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U.S.-made technologies are aiding China’s surveillance of Uighurs. How should Washington respond?

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The sweeping surveillance China has brought to bear against its Uighur Muslim minority is staggering. An overwhelming number of cameras generate an overwhelming amount of footage. Until recently, it was unclear how authorities sifted through it to serve their repressive ends. Now, the New York Times has provided an answer: with the help of U.S.-made technologies.


An investigation published this month reveals how supercomputers chug away inside a cloud computing complex in the Xinjiang region. Purportedly, these computers can analyze 1,000 video feeds simultaneously and search more than 100 million photos in a single second. The aim is to monitor cars, phones and faces — putting together patterns of behavior for “predictive policing” that justifies snatching people off the street for imprisonment or so-called reeducation. This complex opened four years ago, and it operates on the power of chips manufactured by U.S. supercomputer companies Intel and Nvidia.

Intel and Nvidia say they were unaware of this exploitation of their technology — which is entirely plausible and entirely implausible at the same time. On the one hand, the supply chains and sales arrangements in the computing industry are complex. Often, as in this case, a buyer of U.S. products supplies both everyday firms and Chinese military and security forces, and the hops from a chip’s original manufacturer to the state are difficult to map. On the other hand, it doesn’t take much imagination to predict how a dual-use technology will be misused by a government with a record of digital authoritarianism. Many U.S. companies likely are not on the lookout for links between their products and human rights abuses because they don’t want to find those links.

President-elect Joe Biden will confront this quandary when he takes office in January: how to impose export controls and sanctions without doing collateral damage to businesses that sell technologies with harmless applications. The current administration got a start on blacklisting entities, including with restrictions on semiconductor sales to certain Chinese companies. The next one will have to refine the flawed list and keep it updated — perhaps in part by requiring companies to track the ultimate destinations of their products and forcing them not to close their eyes any longer.


The president-elect will also have to avoid doing collateral damage to the global system more generally. China has already begun to build up its own ability to craft semiconductors. While the commonly heard phrase “decoupling” implies an all-or-nothing split, the reality will be more nuanced. The democratic world is hardly going to stop buying Chinese products; the aim is to cooperate where possible and to separate where the alternative is complicity in cultural genocide and other repugnancies. Any degree of decoupling will also involve more than one couple: The United States must band with its allies to build a freer alternative to a dystopian world of thousands of watching cameras and nowhere to hide.