Popular video app TikTok is “a vector for censorship and surveillance”, according to a new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which found the app’s parent company ByteDance was complicit in police propaganda in Xinjiang.
The report also names Chinese tech giant Huawei — which is banned from supplying equipment to Australia’s 5G mobile network due to security concerns — works “extensively” in Xinjiang and directly with the Chinese Government’s public security bureaus in the region.
China’s north-west region of Xinjiang has been described as an “open-air prison” where more than a million Uyghurs — a Turkic speaking ethnic group — and other Muslim minorities have been detained.
China has repeatedly rejected the re-education centres are “concentration camps” and maintains they are “vocational centres” or “boarding schools” that are necessary to prevent the spread of terrorism.
The ASPI report comes on the heels of a leaked cache of highly classified Chinese Government documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and shared with the ABC.
Those documents, dubbed the China Cables, revealed 23 Australian citizens were singled out for deportation or detention.
The leaks also highlighted the scale of mass internment in Xinjiang, where doors are double-locked to prevent escapes and there’s a system of digital surveillance and “arrest by algorithm” designed to instil fear.
Apps aiding ‘propaganda’
The report coincides with ASPI updating its mapping Chinese tech giants project, adding companies including iFlytek, ByteDance (which owns TikTok), SenseTime, CloudWalk, Meiya Pico, and BeiDou to a public database.
TikTok has faced allegations of censorship and “shadow-banning” — a stealthier form of censorship where particular topics are down-ranked in the app’s algorithm so they don’t show up in users’ feeds.
The ASPI report echoed United States Congress members’ concerns about “the app’s use of censorship to curate and shape information flows and export CCP media narratives to data privacy and the potential for the app to be used as a tool of surveillance in the service of the Chinese party-state”.
Its parent company, ByteDance, has recently said personal data from users in other countries is not shared with Chinese authorities.
The viral video platform was the subject of controversy in recent days after a US teenager claimed she was blocked for sharing a video encouraging people to research the “holocaust” happening in Xinjiang, masked as a make-up tutorial.
This was initially disputed by TikTok, but they later apologised and admitted the video had been removed for 50 minutes “due to a human moderation error”, stressing the video did not breach community guidelines and “it should not have been removed”.
In a statement to the ABC, a TikTok representative said the company “does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China”.
“We have never been asked by the Chinese Government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period,” the statement said.
“We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese Government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.”
The video app also told the ABC it had previously taken a “blunt approach to minimising conflict on the platform” during its early days, referring to content which “promotes conflict between religious sects or ethnic groups”.
However, it added that: “The old guidelines in question are outdated and no longer in use.”
“As TikTok started taking off in new markets, we are working to empower local teams that have a nuanced understanding of each market,” the statement read.
But the ASPI report said the “meteoric growth” of TikTok, which is worth a “jaw-dropping” $110 billion and has an audience of 700 million globally, makes parent company ByteDance “uniquely susceptible to other problems that come with its closeness to the censorship and surveillance
apparatus of the CCP-led state”.
The company inked a “strategic” deal with the Ministry of Public Security’s press and publicity bureau to promote the “influence and credibility” of police departments across China, and video-sharing app Douyin — the Chinese version of TikTok — accounts were used to disseminate propaganda.
Report co-author Vicky Xiuzhong Xu said ByteDance was helping authorities gain more traction online to peddle propaganda, and that most of the company’s cooperation with Xinjiang authorities was centred in the town of Hotan.
“[This month] ByteDance signed a deal with Beijing Radio and Television Bureau to propagate and showcase Hotan’s ‘new image’,” she said.
“It would look benign if you don’t think about the past two years,” she said, during which Hotan had been subjected to “an aggressive campaign of cemetery, mosque and traditional housing demolition”.
ASPI co-author Fergus Ryan noted there was a “sad irony” in that TikTok has also been a platform where Uyghurs in Xinjiang have spread awareness of their plight.
The report also zeroes in on ByteDance’s links to Xinjiang’s internet police, who used the video-sharing app Douyin to build a “new public security and internet social governance model” last year.
Douyin accounts for Xinjiang police, and for local officials who go into Uyghurs homes to watch and surveil them, were also going “viral”, Ms Xu said.
“It’s not natural — organically, it should be those viral dances or lip-syncing — just silly funny stuff,” she said.
“But why are you having all these police accounts going viral?
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence … ByteDance by helping the Government to boost its propaganda, it is also actively helping the Government to try and hide what’s actually going on in Hotan.”
A ByteDance spokesperson said in a statement that Douyin allowed civic and law enforcement groups to set up user accounts “for purposes such as crime prevention alerts”, just as social media platforms do in other countries.
“Douyin does not endorse the content generated by its users, but rather, similar to Twitter or Facebook, provides a platform to all of its users,” it said.
“ByteDance does not produce, operate or disseminate any products or services related to surveillance.
“In Hotan, Douyin and Toutiao work on poverty alleviation efforts, similar to what they do in many regions across China.”
Huawei part of surveillance ecosystem, report claims
The report alleged Huawei misrepresented its links to Xinjiang’s security apparatus when it claimed its contracts were only through third parties.
ASPI said Huawei worked “directly” with China’s public security bureau in Xinjiang and had agreed to establish an “intelligent security industry” innovation lab in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, and was “praised” by authorities for contributing to the “Safe Xinjiang” program, which ASPI described as a “code for a police surveillance system”.
A Huawei representative did not directly respond to any of the allegations about complicity of surveillance in Xinjiang, but said in a statement that: “Huawei develops technology that complies with the law in each jurisdiction in which it is sold and used.”
“Huawei is committed to human rights and has a strong record as an organisation that does good in the 170 plus markets where it operates,” they said.
Huawei slammed the report, accusing ASPI of trying to “destroy a private company for purely political purposes”.
“We find it extremely distressing and strongly object that an organisation like ASPI is once again seeking to damage our reputation in this manner.”
But Ms Xu said the report showed the inextricable links between tech companies and complicity in Xinjiang abuses, with the report highlighting that the crackdown offered “ample opportunities for incentivised expansion and profitability”.
“Everyone in Xinjiang — from telecommunications companies to social media companies to tech companies that make cameras — they form this ecosystem that enables and allows this mass detention, these gross human rights abuses to happen on a large scale,” Ms Xu said.
Maya Wang, from Human Rights Watch, said companies had an obligation to ensure they were not complicit in human rights abuses.
“Chinese law requires data localisation and also that companies provide broad ‘assistance’ to law enforcement, so it is difficult for companies to resist providing Chinese authorities with individual users’ data when requested,” she said.
But she added there was a difference between companies that tried to do the right thing when operating in China and those that actively supported the Government’s authoritarian agenda.
“Propaganda and censorship are two sides of the same coin — they aim to support the agenda of an authoritarian government to repress and control the population,” she said.