Little Red Podcast

The Han-opticon6 min read

China’s dystopian surveillance networks – Louisa Lim


Surveillance drones disguised as birds. Cameras in classrooms monitoring students for signs of distraction. Sensors embedded in hats transmitting brainwave data from workers on the production line, to scan for depression, anxiety or rage. A network of cameras across rural villages, with the longterm aim to “turn every television set and mobile phone in the countryside into a security monitoring terminal.” All of these technologies are being piloted in China, as the country harnesses artificial intelligence and cutting-edge tech to transform itself into a modern surveillance state.

China is becoming a mashup of every dystopian movie: Minority Report, Bladerunner and 1984 all rolled into one. The authoritarian security state is rolling out systems of algorithmic governance, where monitoring and surveillance can be outsourced to individuals and companies, which are intended to become self-regulating and self-policing. The trend appears unstoppable, with few able to resist the Chinese government’s carrot-and-stick approach, including Western multinational companies. “I don’t think it can be rolled back,” says Samantha Hoffman from the Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies, “but we can certainly make efforts to understand the system and try to prevent its further expansion.”

Nowhere is the meeting between big data and Big Brother more sinister than in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where the Communist Party has trialled an array of surveillance tactics with the stated aim of ensuring stability and quashing a separatist movement. These include collecting blood and DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans and blood types from all residents between the ages of 12 and 65. Facial recognition technology – and possibly voice recognition technology – are already widespread, and the state may be detaining more than one million Uyghurs in internment camps, according to reports heard by a UN panel. Spyware apps are mandatory in Xinjiang, scanning mobile phones for material deemed dubious – for instance “terrorist and illegal religious videos, images, e-books and electronic documents” – and are reportedly being adopted by public security agencies across the country, not just in Xinjiang.

“China is becoming a mashup of every dystopian movie”  

Chinese tech companies, once seen as capable only of imitation, are now leapfrogging their Western counterparts in some of these surveillance fields, unhindered by the ethical concerns that may hamper their uptake in the West. Elsa B Kania, of The Centre for A New American Security’s Technology and National Security Programme, says Chinese companies are not just innovating, but becoming world leaders, and are “starting to emerge at the forefront of particular disciplines within AI such as facial recognition, as well as smart voice natural language processing. In some cases, you have Chinese start-ups placing at the top of international competitions for some of these applications.”

Beijing is also rolling out a social credit system, using mass data collection to monitor and nudge citizens’ behaviour through strategic rewards and punishments. This is straight out of the dystopian TV series Black Mirror: in one episode, a woman is barred from buying a plane ticket due to her plummetting social ranking. In China, this is reality: one state-run media report admitted that 11 million train trips and 4 million plane trips have already been blocked due to low social credit scores. Such punishment can be triggered by misbehaviour ranging from the failure to pay back debts to spreading rumours, or even smoking or using expired tickets on trains. Conversely, a low credit score can be boosted by regular donations to charity. A senior official recently said that the system should ensure that “discredited people become bankrupt,” to underline the necessity of compliance.

“Part of what social management is supposed to do in social credit is integrating everyday economic, political and social activities together,” explains Hoffman. “It makes participation in your own management somehow more acceptable, because there are benefits to participating.” The social credit system is due to be implemented nationwide in 2020. One survey by a Chinese newspaper in 2014 found that 80% of respondents actually supported such a move, believing it would help build trust.

“11 million train trips and 4 million plane trips have already been blocked due to low social credit scores”

The system governs NGOs and companies, including foreign corporations, as well as individuals. The most recent example is China’s Civil Aviation Authority’s demand that 44 foreign airlines adopt Beijing’s description of Taiwan, rather than listing it as a country. Faced with threats that they could lose access to China’s massive market, most companies fell into line. “For China, it’s almost a low risk move,” says Hoffman. “They say, ‘If you don’t comply with this then that’s obviously going to affect your ability to do business in China.’ So airlines, acting in the way that you would expect them to, comply, and governments have a limited toolkit for responding to that. You can’t respond to it reciprocally without undermining liberal democratic systems.”

Innovation in surveillance and control tends to be state-driven, with official departments partnering with ostensibly private tech companies to develop new surveillance technologies. In Guangdong province, Tencent’s Wechat app is working with authorities to introduce a digital ID card using facial recognition, while tech firm Iflytek is collaborating with the Public Security department to research the use of surveillance technology to control scams. These partnerships are a cause for concern, according to Lotus Ruan from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. “This marriage between the state and private companies … is a worrying phenomenon to me,” she says. “If you look at all of the data projects, we have seen private companies not only are required to share user information with government and law enforcement forces, but big players and industry leaders are actually building their business model around the needs of the state.”

As private companies continue to collect huge amounts of data from citizens with little or no transparency, this information could easily be used by the state for authoritarian ends. “The Alibaba City Brain project, on paper, is being used to improve urban planning and solve issues like traffic jams,” Ruan warns. “But it can also arguably be used in monitoring where there would be a public gathering. When you have a state that is lacking transparency and accountability, the use of security is arguably a problematic concept.”

China aims to be the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2025 – a goal which could reshape the geopolitical landscape. Surveillance technologies developed by Chinese companies are likely to be commoditised, and marketed to other countries which wish to exert control over their populations. China has already begun to export such technologies, most chillingly this year through the adoption of GPS trackers for Chinese Muslims undertaking the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. With reports emerging that Beijing is compiling a registry of Uyghurs overseas, it looks like China’s Han-opticon of surveillance tactics could be going global. ∎


This essay is a companion piece to a recent episode of the Little Red Podcast, hosted by Graeme Smith amd Louisa Lim.