Episode 924: Stuck In China's Panopticon : Planet Money China is building a high-tech surveillance state to capture minorities' every move and word. We go inside it and find that some Americans are involved. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter
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Episode 924: Stuck In China's Panopticon

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Episode 924: Stuck In China's Panopticon

Episode 924: Stuck In China's Panopticon

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This is probably not your first studio interview in your life, is it? Or is it?

KENNETH KIDD: The first one with this elaborate equipment.

CHANG: Kenneth Kidd is a geneticist at Yale. And in some circles, he's a pretty big deal. For example, he was one of the first scientists to persuade judges to accept DNA as evidence in American courtrooms.


But the way Ken got tangled up in the story we're going to be talking about today has to do with a project that he's been working on for decades.

KIDD: It's trying to understand human genetic variation around the world.

CHANG: The idea is if you draw someone's blood, get their DNA and then look for the right markers inside that DNA, you can probably figure out what region or ethnic group a person comes from.

FOUNTAIN: It's kind of like 23andMe but fancier.

CHANG: And for years, Ken has been testing this idea - this idea that certain markers in your DNA show where you come from. And to test that idea, he needed DNA samples from people of all different ethnicities from all different parts of the world.

FOUNTAIN: But in 2010, there was still a big hole in the global genetic picture that he was trying to assemble - a place where he didn't have a lot of genetic samples from yet. And that place was China.

CHANG: There's, like, more than a billion people there. I imagine there's a lot of genetic diversity that's worth mining (laughter).

KIDD: Yes, there is.

FOUNTAIN: What Ken says he didn't know, what he couldn't know, was how China would end up using his research.

CHANG: I mean, did you have any concerns at the outset?

KIDD: Not at the outset.

CHANG: You see, what Ken would later find out was that his collaboration with Chinese scientists would end up helping advance one of the biggest, most invasive surveillance projects anywhere on Earth.


FOUNTAIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Nick Fountain.

CHANG: And I'm Ailsa Chang. China is building a huge high-tech system for tracking, targeting and cracking down on minority groups. And they're developing much of that technology on their own, but they're also relying on the work of American scientists and companies.

FOUNTAIN: Today on the show, we're going to tell the stories of two men. Each of them, in very different ways, got caught up in the scariest, most dystopian police state we've heard of in a very long time.

CHANG: One of them, a scientist. The other, just a guy trying to have a summer vacation.

Is there any part of you that feels sorry for Kenneth Kidd?

UIGHUR ABDULLAH: I absolutely do. I mean, the thing is he's extremely irresponsible and negligent for doing what he did. But at the same time, everyone makes mistakes, right?


CHANG: The part of China that we're going to be talking about today is pretty closed off. It's called Xinjiang province. Nearly half of the people there are Uighurs, a Muslim minority. And over the last several years, the Chinese Communist Party has been ramping up its persecution of the Uighurs. Journalists don't get real access into Xinjiang. They're often followed by government minders. They only get to see what the government wants them to see.

FOUNTAIN: So today, our guide into the police state that's being built there is a man who saw firsthand what's happening because he lived it and is willing to talk to us about it.

CHANG: But we're going to take some steps to protect his identity. He asked us to use a different name. And the voice you're about to hear - it's a voice actor, a voice actor who is reciting word for word from the interview with our source.

FOUNTAIN: Alim (ph) is a grad student in the U.S. He's Uighur, and he grew up in Xinjiang. And two summers ago, he went on a trip home that helped him understand just how much everything there is changing.

CHANG: The trip started out like most of his summer breaks did - on a long flight to China. He watched a couple movies, napped, ate a pretty mediocre airplane Halal meal. And then when the plane landed, a flight attendant approached him.

ABDULLAH: And she was like, oh, they're asking for you. There might be something wrong with your visa. And I was like, I don't need a visa. I'm a citizen of this country.

FOUNTAIN: He's like, I come home every summer, and nothing like this has ever happened before.

