Chinese tech companies involved in the oppression of Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang could be subjected to U.S. sanctions, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said in an interview.
Brownback told Japanese newspaper Nikkei that U.S. sanctions are “never off the table” and “always a possibility.”
The Chinese regime monitors Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang through a sprawling surveillance system that includes an extensive network of security cameras, many enabled with facial-recognition and night-vision capabilities, and frequent security checkpoints.
The U.S. State Department and experts have estimated that more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are detained in internment camps in the region, as part of the regime’s crackdown on “extremism.”
Brownback said the issue of sanctions on Chinese tech companies involved in mass surveillance in Xinjiang was brought up during a recent meeting with Chinese rights advocates alongside U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence met with representatives of three persecuted religious groups in China—Christians, Uyghurs, and Falun Gong practitioners—along with other advocates for religious freedom in his ceremonial office in the Executive Office Building on Aug. 5.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a meditation practice with spiritual teachings that has been persecuted by the Chinese regime since 1999.
The advocates reportedly urged the Trump administration to sanction Chinese officials involved in the religious persecution, as well as Chinese companies that have helped the regime build surveillance systems to carry out its oppression.
Brownback told Nikkei that advances in surveillance technology and artificial intelligence may transform how the regime suppresses religious groups.
“You’ve got a high-tech system being used to monitor people, where you’ve done massive data collection of DNA samples of the entire population, where you implement a ‘social credit score’ system to prohibit people from getting certain places,” Brownback said.
“So the future of oppression may not have as many people incarcerated but you’ll have more people marginalized in the society, that they can’t get certain jobs if they’ve got a bad social credit score or they can’t go certain places if they have a bad social score.”
The regime has begun rolling out a “social credit” system, under which authorities monitor citizens’ activities, including online purchases and behavior in public spaces, and assign them a “trustworthiness” score.
Local authorities also compile “blacklists” for individuals with bad credit scores, who are then banned from services such as boarding a plane or buying a train ticket.
The system, parts of which were rolled out in 2014, is set to be implemented across all of China in 2020. Critics, however, have voiced concern that the surveillance could be used by authorities to track political targets or dissidents.
“So, what you end up having is a system where individuals are marginalized from participating in the economy and in the culture,” Brownback said.
In April, more than 40 U.S. lawmakers signed a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump’s top advisers that condemned two Chinese video surveillance firms, Hikvision and Dahua Technology, for being “complicit in human rights abuses,” and called for tighter U.S. export controls over such companies.