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Everyone's A Suspect: How China Keeps Tabs On 1.4 Billion People

With facial recognition cameras and Big Data, the Chinese leadership is pushing its penchant for surveillance to new heights.

The computer room at e-commerce giant Alibaba's data center
The computer room at e-commerce giant Alibaba's data center
Frédéric Schaeffer

BEIJING — He'd been waiting months for this moment. With his wife and friends, Mr. Ao was finally going to be able to see his idol on stage. It was the first Saturday of April and legendary singer Jacky Cheung was about to play at the Nanchang Stadium. Some 60,000 people were gathered to see one of what the media call the four "gods' of "cantopop," a music genre that is incredibly popular in southeast China.

But Mr. Ao, 31, only had enough time to hear the opening notes when two policemen seized him right in the middle of the crowd. He was already known to the authorities for an "economic crime," and during security checks at the stadium entrance he was spotted by cameras equipped with facial recognition technology.

"The suspect looked completely caught by surprise when we took him away," police officer Li Jin told the Xinhua news agency. "He did not think the police would be able to catch him quickly in a crowd of 60,000."

HRW accuses the Chinese authorities of using an algorithm to make preventive arrests.

Xi Jinping Chinese Communist Party is acquiring sophisticated technical tools as it continues its grip on all aspects of the country's political, social and economic life. The Beijing strongman is particularly keen on employing artificial intelligence. Jean-Pierre Cabestan calls "an Orwellian "Big Brother" worthy of 1984."

Tested in 16 cities and provinces, the SkyNet system of surveillance cameras, has already made it possible to arrest 2,000 fugitives in two years, according to reports in the state media. It is slated to cover all major audiences in the country by 2020 and will be able to scan all 1.37 billion Chinese in "one second" - regardless of angles and lighting, its developers proudly claim.

Last winter, a BBC journalist challenged in the southwestern Chinese town of Guiyang to find him. It took the city's cameras seven minutes to locate him and send the police officers after him.

For the Chinese New Year, police officers at Zhengzhou Railway Station were equipped with facial recognition glasses. Behind their dark hi-tech glasses, they could almost instantly cross-reference passengers in front of the police station's database.

"The feeling of security is the best gift to a country can give its people," says Xi Jinping in the recent documentary Amazing China . Broadcast on television before the last autumn's crucial 19th Party Congress, the film recalls that China has the world's largest network of surveillance cameras . The country alone accounts for 42% of the world video surveillance market, according to IHS Markit.

Police unmanned aerial vehicle at the fourth China Beijing International Fair for Trade in Services​ in Beijing — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

Social Credit System

Mass surveillance was already synonymous with a Communist regime. But it takes a completely different dimension in this time of rapid digital advances. Facial recognition is one game changer. Big Data is another . Across the country, creating a mass of disparate sets of data that Beijing dreams, one day, of being able to cross-reference.

One of the initiatives that defenders of public freedoms find the most worrying is undoubtedly the "social credit system." Introduced gradually since 2014, it goes well beyond the sole assessment of a borrower's solvency, as practiced in the West. It also evaluates and classifies the behavior of citizens, civil servants, and companies according to a series of criteria. On which basis, it grants some rights to the most deserving while withdrawing rights from others.

Its official objective is to respond to the lack of trust in the world. Its field of application covers almost all areas of daily life .

"Beijing presents the social credit system as a panacea to a multitude of problems China faces, such as food security, financial fraud, counterfeiting and implicitly, corruption." But it means that these issues are not being dealt with, "explains Séverine Arsène , Sinologist and Editor of the Hong Kong-based website AsiaGlobal Online.

The system's critics fear that this tool will quickly be hijacked by the police state. A first version of the system is to be launched in 2020, but it's still difficult to know exactly what it will look like. Today, social credit is the subject of more than 40 municipalities, more private initiatives. Among the latter, the most successful example is Sesame Credit, an application developed by Alibaba , China's e-commerce and mobile payment giant.