ABDULLAH: And then she was like, oh, then I don't know what's going on. You probably should go and see them.

CHANG: Police officers take him off the plane. They search him, question him for four hours. And then they tell him he's under arrest. The charge - disrupting the societal order.

ABDULLAH: And then I started laughing because...

CHANG: Laughing?

ABDULLAH: Yeah, I laughed hysterically because it sounded so bizarre to me. Like, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine getting arrested.

CHANG: Alim had heard stories about Uighurs being detained by the Chinese government, which had been cracking down on the group because they say Uighurs pose a terrorism threat. But Alim was nowhere near that world. He's just a grad student in the U.S. So he was thinking this whole time, I'm just going home to Xinjiang to see my family, eat some good, home-cooked Uighur food.

FOUNTAIN: But this trip would turn out nothing like that. The police bring Alim to a hospital. And they say he needs to undergo a, quote, "health check."

ABDULLAH: They took me to a room to do ultrasound.

CHANG: An ultrasound...


CHANG: ...Of where?

ABDULLAH: Of my belly, of my organs, I guess.

CHANG: Of your belly, like, as if you were a pregnant woman?

ABDULLAH: Exactly, yeah. Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: They then take him to a windowless room.

ABDULLAH: They started taking pictures of my face from all kinds of different angles.

CHANG: You mean they moved the cameras almost 360 degrees around your head to take...


CHANG: ...Your head, your face from all different vantage points?

ABDULLAH: Yes, they did. And then after that, they started to tell me open my mouth and then taking pictures of that, and then close my mouth and then taking pictures of that, and, like, reveal my teeth, like, kind of, like, smile, and then taking pictures of that. It's as if they're trying to, you know, like, take pictures of my facial expressions.

FOUNTAIN: At this point, Alim starts to realize, the government is building a profile on me. That is what they want all this data for.

CHANG: Did you ever feel like you could say no?

ABDULLAH: No, that's not negotiable. I felt like if I tried to resist, it would only look bad on me and make me feel like - make them think that I'm a criminal. So I cooperated with everything.

FOUNTAIN: They take his handprints. They take his footprints. They sit him down and record his voice.

ABDULLAH: They handed me this passage in Uighur and told me to read it in front of a very expensive-looking mic.

CHANG: Finally, they take two tubes of Alim's blood, and then an officer blots a little piece of paper with his blood, labels it with his name and national ID number and places the paper in a box.

ABDULLAH: As he was placing my sample - my blood sample - into that box, I could see easily hundreds of other samples because I could see people's names and their ID cards, just like mine, attached to that blood sample.

CHANG: Hundreds of other people's blood were in that box.


CHANG: It's not just hundreds; it's millions. Human rights groups say the Chinese government is forcing every person in Xinjiang from the ages of 12 to 65 to go through a health check and that the government has thrown more than a million of these people into so-called reeducation camps. That is where Alim ended up.

After this health check, he was sent to a detention center, and he spent his days watching propaganda videos, chanting slogans about how great the Chinese Communist Party was and reciting rules against extremism. And then one day, the police tell Alim he can leave, just like that.

ABDULLAH: The guard came to me. And then he was like, pack your stuff. And then I was like, I don't have any stuff. And then he was like, come out.

FOUNTAIN: They take him to his family's apartment. And then for the first time in 28 days, he's free. And he's thinking, I can finally do what I come back for every summer. I can go play soccer with my buds. I can walk around my hometown, eat a bunch of samsas. Those are like Uighur dumplings.

CHANG: But as he starts going about his life, he starts to notice that things are really different.

ABDULLAH: As soon as I get out of the building, I actually notice cameras in the apartment complex, which is, you know, weird because there wasn't cameras last year.

FOUNTAIN: And over the next few days, he realizes it's not just new cameras that are everywhere. There are also these new police stations, like, literally one on every block.

ABDULLAH: They call them convenience police stations.

CHANG: Convenience police stations.

ABDULLAH: Yeah, they're supposed to create convenience for the people. They say you can charge your phone inside, or you can use the restroom inside. But everyone knows they are police stations.

