch has been conducting research on China’s sophisticated surveillance and facial recognition technology.
“For the last two years, we have been studying the use of new technology that has been developed to spy on conversations on WeChat and other social media,” she said, referring to the instant messaging system launched by Chinese IT company Tencent a few years ago that can be used on smartphones.
As the popularity of WeChat grew, the Chinese regime became alarmed and began to monitor conversations closely, falsely claiming that the app was being used to spread anti-government messages, especially in the northwestern province of Xinjiang,
Xinjiang is home to minority Chinese Muslims that have been targeted for ethnic cleansing. According to experts, up to 1 million Uighurs, Kazaks, and Uzbeks have been detained since April 2017 in so-called re-education camps.
Richardson said Human Rights Watch first reported in 2018 on newly developed technology that police and other officials use to communicate with the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, one of the main systems Chinese authorities use for keeping a close watch on private conversations on WeChat and other apps.
This policing program aggregates data about people and prompts authorities to target those whose personality and behaviour are deemed to indicate separatist tendencies. The surveillance also represses freedom of religion, because red flags are raised against people considered to be “too Islamic” who are then sent to face horrific consequences.
Those targeted are closely monitored and inevitably end up in political re-education camps, Richardson said.
‘We’ve Been Infiltrated’
The regime’s fear of any separatist impulses among the Uighur ethnic minority does not stop within the borders of Xinjiang, Richardson noted.
“Xinjiang province is the epicentre, but not the only place where this technology is used,” she said, adding that citizens and residents of any country including Canada and the United States can be targeted too if they are suspected of supporting Uyghurs, Falun Gong adherents, or others deemed to be threatening to the interests of the Chinese party state.
“A Chinese student in Washington told me he was being watched and that he might as well be living China because he feels just as restricted in the U.S. as he did in his home country,” she said.
“We’ve been infiltrated,” agreed Kilgour, who with human rights lawyer David Matas co-authored “Bloody Harvest,” a book about the Chinese Communist Party’s practice of forced organ harvesting of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience.
“In mid-1999, violence against the Falun Gong community, which advocates a Buddhist approach to spirituality and health, was unleashed by the party state and continues to this day,” he said.
Adding to Richardson’s observation that similar treatment has been extended now to Uighurs, Kilgour said that Uighurs, like Falun Gong adherents, are blood-tested at re-education camps, which unlike DNA testing, is only useful for organ transplant purposes.
“World leaders need to speak up about this; it cannot be business as usual with a regime that treats national minorities so appallingly,” he said.
“We have modest expectations for change after our report,” Richardson said, “but we published it to keep the conversation about Uighur repression going.”
Panel moderator was Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Science Society and Technology at the University of Ottawa and Senior Fellow with the China Institute at the University of Alberta.
“These are difficult days for Canada,” she said, referring to the ongoing detention of two Canadians in China and the possible execution of another, and the fear of reprisals against them if Ottawa tries to intervene.
Just days after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to comply with a U.S. extradition warrant last December, China, in apparent retaliation, detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on charges of stealing state secrets.
“I remember Michael Kovrig (a former diplomat and First Secretary to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing from 2014 to 2016) attending meetings of the Canadian International Council,” McCuaig said, referring to the group that hosted the panel discussion.
Kovrig was on a leave of absence from Global Affairs Canada, and was without a diplomatic passport when arrested, making his case even more difficult for the Canadian government.
Calling for a stronger political will and more sophistication in exerting Canadian values with China on all bilateral issues, Kilgour said, “Most countries remain silent, fearing Beijing’s retaliation.”
Richardson had concrete suggestions for adjusting Canada’s engagement with China to balance realpolitik with human rights principles.
“Place sanctions against individual Chinese companies that violate human rights, ensure that Canadian companies in China are in compliance with human rights obligations,” she said.
She said Canada could also pay increased diplomatic attention to the problem.
“You appointed a special envoy to look into the situation of Rohingyas in Myanmar; why not do the same thing for Uighurs?” she asked.
“Your Prime Minister and Foreign Minister could explain the Chinese threat clearly to the Canadian public,” she added.