- ByteDance, the company that owns the viral video app TikTok, is working closely with China’s government to facilitate human-rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in China’s western autonomous region of Xinjiang, according to a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
- The report, titled “Mapping more of China’s tech giants: AI and surveillance,” looked at the way major Chinese tech companies were involved in state-sanctioned surveillance and censorship using artificial intelligence packaged as popular apps and websites.
- ByteDance was accused by ASPI of collaborating “with public security bureaus across China, including in Xinjiang where it plays an active role in disseminating the party-state’s propaganda on Xinjiang.”
- TikTok has been in the spotlight after it suspended the account of a US teenager named Feroza Aziz after she posted a viral video on the app that was disguised as a makeup tutorial but criticized the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
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The Chinese company that owns the viral video app TikTok is working closely with China’s government to facilitate human-rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in the western autonomous region of Xinjiang, according to a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The report, titled “Mapping more of China’s tech giants: AI and surveillance,” looked at the way major Chinese tech companies were involved in state-sanctioned surveillance and censorship using artificial intelligence packaged as popular apps and websites.
ByteDance, the parent company of the viral-video sensation TikTok, was mentioned in the report alongside other major Chinese tech companies including Huawei, Tencent, and Alibaba, many of which ASPI wrote “are engaged in deeply unethical behavior in Xinjiang, where their work directly supports and enables mass human rights abuses.”
China has been accused of running detention centers and forced labor camps in Xinjiang. Interviews with people who were held in the facilities reveal allegations of beatings and food deprivation, as well as medical experimentation on prisoners.
China has acknowledged the existence of some "reeducation camps" but has repeatedly denied reports of abuse at its facilities.
In its research, ASPI singled out ByteDance and accused it of acting alongside the Communist Party to enforce the country's strict censorship laws.
"ByteDance collaborates with public security bureaus across China, including in Xinjiang where it plays an active role in disseminating the party-state's propaganda on Xinjiang," the report said.
ByteDance operates two versions of its viral video app - a China-based app called Douyin and the global app TikTok.
TikTok is one of the most downloaded phone apps in the world and has already entered more than 150 global markets.
Previous reports cited by ASPI indicated that "Xinjiang Internet Police" had a presence on Douyin in 2018 and created a "new public security and internet social governance model."
ASPI also cited recent reporting that said China's Ministry of Public Security's Press and Publicity Bureau signed an agreement with ByteDance that allowed ministry and police officials to have their own Douyin accounts to push ministry propaganda. The report also said ByteDance would "increase its offline cooperation with the police department," though it was unclear what that partnership would entail.
A representative from ByteDance told Business Insider that it did not endorse police content on Douyin.
"As a user-generated content platform in China, Douyin allows individuals, organizations and institutions, including civic and law-enforcement groups, to set up user accounts," the person said. "This practice is comparable to how social-media platforms in other countries allow similar organizations, including law enforcement, to create accounts for purposes such as crime-prevention alerts. 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." The person added that ByteDance "does not produce, operate, or disseminate any products or services related to surveillance."
A representative for TikTok told Business Insider it "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 person 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 TikTok representative added: "In TikTok's early days, we took a blunt approach to minimizing conflict on the platform, and a previous version of our moderation guidelines allowed penalties to be given for things like content that promotes conflict between religious sects or ethnic groups, spanning a number of regions around the world. The old guidelines in question are outdated and no longer in use." ASPI added that other tech giants, including Alibaba and Huawei, contributed cloud computing and surveillance technologies in Xijiang.
In October, the US blacklisted 28 Chinese organizations and companies accused of facilitating human-rights abuses in Xinjiang. And earlier this month, sources told Reuters that the US opened a national security investigation into ByteDance after its $1 billion acquisition of the US social-media app Musical.ly in 2017.
TikTok has been in the spotlight after suspending the account of a US teenager named Feroza Aziz who posted a viral video on the app that was disguised as a makeup tutorial but criticized the Chinese government's treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
The company apologized in a statement published to its website on Wednesday, saying that it stood behind its initial decision to suspend Aziz's account but that its moderation process "will not be perfect."
Xinjiang has a population of about 10 million, many of whom are Uighur or other ethnic minorities. In May, US Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver said "at least a million but likely closer to 3 million citizens" were detained detention camps.
Satellite images reviewed by the Washington-based East Turkistan National Awakening Movement earlier this month identified at least 465 detention centers, labor camps, and suspected prisons in Xinjiang.
And a recent leak of classified Chinese government documents known as the "China Cables" laid out a manual for exactly how the detention centers were to operate, preventing escape by double locking all the doors and using a "points system" based on behavior that is linked "directly to rewards, punishments, and family visits."