With an Amazon logo behind him and in front of luminaries of Shanghai’s booming venture capital scene, the onstage executive delivered his speech. His company, Renwei Electronics, helps Chinese authorities track down prisoners and inmates, alerting guards to their movements and even equipping them with heart rate monitors.
Renwei implements its “smart prison” system in China’s Xinjiang region, where more than 1 million Muslim minorities have been locked up.
However, this did not interfere with Renwei’s warm welcome to an event organized in November by an Amazon-backed “joint innovation center”. Event planners provided the Renwei executive with a platform to offer an “investor road show” to some of China’s most prestigious investors. And Renwei received a “Product Innovation Award” recognizing it as one of six “Outstanding Entrepreneurial Companies”.
Sent a detailed list of questions, Amazon declined to comment on the record. Renwei did not respond to a request for comment.
A growing list of multinationals is under pressure to move their supply chains away from Xinjiang, amid mounting evidence of mass detentions and forced labor there, as part of what the United States and other countries have recently called genocide. Congress is considering a bill banning imports from Xinjiang tainted by forced labor, and US customs have already banned tomato and cotton products in the region, among other commodities.
Amazon closed its e-commerce business in China in 2019, but other parts of its vast empire still work with Chinese customers, including its highly profitable cloud computing subsidiary, Amazon Web Services.
AWS operates the joint innovation center with Shanghai local government and business organizations. The center energizes startups by providing them with AWS cloud resources and technical support and helping them acquire talent and comply with government regulations, according to an announcement for the event. It is unclear what benefits, if any, Renwei and other award-winning companies have received. The centre’s website points out that the companies it supports also benefit from Amazon’s resources and reputation.
Horizon Advisory, a geopolitical consulting firm based in Washington, DC, first took note of the Renwei Award and the Amazon event in a research shared with BuzzFeed News.
Renwei’s technology has been used in prisons across China, including Zhongjiazhuang Prison, located near Shihezi City. The prison is administered by the powerful Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary and government organization that the United States imposed sanctions on last year, citing its links to human rights abuses in the region.
BuzzFeed News has located the prison in Shawan County in Xinjiang using satellite imagery. An official photo of the prison released in 2016 shows a rounded front gate in elaborate ironwork and a lion statue to the left of the entrance. Behind the gate, a road leads to a two- to three-story building. A white wall and a row of trees run along the road. A Google Earth image shows the gate’s shadow cast on the ground, a light-colored object about 2.5 meters high that appears to match the lion statue, and the same east-west wall and tree line. The roof of the building in the background also matches the photograph.
The Chinese government has forced more than a million Muslim minorities, including Uighurs, Kazakhs, Hui Muslims and others, into mass internment camps over the past four years. A BuzzFeed News investigation last year found that the government has significantly stepped up its campaign since 2017, building hundreds of new complexes bearing the hallmarks of internment camps and prisons. Dozens of previously detained people described routine abuse, deprivation and humiliation inside, ranging from overcrowding and food deprivation to beatings and even torture. The government says the internment camp system aims at “transformation through education” and the deradicalization of extremists.
Government data analyzed by the New York Times shows that Xinjiang’s prison population also increased during this period: the region accounted for 21% of the country’s total arrests for just 2% of the population in 2017. Muslim minorities make up approximately half of Xinjiang’s population. . According to government data, the courts controlled by the Chinese Communist Party convict more than 99% of the defendants.
Prisons in many parts of the world, including the United States, use data-driven systems to monitor and control inmates. But in Xinjiang, the government’s campaign specifically targets ethnic minorities by detaining them for religious practices, family ties abroad, or other behavior deemed suspicious or threatening to the state.
Renwei describes his system as “an important platform for digital prisons to improve their management skills through information technology”. It uses image processing, data encryption, cloud computing and “big data” to set up a “personal positioning system” that can be monitored remotely, the company says. The data is channeled into a centralized platform that authorities can use for “management decision making”.
Renwei says this improves efficiency and helps prison staff “realize new ideas of preventative prevention, mid-incident control and post-incident verification.” An early warning system warns when police are attacked, Renwei says, and when inmates enter prohibited areas. Inmates can be equipped with electronic devices that monitor their heart rate and other vital signs to “reduce the risk to law enforcement.” The system helps prevent people from escaping or killing themselves, Renwei says.
High-tech surveillance is a hallmark of life in Xinjiang camps and prisons. More than two dozen previously detained people told BuzzFeed News they were being monitored in real time by cameras placed in the corners of their cells and even in bathrooms. The guards could punish them for small infractions, such as speaking their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese.
Renwei also received recognition from the Chinese Domestic Security Service, the Ministry of Public Security. The company attended a ministry promotional conference attended by the department’s deputy minister and other government officials.
In addition to the Shanghai venture capitalists, the audience at the Amazon event on November 16, 2020 included executives from multinational giants such as Siemens and Kone Elevators, according to a press release about the event.
On stage, executive Renwei spent about 11 minutes flipping through a PowerPoint presentation that illustrated every aspect of the business, noting that the system could be used not only in prisons, but also in detention centers. Eventually, he looked to the investors and asked their questions. ●
Apr. 20 February 2021 at 7:55 pm
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that executive Renwei on stage thanked the Shanghai-Amazon Joint Innovation Center for its support.