With an Amazon logo behind him and luminaries from Shanghai’s booming venture capital scene in front of him, the manager delivered his pitch on stage. His company, Renwei Electronics, is helping Chinese authorities track down prisoners and detainees. She alerts the guards to her movements and even equips them with heart rate monitors.
Renwei is deploying its “intelligent prison system” in China’s Xinjiang region, where more than 1 million Muslim minorities are imprisoned.
However, that didn’t detract from Renwei’s warm welcome at an event hosted by an Amazon-sponsored Joint Innovation Center in November. The organizers gave the Renwei executive a platform to give an “Investor Road Show” speech to some of China’s most renowned investors. And Renwei received a “Product Innovation Award”, which recognizes it as one of six “Outstanding Entrepreneurial Companies”.
Amazon sent a detailed list of questions and declined to comment on the record. Renwei did not respond to a request for comment.
A growing list of multinational corporations is under pressure to relocate their supply chains away from Xinjiang amid mounting evidence of mass imprisonment and forced labor in what the US and other countries have recently dubbed genocide. Congress is considering a bill to ban imports from Xinjiang that have been subjected to forced labor, and US Customs has already banned tomato and cotton products, including goods, in the region.
Amazon shut down its e-commerce business in China in 2019, but other parts of its sprawling empire are still working with Chinese customers, including its highly profitable cloud computing subsidiary, Amazon Web Services.
AWS operates the joint innovation center with the local government of Shanghai and business associations. The center empowers startups by providing them with AWS cloud resources and technical support, helping them attract talent and comply with government regulations, according to an ad for the event. It is unclear what benefits, if any, Renwei and other award-winning companies have received. The center’s website emphasizes that the companies it supports also benefit from Amazon’s resources and reputation.
Horizon Advisory, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical advisory firm, first noted the Renwei award and the Amazon event it shared with BuzzFeed News.
Renwei’s technology has been used in prisons across China, including Zhongjiazhuang Prison near Shihezi City. The prison is managed by the powerful Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary and state organization that the US sanctioned last year, citing its links to human rights abuses in the region.
BuzzFeed News used satellite imagery to locate the prison in Xinjiang’s Shawan County. A 2016 prison official photo shows a rounded entrance gate in ornate ironwork and a lion statue to the left of the entrance. Behind the gate, a street 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 shadow of the gate thrown on the ground, a bright object about 2.5 meters high that appears to match the lion statue, and the same east-west wall and row of trees. The roof of the building in the background also matches the photo.
The Chinese government has forced more than a million Muslim minorities, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Hui Muslims and others, to mass internment camps in the past four years. An investigation by BuzzFeed News last year found that the government has escalated its campaign dramatically since 2017, building hundreds of new buildings bearing the hallmarks of internment camps and prisons. Dozens of people previously detained there reported abuse, deprivation, and routine humiliation inside, ranging from overcrowding and deprivation of food to beatings and even torture. The government says the internment camp system is for “transformation through education” and the deradicalization of extremists.
Government data analyzed by the New York Times shows that the prison population in Xinjiang also rose sharply during this period – the region accounted for 21% of the country’s total arrests in 2017 for just 2% of the population. Muslim minorities make up about half of the population in Xinjiang. China’s Communist Party-controlled courts convict more than 99% of the accused, according to the government.
Prisons in many parts of the world, including the United States, use data-driven systems to monitor and control prisoners. In Xinjiang, however, the government’s campaign is specifically targeting ethnic minorities by imprisoning them for religious practices, overseas family ties, or other conduct deemed suspicious or threatening to the state.
Renwei describes his system as “an important platform for digital prisons to improve their administrative skills through information technology”. With the help of image processing, data encryption, cloud computing and “big data”, a “personnel positioning system” is set up that can be monitored remotely, according to the company. The data is transferred to a centralized platform that the authorities can use for “management decisions”.
According to Renwei, this improves efficiency and helps prison staff “realize new ideas of preventive prevention, incident control and post-incident review.” An early warning system signals when the police are under attack, says Renwei, and when inmates enter areas that are forbidden to them. Detainees can be equipped with electronic devices that monitor their heart rate and other vital signs to “reduce the risk to law enforcement”. The system prevents people from escaping or killing themselves, says Renwei.
High-tech surveillance is a hallmark of life in Xinjiang’s camps and prisons. More than two dozen people previously detained there told BuzzFeed News that they were being monitored in real time by cameras placed in the corners of their cells and even in the bathrooms. Guards could punish them for tiny violations, such as speaking their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese.
Renwei has also been recognized by the Chinese Security Service, Ministry of Public Security. The company attended a ministry promotional conference attended by the department’s vice minister and other government officials.
At the Amazon event on November 16, 2020, the Renwei manager thanked the Joint Innovation Center Shanghai-Amazon for their support. In addition to venture capitalists from Shanghai, executives from multinational giants such as Siemens and Kone Elevators were also among the audience, according to a press release.
The manager spent about 11 minutes flipping through a PowerPoint presentation that covered all aspects of the business and found that the system could be used in not only prisons but also detention centers. In the end, he looked at the investors and asked their questions. ●