CHANG: There are these signs on them that say, beware of three evil forces.

ABDULLAH: And the three evil forces are terrorism, extremism and separatism.

FOUNTAIN: He says it was weird. He was noticing all this stuff - the cameras, the police stations, a bunch of extra police - but no one was talking about it. Like, once, he was over at his uncle's, and one of his family members starts talking about Ramadan, which, at this point, had pretty much been outlawed in Xinjiang.

ABDULLAH: And my uncle immediately stopped the conversation. He was like, no, don't talk about this. Don't talk about anything that would get us into trouble because those vehicles outside with the giant antennas - what do you think they're there for? They're listening to us. They're listening to conversations that are happening in Uighur homes.

CHANG: He says people weren't really talking about anything of substance because they didn't even know what they weren't supposed to be talking about.

ABDULLAH: It still kind of felt like prison. I felt like I had no freedom, like, even though I was technically free.

CHANG: And then Alim even began to doubt if he was technically free. It started this one day when he and his friend were just walking to the mall to have lunch.

ABDULLAH: And I was entering this mall.

CHANG: And at the entrance, there's a security checkpoint.

FOUNTAIN: He says these checkpoints are all over the place. They kind of look like a cross between an airport metal detector and a subway turnstile.

ABDULLAH: There's camera and a screen attached to it.

CHANG: Oh, so you can see yourself...


CHANG: ...Being recorded.

ABDULLAH: You can see yourself, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

CHANG: His friend goes through first, scans his ID, walks through. And then it's Alim's turn.

ABDULLAH: I scan my ID. Immediately, orange alert came up.

FOUNTAIN: A bright orange light comes on, and a police officer calls him over.

ABDULLAH: And then he was like, yeah, yeah, come in. Come into the station.

CHANG: Alim says that all he was thinking was, this is it; I am going back into detention.

FOUNTAIN: Police officer says, hey, follow me into the station. Just sit down. I just got to ask you some questions.

ABDULLAH: And while he was filing that on his computer, I asked him, so is this a mistake, or what's going on? And then he was like, oh, they just updated the system today. You probably shouldn't go anywhere. And then I was like, what do you mean? And then he was like, you know, every public place has this machine, and they would flag you each time. And we don't want to, you know, do this filing every time you come back to the station, and you don't want to come back either, I assume. So just stay home.

CHANG: That means you're under house arrest, basically.

ABDULLAH: That's exactly what I was thinking.

FOUNTAIN: He goes back home having no idea really what his status is, whether there had been some glitch in the system or if they actually had something on him or if he'd been permanently flagged as a security risk.

CHANG: But then one day, he's with a friend who works for the government who says, you want to know what your status is? I have this app on my phone. I can look you up.

ABDULLAH: He pulled out his phone. He opened this app. And then I told him my ID card number. And then right after he pressed confirm, my picture and a lot of different information showed up. And he said, there's an orange warning on your ID card, and that's usually used for criminals. And he was shocked. He said, you can't leave the city, let alone China, to go back to school.

CHANG: So then, when the end of the summer was approaching, were you nervous that you would not be able to fly back to the U.S.?

ABDULLAH: Absolutely.

FOUNTAIN: What was that app? And what is all this technology that's being used to track Alim? We'll find out more after the break.

CHANG: In Xinjiang, Alim could see all the cameras. He could see all the security checkpoints, the police officers waiting on every block. But what he couldn't see was the scale of the digital prison around him.

FOUNTAIN: One person who's been trying to put together that bigger picture is Sophie Richardson.

CHANG: I just want to move the mic a little bit closer to you.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Put the gear wherever it needs to go.

FOUNTAIN: Sophie has been trying to figure out as much as she can about the surveillance technology being used in Xinjiang.

CHANG: She's the China director at Human Rights Watch. And this spring, she and her team got their hands on the app that police in Xinjiang are using to track the Uighurs, probably the same app that Alim was looking at. And her team reverse engineered it.

