Yet, while the speed and intention of this response to protect workers in the absence of an effective national-level US response was admirable, these Chinese companies are also tied up in forms of egregious human rights abuses.
Dahua is one of the major providers of “smart camp” systems that Vera Zhou experienced in Xinjiang (the company says its facilities are supported by technologies such as “computer vision systems, big data analytics and cloud computing”). In October 2019, both Dahua and Megvii were among eight Chinese technology firms placed on a list that blocks US citizens from selling goods and services to them (the list, which is intended to prevent US firms from supplying non-US firms deemed a threat to national interests, prevents Amazon from selling to Dahua, but not buying from them). BGI’s subsidiaries in Xinjiang were placed on the US no-trade list in July 2020.
Amazon’s purchase of Dahua heat-mapping cameras recalls an older moment in the spread of global capitalism that was captured by historian Jason Moore’s memorable turn of phrase: “Behind Manchester stands Mississippi.”
What did Moore mean by this? In his rereading of Friedrich Engels’s analysis of the textile industry that made Manchester, England, so profitable, he saw that many aspects of the British Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the cheap cotton produced by slave labor in the United States. In a similar way, the ability of Seattle, Kansas City, and Seoul to respond as rapidly as they did to the pandemic relies in part on the way systems of oppression in Northwest China have opened up a space to train biometric surveillance algorithms.
The protections of workers during the pandemic depends on forgetting about college students like Vera Zhou. It means ignoring the dehumanization of thousands upon thousands of detainees and unfree workers.
At the same time, Seattle also stands before Xinjiang.
Amazon has its own role in involuntary surveillance that disproportionately harms ethno-racial minorities given its partnership with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target undocumented immigrants and its active lobbying efforts in support of weak biometric surveillance regulation. More directly, Microsoft Research Asia, the so-called “cradle of Chinese AI,” has played an instrumental role in the growth and development of both Dahua and Megvii.
Chinese state funding, global terrorism discourse, and US industry training are three of the primary reasons why a fleet of Chinese companies now leads the world in face and voice recognition. This process was accelerated by a war on terror that centered on placing Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Hui within a complex digital and material enclosure, but it now extends throughout the Chinese technology industry, where data-intensive infrastructure systems produce flexible digital enclosures throughout the nation, though not at the same scale as in Xinjiang.
China’s vast and rapid response to the pandemic has further accelerated this process by rapidly implementing these systems and making clear that they work. Because they extend state power in such sweeping and intimate ways, they can effectively alter human behavior.
The Chinese approach to the pandemic is not the only way to stop it, however. Democratic states like New Zealand and Canada, which have provided testing, masks, and economic assistance to those forced to stay home, have also been effective. These nations make clear that involuntary surveillance is not the only way to protect the well-being of the majority, even at the level of the nation.
In fact, numerous studies have shown that surveillance systems support systemic racism and dehumanization by making targeted populations detainable. The past and current US administrations’ use of the Entity List to halt sales to companies like Dahua and Megvii, while important, is also producing a double standard, punishing Chinese firms for automating racialization while funding American companies to do similar things.
Increasing numbers of US-based companies are attempting to develop their own algorithms to detect racial phenotypes, though through a consumerist approach that is premised on consent. By making automated racialization a form of convenience in marketing things like lipstick, companies like Revlon are hardening the technical scripts that are available to individuals.
As a result, in many ways race continues to be an unthought part of how people interact with the world. Police in the United States and in China think about automated assessment technologies as tools they have to detect potential criminals or terrorists. The algorithms make it appear normal that Black men or Uyghurs are disproportionately detected by these systems. They stop the police, and those they protect, from recognizing that surveillance is always about controlling and disciplining people who do not fit into the vision of those in power. The world, not China alone, has a problem with surveillance.
To counteract the increasing banality, the everydayness, of automated racialization, the harms of biometric surveillance around the world must first be made apparent. The lives of the detainable must be made visible at the edge of power over life. Then the role of world-class engineers, investors, and public relations firms in the unthinking of human experience, in designing for human reeducation, must be made clear. The webs of interconnection—the way Xinjiang stands behind and before Seattle— must be made thinkable.
—This story is an edited excerpt from In The Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony, by Darren Byler (Columbia Global Reports, 2021.) Darren Byler is an assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University, focused on the technology and politics of urban life in China.
A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry
China has come to dominate the market in recent years, and by 2017 the country produced over 80% of the world’s supply. Beijing achieved this by pouring resources into the study and mining of rare-earth elements for decades, building up six big state-owned firms and relaxing environmental regulations to enable low-cost and high-pollution methods. The country then rapidly increased rare-earth exports in the 1990s, a sudden rush that bankrupted international rivals. Further development of rare-earth industries is a strategic goal under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy.
The country has demonstrated its dominance several times, most notably by stopping all shipments of the resources to Japan in 2010 during a maritime dispute. State media have warned that China could do the same to the United States.
The US and other Western nations have seen this monopoly as a critical weakness for their side. As a result, they have spent billions in recent years to get better at finding, mining, and processing the minerals.
In early June 2022, the Canadian mining company Appia announced it had found new resources in Saskatchewan. Within weeks, the American firm USA Rare Earth announced a new processing facility in Oklahoma.
Dragonbridge engaged in similar activity in 2021, soon after the American military signed an agreement with the Australian mining firm Lynas, the largest rare-earths company outside China, to build a processing plant in Texas.
The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.
The infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021 earmarked $7.5 billion for President Biden’s goal of having 500,000 chargers (individual plugs, not stations) around the nation. In the best case, Michalek envisions a public-private collaboration to build a robust national charging network. The Biden administration has pledged to install plugs throughout rural areas, while companies constructing charging stations across America will have a strong incentive to fill in the country’s biggest cities and most popular thoroughfares. After all, companies like Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint charge customers per kilowatt-hour of energy they use, much like utilities.
Most new electric vehicles promise at least 250 miles on a full charge, and that number should keep ticking up. The farther cars can go without charging, the fewer anxious drivers will be stuck in lines waiting for a charging space to open. But make no mistake, Michalek says: an electric-car country needs a plethora of plugs, and soon.
We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”
The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.
A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there.
This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.
Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor, and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes.
In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”
However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.
In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.
We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.
Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity.
Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.
Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.