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Society

Inside China's Surveillance State, Built On High Tech And A Billion Spies

Twenty-five years in the making, China has developed a mass surveillance state, from Beijing alleyways to rural villages. And citizens don't object because they've been co-opted into it.

Inside China's Surveillance State, Built On High Tech And A Billion Spies

A protester stands beneath an umbrella hung to block a surveillance camera in Hong Kong

You Ka

BEIJING — In 2021, a local police bureau in Beijing published an initiative on the Sharp Eyes project. Its description offers a chilling taste of how China's future of mass surveillance will be.

“Security cameras automatically capture the people’s faces, and match with house rental information, records in hospitals, hotels, and school, and summarize an activity log of different groups of people. With all information and data collected, an alarm model would be created to automatically identify abnormal activities."

Just exactly how the model will be implemented is not yet known. But combined with China's existing surveillance system, the Sharp Eyes project could allow community workers to proactively go to individuals' doors to investigate a crime that has not even been committed yet.

Its goal is to create a system that is literally meant to "prevent crime before it happens."


But how do the security cameras create such a huge digital leviathan system? It is the result of a surveillance system that China has been building for 25 years.

Birth of a security camera nation

In 1998, China's Ministry of Public Security started the "Golden Shield Project", which focused on building a basic database and technology platform, as well as an initial network firewall to realize "Technology for a Stronger Police". The "Safe City" public video surveillance project took the 2008 Olympic Games as an opportunity to roll out the project to all major and medium-sized cities.

At this stage, China was still learning on its feet. In the wake of terrorist attacks such as the Sep. 11 attacks in 2001 and the London Underground bombings in 2005, police departments around the world had been installing cameras in public places in major cities to help with law and order.

China soon surpassed the West in surveillance technology. After 2016, it became the world's largest surveillance market, with government purchases accounting for 60% of the nearly trillion dollar Chinese market. According to analysts, of the nearly one billion cameras in the world today, more than half are Chinese.

By this reckoning, every four cameras in the world has a Chinese government procurement. In 2017, a BBC journalist was allowed to challenge the Sky Eye system and make a documentary in Guizhou in southwest China, where in less than seven minutes, his face was flagged by a database and then intercepted by police in the city.

Society to monitor society

In 2016, the Chinese government began a new round of large-scale video camera construction known as the "Sharp Eyes Project". While video surveillance in major countries around the world is only limited to key public areas in cities, the Chinese government wants to achieve "no dead ends and full coverage". "Full coverage, full network sharing, full-time availability and full control" were to be achieved at county, township and village levels. The core of this project in urban residential areas is the Chinese special "grid-based management".

Every place and every individual will eventually be in a specific grid

Grid-based management, as it indicates, involves community workers being in charge of a grid of residential areas, speculating over security concerns and nipping troubles in the bud. Surveillance is no longer only used to monitor specific groups of people or to uncover specific criminal offenses, but it was given a sense of social service functioning and preventing security risks.

What is notable is that the users of the surveillance system have expanded from police to ordinary people, playing the role of "the residents' housekeeper", and they might just be a familiar grandma next door. The government is no longer in direct confrontation with society everywhere, but uses society to monitor society.

A dense network of social surveillance is spread over 9.6 million square kilometers and a population of 1.4 billion. Every place and every individual will eventually be in a specific grid, and each grid has enough cameras that collect data, and there are corresponding grid personnel to collect information and resolve risks.

photo of masked protester jumping up to smash a surveillance camera

A protester smashes a security camera during a demonstration against Hong Kong's government.

Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Alternative to a police state

The implicit "surveillance state" represented by the "Sharp Eyes Project" and grid management embody a clear choice of the Chinese government in social governance, which differs from other explicit "police state" authoritarian states. On the one hand, Beijing does everything it can to collect social information, on the other, it is fully vigilant against the excessive development of police power. Both trends have become more and more obvious in the past decade.

With the development of the market economy since the 1980s, constraints on mobility since the Mao era could not be continued with the flow of work force and the growth of the population. Since the mid-80s till now, China's population has grown from 1 billion to 1.4 billion, while criminal offense cases increased to 4.7 million in the year of 2020, nine times more than 40 years before. With the growing concern about criminal offenses, case clearance rate has dropped from 70% to less than 40%. This indicates the pressure in maintaining security Beijing is facing with China's rapid economic growth.

But what is unique is that China is always conscious in restricting an over-powerful police force. Even in the 1990s, when China's crime rate issues had reached its peak, the police/population ratio was 7.4 per 10 thousand, significantly lower than the world average of 35 police per 10 thousand. At the core of Beijing's politics, there has been concerns over the "political credibility" of the police force, the head of which, for example, had been recently fired for being politically "unreliable" rather than being corrupt.

Sacrificing freedom for "safety"

Paradoxically, a monitoring system that implies strong control may not necessarily be opposed by the population under surveillance. In many official propaganda films, the people interviewed are happy to see the Sharp Eyes project implemented, and even neighboring communities would compete with each other for who could install the equipment first. China has packaged this whole social surveillance system as "welfare" because "safety" itself is the greatest benefit to the people.

Without its role in "revolution", the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has claimed its legitimacy in China's rapid economic growth. But when economic growth slows down, "security" would be another benefit it provides. "Safety" and "security" are clearly narratives that Beijing is proud of, while the two concepts have became an overwhelming priority. In its propaganda, Western countries — particularly, the United States — are portrayed as having endless disasters and crimes, while China is "the safest country in the world".

The flexibility that a normal society should have has now become unacceptable in Beijing's logic.

The cultural psychology of Chinese society is another key to understanding Beijing's success in implementing its surveillance projects without obstacles. Some surveys have shown that many people actually hold a fairly supportive attitude towards surveillance programs, believing that sacrificing freedom for "safety" is a pretty good deal. The cultural obsession with "safety" and the government's manipulation in the name of it have created a mutually reinforcing cycle.

Photo of CCTV cameras watch over an intersection in downtown Beijing

CCTV cameras watch over an intersection in downtown Beijing

Todd Lee/ZUMA

A return to the "mass line"

Today's pandemic prevention policy in China is very different from that of the rest of the world, which may be the result of the ultimate interpretation of the logic of "safety". No matter whether the virus has changed or not, the behaviors of officials are dominated by the excuse of "security," and the public is persuaded by fear to fall in line. The flexibility and adjustments that a normal society should have is now unacceptable in Beijing's logic.

The CCP has always stressed Mao's concept of “returning to the mass line," to achieve social control by giving the people a sense of agency in decisions. Relying on the so-called "mass" is the fundamental idea of the CCP's governance.

The recent advances in technology have made large-scale digital surveillance possible. And so now with the long-standing "mass line" governance, China can combine it with the tech advances to build a sophisticated social surveillance system.

The "Sharp Eyes Project" and "grid-based management" show Beijing's system is efficient in identifying and diminishing security risks, perfectly avoiding the "dictator paradox" in being less dependent on violent agencies.

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