RICHARDSON: And what we were able to show by unpacking the source code of this app - that behavior ranging from suddenly socializing less with your neighbors...

CHANG: That's suspicious.

RICHARDSON: ...Talking to family members overseas, going out the back door instead of the front door, putting gas in somebody else's car - all of these behaviors that are perfectly legal - perfectly legal - are now considered suspicious, and that that information can and will be used against you.

FOUNTAIN: And Sophie's team isn't just looking at this app. They're looking at everything. Like, for example, that security checkpoint that Alim went through at the mall - it is way more advanced than he ever knew.

RICHARDSON: There's now gait recognition software. You know, there are all...

CHANG: Oh, the way you walk.

RICHARDSON: Literally the way you walk.

CHANG: That's monitored...


CHANG: ...And identifies you.


CHANG: Wow. And all of that is linked to a central database about who you are and all this other information about you.


FOUNTAIN: One other thing Sophie's been doing is she's been trying to track Americans who are helping China build these high-tech social controls and, quite frankly, shame them so they'll stop doing it.

CHANG: She's had some successes, but it's meant digging through stacks of obscure documents trying to understand complex science.

FOUNTAIN: Like, there was this company based in Massachusetts, Thermo Fisher Scientific. They make these things called DNA sequencers.

RICHARDSON: We actually found from looking at police tender documents that Thermo Fisher Scientific had sold DNA sequencers to the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.

CHANG: Sophie called them out, and they said they would stop selling to Xinjiang

FOUNTAIN: Her team also called out iFlytek, which is this Chinese company that's collaborating with MIT. IFlytek has supplied a lot of voice recognition technology to Xinjiang.

CHANG: MIT says they agreed to the collaboration before the university came up with a whole new review process for elevated-risk international projects. But they're still collaborating with iFlytek.

FOUNTAIN: By the way, voice recognition technology is why we're using a voice actor for Alim. Remember how police made him read out loud a page of Uighur text in front of a fancy microphone? Well, they have his voice forever, and engineers at NPR told us even if we tried to distort his voice, it could be reverse engineered.

CHANG: Now, Sophie says there is one particular American who worked with the Chinese police who stands out to her. She remembers when she first got a tip about him.

RICHARDSON: I was sitting in the Brussels airport reading that packet of information, and I felt physically ill.

FOUNTAIN: She was reading about a geneticist at Yale named Kenneth Kidd, the guy from the beginning of the show.

CHANG: Do you feel that you have done absolutely nothing wrong?

KIDD: I have done nothing wrong.

CHANG: Here's Ken's story, in short. In 2010, he got an invitation to travel to Beijing from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, which is like the Chinese police.

FOUNTAIN: He says he collaborates with law enforcement all the time. He does DNA work.

CHANG: So Ken flies to China and meets one of the top scientists for the Chinese police. And she says, hey, I'm also interested in this DNA ancestry marker stuff. And, also, thanks to my job, I have access to DNA from all sorts of ethnicities from all over China. So she says, do you want to work together? Can I come visit your lab?

FOUNTAIN: Ken says, sure, come on over to Yale University. And she spends a year inside that lab - a pretty productive year. It's capped off with a paper that they co-authored together.

CHANG: And one thing the paper looks at is what differentiates the DNA of certain ethnic groups, including groups that the Chinese government is targeting in Xinjiang, like Uighurs, Tajiks, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz.

FOUNTAIN: We now know that this DNA was most likely not collected consensually.

CHANG: But Ken says the scientist working for the Chinese police - she claimed that all her DNA samples, including the Uighur ones, were gathered with permission.

KIDD: She says that the samples were collected with signed, informed consent.

CHANG: And you didn't question that.

KIDD: On what basis would I question it?

CHANG: Ken says he followed accepted practice and that there was no way he could've independently verified whether there was informed consent. But a lot of people, including Sophie Richardson, are outraged by his collaboration with the Chinese police. They're also disturbed by the fact that Ken not only used data drawn from DNA samples that the Chinese police provided, but that he also provided genetic samples from his own lab to the Chinese police.