Secret algorithm

Thanks to the mountains of data collected on its users, Alibaba is able to evaluate and rank their solvency with a score between 350 and 950 points. Upwards of 600 points, They Can take out a loan to make purchases Single is Alibaba sites. From 650 points, they have a deposit and are entitled to a faster check-in at Beijing airport.

The problem is that Alibaba keeps the algorithm secret. The only thing we know is that the information they use is not limited to financial data alone, such as the ability to pay bills on time. Shopping clothes and friendships also play a role.

" Liu Yingyun , chief technology officer, " Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day will be considered an idle person explained when the service was launched in 2015. Alibaba has been backpedaled since then, but it is a way to, little by little, encourages people to alter their behavior.


The role Web That giants like Alibaba and Tencent (owner of the WeChat app That: has a one billion users) will play When the government generalizes icts social credit system is still very unclear. But nobody knows the clothes of the Chinese people better than these private companies. And you can bet that Beijing will rely on your huge databases.

For the time being, the idea of ​​a single mark for all citizens and businesses that would be the rest of their lives seems technically and politically complicated to put in place. Local public experiments are mainly centered around the introduction of sanctions and blacklists. Even before it becomes compulsory, the social credit system already has real consequences for the daily lives of millions of individuals.

The state knows you better than you do.

More than 11 Million Chinese deemed to be "untrustworthy" for failing to pay their debts or to be a "top of the line" to be out of business, to avoid boarding planes, high-speed trains or golf clubs .

Supervised by the Supreme People's Court, this electronic stalking of "deadbeat borrowers' ( laolai in Chinese) is rather well-perceived by the public, in a country that struggles to enforce short decisions. "But the number of blacklisting violations continues to increase," Maya Wang observes, China Human Rights Watch's researcher at the Human Rights Watch (HRW). Since May 1, people who have spread false information about terrorism, may have been banned from boarding planes or trains.

Carrot and stick

The German Mercator Institute for China Studies. For instance, the city of Rongcheng has set up a system of good and bad points. Volunteering or donating to a charity raises your score. Those with an AAA rating can borrow the city's bikes without a down payment, benefit from a discount on their heating bill or enjoy better borrowing conditions.

The design of the system is also based on the "name-and-shame" principle. The blacklists are available on the Internet. In Sanmen, the people who call them do not get the usual ringing tone but a message informing them that their caller is blacklisted, and asking them to convince them to pay back .Sanmen, the courts work hand-in-hand with telephone operating companies: People calling

In Shenzhen and Shanghai, pedestrians crossing the street when the light is up have their identities displayed on a giant screen until they pay their fine. More playful, the application Honest Shanghai allows you to check out your score and share it on social networks.

"The new technologies just facilitate its task," says historian Zhan Lifan. "The original intent of a credit union has been misused and becomes a tool to repress dissidents."Zhan Lifan. "The original intent of social credit has been misused and risks becoming a tool to repress dissidents."

But as activist Hu Jia explains: "With surveillance cameras and social credit, the state knows you better than you do." The Chinese media underline the positive sides of the project in economic matters, but the goal is also to make citizens with different opinions toe the line by blocking their access to certain services. "

This new type of control seems to be taken to extremes in the Muslim province of Xinjiang. HRW accuses the Chinese authorities of using an algorithm to make warnings in this area of ​​the world.Xinjiang. HRW accuses the Chinese authorities of using an algorithm to make preventive arrests in this troubled region in the far west of the country and of recording biometric data of the entire population.

In a Communist China, where the right to privacy and the protection of this massive surveillance project. "People who have done nothing wrong," says a young Beijing executive, for whom security issues justify government interference.

But others say the project has clear political objections. "Obsessed with icts own survival, the Chinese Communist Party is in a headlong rush," Warns Séverine Arsène . "By Placing blind faith in new technologies That are Supposed to strength people into self-discipline, They Wrongly believe it will spare em from HAVING to reform themselves. "

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