China’s Surveillance State Has Eyes on Central Asia

Autocrats are handing their citizens’ data to Beijing under so-called smart city programs.

Visitors check out 5G smart city technology at the China Mobile booth
Visitors check out 5G smart city technology at the China Mobile booth at the GSMA Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 26. David Ramos/Getty Images

China’s advanced surveillance regime is taking root along the length of the Belt and Road—especially the Belt, the overland Eurasian routes that were the origin of the government’s ambitious investment project. Recently, Kyrgyzstan opened a new police command center in its capital, Bishkek, putting its new facial recognition cameras to work. The equipment was supplied—reportedly free of charge—by the China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation, a defense company currently sanctioned by the United States.

The initiative is part of Bishkek’s emerging effort to become a so-called smart city—a catchall term for cities with advanced data-processing capabilities. Such projects are being implemented across the region with help from China. This April, Huawei closed a $1 billion deal with Uzbekistan to build a traffic-monitoring system involving some 883 cameras. Meanwhile Hikvision—another Chinese company under U.S. sanctions that advertises its ability to spot the faces of members of the Uighur minority in crowds—supplies major urban centers across Kazakhstan, including Almaty and Shymkent. Kazakhstan has been experimenting with developing smart cities since 2017.

For Central Asia’s fragile states, the technology is a welcome boost in monitoring their own populations. But it’s also a dangerous entanglement with a power that has already used that technology to imprison and oppress at home. Debt to Beijing, meanwhile, continues to pile up.

Smart cities are part of a strategy formulated in 2015 to turn China into the world’s foremost tech superpower by 2025. Packaged as the Digital Silk Road, the initiative aims to boost the country’s tech giants worldwide, construct China-centric digital infrastructure, and gain a monopoly over the global data supply chain.

While the project could enhance digital connectivity in impoverished states such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, critics charge that it may also spread authoritarianism and increase dependence on Chinese loans. According to a recent report, 71 percent of Huawei’s “Safe City” agreements are with countries that have a dubious track record on freedom and human rights. Such technology has also given China’s elite remote access to personal data around the world, including in parts of Latin America that are already under the Chinese Communist Party’s watch.

Smart cities—the data nodes in the Digital Silk Road—are a smart investment. By 2050, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas, and cities will account for 90 percent of Asia’s population growth. Central Asia is no exception, and its modest population is set to grow from 72 million to 95 million by 2050.

Chinese companies have been buying footholds in the region’s digital infrastructure. Huawei, the beleaguered 5G giant, is a key player in China’s smart cities program. This year, Uzbekistan’s telecommunications operators began using soft loans from Chinese partners to introduce Huawei’s 5G technology to the country. The landmark agreement is the single largest investment Uzbekistan has received since 2012, when the China National Petroleum Corporation signed a $2 billion gas deal to service Beijing’s growing energy needs.

Kyrgyzstan has also seen growing interest from China’s tech giants, with Huawei now connecting eight in every 10 Kyrgyz residents to the outside world. The company has been making significant strides to secure lucrative deals as first supplier for the country’s top telecommunications providers such as Sky Mobile. In Tajikistan, Huawei accounts for over 90 percent of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. Huawei is also working closely with Kazakhstan’s top telecommunications companies Kazakhtelecom, Kcell, Beeline, and Tele2, it and has been promoting a series of scholarship programs to expand its influence by training the country’s future tech leaders. Huawei is aided by a raft of government policies and firms, including cheap credit supplied by Chinese banks.

There are genuine civic benefits from the smart cities program, such as traffic safety and law enforcement. The work of the Safe City project in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, helped to significantly increase the number of drivers observing traffic rules in 2018, with violations dropping by about 20 percentage points. By 2018, the project had helped to identify 1.7 million offenses and 445 traffic accidents in the capital. Almost 933,000 violators were fined 116.6 million somoni ($12 million). Forty-two percent of Huawei’s agreements are in lower-middle-income countries, suggesting the tech is popular due to both competitive pricing and its potential to generate steady income streams for cash-strapped governments. But it’s usually the security services that China targets most directly in order to win a place in Central Asia. Since May, China has provided buses, minibuses, SUVs, armored police cars totaling about $4.3 million to Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of the Interior. At the same time, an agreement was concluded on the introduction of video surveillance systems in the country. Uzbekistan’s police force was recently supplied with a fleet of busses with facial recognition capabilities to patrol the capital, Tashkent.

Autocrats across the region are already looking to China’s Sharp Eyes policing project to document the activities of their citizens. In February, Tajikistan’s government announced a new identification system that requires phone users to provide fingerprints and privacy-invasive medical information in order to purchase SIM cards, according to Eurasianet. Huawei, which is reportedly working closely with the government to develop this system, has so far offered no information on where the data will be stored.

Such access to personal data presents a particular concern in Central Asia, a region with deep historic links to Xinjiang, where Beijing’s clampdown on Muslims has created the world’s most sophisticated surveillance regime. Anti-Chinese sentiments in the region have been growing as more knowledge of China’s mass incarceration of members of the Uighur minority has come to light. Resentment against corrupt elites is tied in with the belief that the leadership is selling out to China.

The crackdown has also included ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, sparking popular backlash in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Kazakh government has made a number of arrests to prevent local activists from spreading news about the internment camps, fearful that such information could harm the country’s profitable relationship with Beijing. In Kyrgyzstan, authorities have taken a lighter approach, favoring fines and official warnings to anyone involved in perceived “anti-China” movements. Even Uzbekistan, the most reclusive of the three, has seen a recent crackdown on activists related to China.

Surveillance technology linked to China may give Beijing the keys to regulate the lives of Uighurs and ethnic minorities residing beyond its border. This February, Kazakhstan announced that it would be spending $23 million to install facial recognition software in its largest city, Almaty. So far, over 4,000 cameras (many of them supplied by Hikvision) blanket Nur-Sultan, the capital.

As troubling as Hikvision’s involvement may be, it’s the project’s means of collecting data that may harbor its greatest potential for abuse. Nur-Sultan’s smart city is currently run by Sergek, a consortium of Kazakh technology companies, but the equipment that makes its work possible is provided by Dahua Technology, a Chinese company sanctioned by the United States. Kazakhstan’s government also has ambitious plans to deepen the country’s digitalization, with the local company IPay leading the charge. Across the capital, buses are now using a system for customers to use public transport that uses their face as a form of ticket ID.

Other experiments in data gathering are also taking hold. This month, agreements were signed between Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Education and the companies ZTE and Huawei to introduce surveillance technologies to the country’s education system. Facial recognition equipment will soon be used to monitor student attendance and assess teachers’ performance.

Such projects don’t just aid local autocrats in monitoring their own populations. They also give China access to a huge pool of data on Central Asia’s people, which both aids in developing new technology and allows greater monitoring of the cross-border movement that Beijing sees as a key threat to security in Xinjiang. China has long sought to control Central Asia’s abundant resources: data now ranks alongside oil and gas.

Bradley Jardine is a global fellow at the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. Twitter: @Jardine_bradley

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