FOUNTAIN: And they say he allowed data based on Uighur DNA to be included in a global database that he runs out of Yale.

CHANG: Knowing what you know now about how the Chinese government has treated Uighurs and now treats Uighurs, do you still believe that every genetic sample taken from a Uighur that's referenced in your database or referenced in your research - that each one of those samples was definitely taken with informed consent? Do you really believe that?

KIDD: It's impossible to believe that unequivocally. But on the other hand, I have no way of knowing one way or the other.

CHANG: But Ken's critics say that by collaborating with the Chinese police, he helped give China the tools to figure out whether someone is Uighur.

FOUNTAIN: Which helps China advance this system that tracks, targets and oppresses the Uighurs. Ken says, look; this collaboration - this happened years ago, before much of the world knew what was going on in Xinjiang.

KIDD: I can't know everything that's going to happen in the future.

FOUNTAIN: Ken says he stopped collaborating with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and that he's removing all that problematic Uighur data from his big database.

CHANG: Have you asked scientists at the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to stop using the genetic samples you provided them?

KIDD: Yes.

CHANG: Did they say they would stop?

KIDD: I've gotten no reply.


CHANG: We asked Alim about Kenneth Kidd, and he said he had heard about him. And even though there is no way that Alim's blood sample was used by Ken, Alim says he's still a victim of a system that Ken helped advance.

ABDULLAH: As a human being, I can relate to making a mistake or screwing up big-time 'cause everyone does once in a while. But just thinking about it makes me really angry. It's difficult for me to sympathize with him knowing the magnitude of his research and the potential damage his research could do to my people.

CHANG: Alim has good reason to be angry. It's been two years, but he is still replaying in his head the nightmare of that summer break in Xinjiang.

FOUNTAIN: He waited out the rest of the summer counting down the days to his return flight back to the U.S., trying to stay under the radar.

CHANG: And then when the summer was nearing its end, he went to the airport not knowing if his orange alert would mean he could never leave China.

FOUNTAIN: When he got to the airport, the police questioned him for so long that he missed his flight. Then they said, come back tomorrow and try again.

CHANG: So he showed up the next day super early, and they questioned him again. But this time, they did let him go to the gate.

ABDULLAH: I was still nervous. I was like, I'm not out of the woods yet. They can get me anytime they want. What if they change their mind?

FOUNTAIN: He says the four hours he waited to get on the plane were the longest of his life.

ABDULLAH: And when we finally boarded the plane, I was still anxious because I knew that they could stop the plane as long as we were on the ground. When we finally took off, I had a huge sigh of relief, and I knew that, you know, this is it.

FOUNTAIN: Alim is in the U.S. now, but he's sure the Chinese government is still tracking him, so he's being really careful. And he says if authorities found out he was talking to journalists, very bad things would happen to his family.

CHANG: We asked him, are you planning to go back next summer? And he said, I don't think I'll ever go back.


FOUNTAIN: Hey, we have this new cool thing. It's the PLANET MONEY newsletter. It's smart. It comes out once a week. You can find it at npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter.

CHANG: If you have any story ideas, any burning questions about the world, email us at planetmoney@npr.org. And if you like this show, hit that share button, send it to a friend.

FOUNTAIN: Today's show was produced by the dream team - Darian Woods and Liza Yeager. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. And Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

CHANG: Special thanks to Darren Byler, who talked to me for hours about what's happening in Xinjiang, and to Mark Munsterhjelm, who has been following Kenneth Kidd's work and shared what he found with Human Rights Watch. Also, thanks to Jim Millward, Maya Wang, Rian Thum, Sam Hoffman and, of course, our voice actor Uighur Abdullah (ph). Yes, that is actually his real name. His parents are Uighur, and he grew up in Australia.

And your parents named you Uighur?

ABDULLAH: They were very imaginative when I was born.

CHANG: I'm Ailsa Chang.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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