HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE CONTEMPORARY DIGITAL ERA AND CHINA'S TECHNO-AUTHORITARIANISM

Introduction

Technology has become an indispensable part of everyday life, it has become an instrument of encroachments, repression and is shaping power, politics and with-it businesses and every other arena of human life. Just this month, Swedish fashion giant, H&M is facing severe backlash and boycott because it raised concern over the condition of the Uighurs (a minority Muslim community) in Xinjiang province of China. In recent times, advancements in technology has adversely impacted democratic ideals, with an unwavering contribution of the governments towards the same, one such government is that of the People’s Republic of China. This article shall focus mainly on two of its biggest programs, namely, The Mass Surveillance Program and The Big Data Program to establish the extent of infringement of international laws.

China: The State of Mass Surveillance

Mass-surveillance system collects every individual’s information in order to monitor their activities and label them as socially good or bad. Through this system of surveillance, government has access to daily activities of an individual with the help of more than 200 million cameras along with their impeccable facial recognition technology. Through the social credit system, Chinese officials rank the citizens on their behavior and anything below a score of 1000 can cost them their travel tickets, education of their children apart from the humiliation of this record being publicly displayed. These scores gauge citizens’ compliance to what the State sees as desirable, therefore, if you are unproductive and play video games or post any political opinion or even drink alcohol, your score drops but if you do certain good deeds such as, donate, your score increases. While this might seem like the creation of a conducive and efficient society which can lower the exposure to crime considerably, it is also deeply problematic.

- By the virtue of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), any government is restricted from carrying out arbitrary interferences to a person’s privacy. Under ambitious projects like the Police Cloud, China has developed a cloud computing technology that stores and analyzes information of its citizens. Ministry of Public Security of China in association with the tech giants seeks to fetch data of everyday activities of people and their association with others to gauge trends of ‘abnormal activity’. The system is made more effective by the data being assembled into a database operating at provincial levels. Article 12 of the UDHR protects the Chinese citizens from such arbitrary interference and since extension of policing to ordinary citizens is plausibly with an intent to locate suspicious activities, the citizens are shielded by this Article from any resultant attack on them alleging abnormal behavior.

- Recently, China prepared its own Data Security Law; it’s first of its kind and a comprehensive legislation that aims to secure citizens’ personal information. It’s an attempt to devise a hierarchical structure of data and places stringent punishments for those tech giants that prove to be irresponsible with the sensitive information provided to them with consent and hence commit breach of informational privacy. The efficacy and implementation of this law can only be known once it comes into force but as of now China lacks proper provisions that align with the vision of Article 17 of the ICCPR which restricts States from misusing private information of the citizens and as a signatory to the ICCPR, there is an obligation on China to not commit any act that ultimately defeats the purpose of the treaty.

- Article 19 of the ICCPR guarantees everyone the freedom to express and hold opinions. The right vested with the citizens to express their opinions through the platforms of social media is now curbed by the State as they sponsor all major social media platforms. The social credit system punishes these citizens for expressing an opinion that is not in conformity with what the ruling Communist Party would want to hear. Raising concerns over this surveillance reality has led to the disappearance of many journalists. Some of them have been imprisoned on dubious grounds, Zhang Zhan, a journalist has been imprisoned for ‘provoking trouble’ and other critics like Cheng Quishi and Fang Bin have simply disappeared.

The Big Data Program

A list of detainees from the Aksu prefecture made rounds recently, just some time after a Karakax list surfaced, reinforcing the view of the Big Data program, a way through which the authorities are policing and arbitrarily detaining Turkish Muslim minorities of the Xinjiang province. Chinese government policies have led to extreme repression of this community. Forced sterilization camps, regular crackdown in their area, rape and other forms of torture and now sending them off to ‘political education’ camps is what we’re looking at when it comes to 2021 China. China’s policies to dwindle a cultural minority constitute some of the crimes against humanity and fundamental human rights violations penned in the international treaties that China is a party to.

- By the acts of the administration, it is evidently clear that cultural and religious dilution has risen. For example, removing mosques, altering the Muslim way of life and barring the community from following central tenets of the religion itself, all these acts not only invade the private sphere of religion but also deny them the right to self-determination(Article 1, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and the right to practice their thought, belief, conscience and religion (Article 18, UDHR). Instances of arbitrary detentions of Uighurs are blatant violations of Article 9 and 11 of the UDHR which guarantees the right against arbitrary detention and a right to due process of law.

- When Uighurs are discouraged by the Chinese authorities to converse in their own language or when they are shunned from social media platforms on the pretext of possible negative or extremist content, China is denying them the most basic of all rights, the freedom of thought and expression enshrined in Article 19 of the UDHR.

- As a part of the systematic dehumanization of Muslim minorities, China is also ensuring to cut off further reproduction of the minority culture and the community as incidents of forced insertion of IUDs (intrauterine device) to suppress births, forced sterilization camps, abortions and sending children to schools for indoctrination keep coming up. Here, a freedom to educate children about their culture (Article 26 of the UDHR), a right to seek protection as a mother before and after pregnancy (Article 25 of the UDHR and Article 10 of the ICESCR), an entitlement to be able to live with one’s family (Article 16 of the UDHR and Article 10, 11 of the ICESCR) is a privilege tethered far rather than a fundamental human right.

Fate of Other States

Although China is one of the most heavily censored States, it is not the only one. Most States show signs of authoritarianism and technology has become an aid in exercising control over social space. Dissent is undesirable for any ruling party but a healthy democracy welcomes it nevertheless. There are few countries that can actually live up to this, everywhere else there is suppression of dissent. This month, for example, Cuban authorities have jailed and prosecuted several artists and journalists who are critical of the government. Russian oppression of the anti-corruption lawyer, Alexei Navalny and along with that continued exercise of censorship over the internet while at home in India, comedians, artists and journalists continue to get arrested over their comments is a common sight.

Conclusion

China is a heavily centralized and bureaucratic State but the narrative it is presenting to its citizens is even more unsettling. Through legislations and technology that underpin the grand ideology, the Chinese government is blatantly committing excesses and violating human rights in the name of efficiency and morality. Civil liberties have become a joke and there is no room for privacy. With immaculate facial recognition technology offered by Skynet which can, within a fraction of a second, tell all about a person’s identity from their gender to their financial stability, it has become very easy to separate a potential risk from a harmless law abiding person. The technology could have been restricted to its use of tracking criminals but the decision of expanding it to record everyone has led to violation of innumerable human rights. The ruling party’s morality is the one that is followed in China, hence, freedom to express is antithetical to the recommended way of living which is the whole point of the program. Dissenters are severely punished and this treatment is dreaded even by the HongKongers. Full erasure of Uighur culture has ensured no potential space for freedom of minorities to practice their religion and the government's efforts to Sinicize religion and dictate people’s spiritual life has become a commonplace event. Uighurs initially used to use several social media platforms to express in their language, share their thoughts and profess their culture but China’s insecurity caused them to be under surveillance and soon after it put an end to such discussions since they feared it was potential extremist content. The arbitrariness of the Han majority in China has led to the denial of a Right to life to Muslim minorities. Confronting the reality of today, arbitrary is rather a step down since genocide and right to life cannot co-exist in the same statement.


Title Image: Financial Times


This article has been written by Vaishnavi Tiwari. Vaishnavi is a second-year law student at ILNU, Ahmedabad.