Techdirt stories on China tend to paint a fairly grim picture of relentless surveillance and censorship, and serve as a warning of what could happen in the West if government powers there are not constrained. But if you want to see how a real dystopian world operates, you need to look at what is happening in the north-western part of China’s huge domain. Xinjiang was originally a turkic-speaking land, but the indigenous Uyghur population is increasingly swamped by Chinese-speaking immigrants, which has caused growing unrest. Violent attacks on the Chinese population in the region have led to a harsh crackdown on the Uyghurs, provoking yet more resentment, and yet more attacks.
Last November, we noted that the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang were describing censorship circumvention tools as “terrorist software.” Now the Guardian reports on an ambitious attempt by the Chinese government to bring in a new kind of surveillance for Xinjiang:
Security officials in China’s violence-stricken north-west have ordered residents to install GPS tracking devices in their vehicles so authorities are able to keep permanent tabs on their movements.
The compulsory measure, which came into force this week and could eventually affect hundreds of thousands of vehicles, is being rolled out in the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture of Xinjiang, a sprawling region that borders Central Asia and sees regular eruptions of deadly violence.
The rollout is already underway — those who refuse to install the trackers will not be allowed to refuel their vehicles:
Between 20 February and 30 June all private, secondhand and government vehicles as well as heavy vehicles such as bulldozers and lorries will have to comply with the order by installing the China-made Beidou satellite navigation system.
Beidou is the homegrown version of the US Global Positioning System, completely under the control of the Chinese government. According to Wikipedia, the Beidou system has two levels of accuracy:
The free civilian service has a 10-meter location-tracking accuracy, synchronizes clocks with an accuracy of 10 nanoseconds, and measures speeds to within 0.2 m/s. The restricted military service has a location accuracy of 10 centimetres, can be used for communication, and will supply information about the system status to the user.
Being able to track any car in the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture of Xinjiang to a few inches should be enough even for the paranoid Chinese authorities. The fear has to be that, if successful, this latest form of extreme surveillance may spread to other regions in China, assuming Beidou could cope with such large-scale tracking.