Inside China’s Surveillance State, Built on High Tech and a Billion Spies


BEIJING — In 2021, a local police bureau in Beijing released an initiative on Project Sharp Eyes. His description offers a chilling taste of what the future of mass surveillance in China will be like.

“Security cameras automatically capture people’s faces and match home rental information, hospital, hotel and school records, and summarize an activity log of different groups of people. With all the information and data collected, an alarm model would be created to automatically identify abnormal activities.”

Exactly how the model will be implemented is not yet known. But combined with China’s existing surveillance system, Project Sharp Eyes could allow community workers to proactively go to people’s doorsteps to investigate a crime that hasn’t even happened yet.

His goal is to create a system that literally aims to “prevent crime before it happens”.

But how do security cameras create such a massive digital leviathan system? This is the result of a surveillance system that China has had in place for 25 years.

Birth of a nation of security cameras

In 1998, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security launched the “Golden Shield Project”, which focused on building a basic database and technology platform, as well as a network firewall initial to realize the “Technology for a stronger police”. The “Safe City” public video surveillance project took advantage of the 2008 Olympic Games to deploy the project in all large and medium-sized cities.

At this point, China was still learning on its feet. Following terrorist attacks such as the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the London Underground bombings of 2005, police services around the world installed cameras in public places in major cities to help maintain public order.

China has quickly overtaken the West in surveillance technology. After 2016, it became the world’s largest surveillance market, with government purchases accounting for 60% of China’s nearly trillion dollar market. According to analysts, out of nearly a billion cameras in the world today, more than half are Chinese.

According to this calculation, all four cameras in the world have a Chinese public market. In 2017, a BBC journalist was allowed to challenge the Sky Eye system and make a documentary in Guizhou, southwest China, where in less than seven minutes his face was reported by a base of data then intercepted by the city police.

Society to monitor society

In 2016, the Chinese government launched a new round of large-scale video camera construction known as the “Sharp Eyes Project”. While CCTV in the world’s major countries is limited only 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 end up being in a specific grid

Grid-based management, as she puts it, involves community workers being in charge of a grid of residential areas, speculating on security issues and nipping problems in the bud. Surveillance is no longer only used to monitor specific groups of people or to uncover specific criminal offenses, but has been given a meaning for the functioning of social services and the prevention of security risks.

What is remarkable is that the users of the surveillance system have changed from police to ordinary people, playing the role of “residents’ housekeeper”, and they could just be a familiar grandmother 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 spans 9.6 million square kilometers and a population of 1.4 billion. Each location and each 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.

Alternative to a police state

The implicit “surveillance state” represented by the “Sharp Eyes Project” and the management of the network embodies a clear choice of the Chinese government in social governance, which differs from other explicit “police state” authoritarian states. On the one hand, Beijing makes every effort to collect social information, on the other, it is fully vigilant against the excessive development of police power. Both of these trends have become increasingly evident over the past decade.

With the development of the market economy since the 1980s, the restrictions on mobility since the Mao era could not last with the flow of labor and the growth of the population. From the mid-1980s to now, China’s population has increased from 1 billion to 1.4 billion, while criminal offense cases have risen to 4.7 million in 2020, nine times more than 40 years ago. previously. With growing concern about criminal offences, the case resolution rate has dropped from 70% to less than 40%. This indicates the pressure to maintain security that Beijing faces with China’s rapid economic growth.

But what is unique is that China is always conscious of restraining an overly powerful police force. Even in the 1990s, when China’s crime rate problems were at their peak, the police-to-population ratio was 7.4 per 10,000, significantly lower than the global average of 35 police officers per 10,000. Beijing politics, there have been concerns about the “political credibility” of the police, whose chief, for example, was recently fired for being politically “unreliable” rather than corrupt.

Sacrificing freedom for “security”

Paradoxically, a surveillance system that involves strong control will not necessarily encounter opposition from the population being monitored. In many official propaganda films, interviewees are happy to see Project Sharp Eyes implemented, and even neighboring communities would compete over who could install the equipment first. China has called this whole social surveillance system “welfare” because “security” itself is the greatest benefit to the people.

Without its role in the “revolution”, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claimed its legitimacy in China’s rapid economic growth. But when economic growth slows, “security” would be another benefit it provides. “Safety” and “security” are clearly narratives that Beijing is proud of, as the two concepts have become an overwhelming priority. In its propaganda, Western countries – especially the United States – are described 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 have quite a favorable attitude towards surveillance programs, believing that sacrificing freedom for “security” is a pretty good deal. The cultural obsession with “security” and government manipulation in its name have created a mutually reinforcing cycle.

CCTV cameras monitor an intersection in downtown Beijing

Todd Lee/Zuma

A return to the “ground line”

China’s current pandemic prevention policy is very different from that of the rest of the world, which may be the result of the ultimate interpretation of the “security” logic. Whether the virus has changed or not, the behaviors of officials are dominated by the excuse of “safety” and the public is persuaded by the fear of waiting in line. The flexibility and adjustments that a normal society should have are now unacceptable in Beijing’s logic.

The CCP has always emphasized 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 ​​CCP governance.

Recent advances in technology have made large-scale digital surveillance possible. And now, with longstanding “mass line” governance, China can combine it with advances in technology to build a sophisticated system of social surveillance.

The “Sharp Eyes Project” and “grid-based management” show that Beijing’s system is effective in identifying and reducing security risks, perfectly avoiding the “dictator’s paradox” by being less dependent on violent agencies.

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