How Does China Use Mass Surveillance Technology?

In his celebrated work of dystopian fiction “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” author George Orwell once envisioned a “world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon.”

Policeman on the streets in China
A policeman on the streets in China

Describing a society menacingly ruled by a dictatorship solely interested in using its considerable political influence to oppress its own citizenry, [1] many readers in Orwell’s time thought that the author was predicting a social scenario that could never actually come into being. In essence, the notion that a government could spy on its citizens through their television screens seemed like the stuff of science fiction to a populace that couldn’t even afford to purchase television sets.

At the time, in fact, Orwell was writing about the rise of Stalinism in the then-burgeoning Soviet Union. But a year after “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was written, China experienced its own Communist revolution, [2] and in the wake of that event, the country descended into a surveillance state in all but name. As China ushers in a new age of social surveillance technology 70 years after Maoism became the country’s de facto political philosophy, there can be little doubt that we are now dealing with the full realization of Orwell’s dire vision.

Street Lamp in Tiananmen Square - festooned with observation video cameras.
Tiananmen Square Street Lamp with many Observation Camera in Beijing

China and “Big Brother”: A Match Made in Heaven

Indeed, at a time when more and more global businesses are caving in to the demands of powerful Chinese governmental institutions and Communist Party propaganda campaigns, [3] it is more important than ever for freethinking people to stay up-to-date about the practices of dictator Xi Jinping’s corrupt regime. Here are just a few of the most unsettling ways in which the Chinese government currently keeps its citizens under lock and key, and what most people can do to help the country’s most oppressed individuals.

1. The Social Credit System

Along with the “Great Firewall” and facial recognition technology, the social credit system in China is one of the most dystopian surveillance practices currently in operation throughout the country. Much like the consumer credit score system in the United States, this surveillance mechanism is designed to analyze the “worthiness” of a particular individual or business. In this case, however, “worthiness” refers to citizenship practices, loyalty to Party officials, and community giving. In essence, however, the Chinese social credit system is clearly designed to facilitate crackdowns on citizens who pose a threat to absolute Communist Party rule.

Indeed, Orwell himself would have been astonished at the sheer scale of the “Big Brother”-like tactics currently employed by the Chinese government against its own people: When combined with facial recognition technology, for example, the social credit system could allow Party higher-ups to isolate and even imprison anyone caught protesting civil or military policies and human rights abuses perpetrated by government authorities.

Because social credit scores are also determined by the peer groups of surveilled citizens, moreover, such scores can also be used to intimidate the families of “undesirable” individuals. Citizens who fail to march in lockstep with government policies can also lose access to basic human services such as housing and healthcare. Effectively, the system will turn those who question the government into de facto pariahs.

Because of its widespread use, getting around the social credit system could be very much a tall order for even the most tech-savvy of Chinese dissidents: Avoiding any political chatroom discussions that may be construed as “socially unacceptable” and avoiding public protests would be a start, but like the protagonist of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Chinese dissidents will have their work cut out for them when it comes to avoiding the all-seeing eye of the government’s surveillance system.

2. Facial Recognition Technology

A decade ago, few people who were paying attention to China’s treatment of dissidents during political crackdowns would have doubted that the country was on a fast track to a dystopian future. But the introduction of wide-scale facial recognition technology in 2017 within the country’s borders eliminated all doubt that China was entering a new era of political repression. [4]

A CCTV Surveillance camera on a street in China
Chongqing, China – July 22, 2019: Surveillance CCTV camera on the street a common view in Chongqing, the city with the largest number of cameras in China

Already used in conjunction with AI technology to root out political dissidents, facial recognition scanners are currently employed in the monitoring of the behavioral patterns of Chinese citizens, and footage from recent protests in Hong Kong already show the scanners being used to intimidate and identify protestors. [5]

While the Chinese government will trot out its well-worn line that these technologies are designed to “protect” Chinese citizens from unsavory political elements of the population at large, the truth is clearly far more nefarious in its implications. By quietly creating a database of protestors and dissidents, in other words, the Chinese government has largely been able to intimidate its citizens into a state of political inaction.

In effect, technologies like facial recognition scanners will provide Communist Party leaders with the means to secure power for the foreseeable future. For a country that is said to already be harvesting the organs of political dissidents [6] within a brutal prison system, the sheer amount of power that Party leaders currently hold over Chinese citizens is truly breathtaking in both its scale and cruelty.

Despite region-wide bans on the use of face masks during the recent protests in Hong Kong, however, many individuals protesting Chinese policies were able to circumvent facial recognition technologies by “hiding in plain sight” via the use of facial coverings. So far, the move has been effective, but clearly the Chinese government will not give up easily in its bid to win the psychological war it is currently waging on political dissidents.

3. “The Great Firewall”

However, that dissenters in Hong Kong have discovered methods for avoiding governmental surveillance would be news to most citizens within mainland China’s borders. Due to the “Great Firewall of China,” Internet services within the country are heavily censored, and social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are outlawed. If someone were somehow able to access information about political protests in Hong Kong via official state channels, moreover, they might face arrest, imprisonment, and even time within the country’s dubiously-named “reeducation” camps. At best, these individuals would see their social credit scores all but crumble overnight.

Regrettably, help does not appear to be forthcoming from abroad: Even while dissidents and student activists in Hong Kong recite passages from the US constitution at public protests, many American companies have been caught caving to Communist Party demands about censorship in recent months. Keen to take advantage of consumer spending trends within China proper, these companies often help the Chinese government excise hot-button materials from Internet searches or promotional materials. Despite repeated attacks on its servers from Chinese spies, [7] for example, Google has remained committed to securing a foothold in the Chinese economy; the company currently maintains a large business presence within the country.

For many individuals subject to Chinese rule, to say the least, getting around the Great Firewall is not an easy task. With the social credit system in place, many Chinese citizens are currently forced to use VPNs to mask their identities while searching for political news. Even this system is imperfect, however, and one slip-up would undoubtedly put most dissenters squarely in the crosshairs of Party enforcers.

What the Future Holds for China

It is anyone’s guess what China’s surveillance system will look like in 20 years, but there can be little doubt that future crackdowns on dissidents within the embattled nation will be extremely severe. Undoubtedly, the pace of technology within China itself will put more and more of the country’s citizens into a political no man’s land in years to come.

Already, the use of AI in facial recognition technology is becoming widespread within the country, and the potential for so-called “deep fake” videos to be used as weaponized blackmail tools will undoubtedly make video technology a key facet of governmental suppression over the next decade.

When it comes to China, in fact, things may get much worse before they get better. For now, protestors in Hong Kong may just be the country’s greatest hope for long-term survival.

Sources:

1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2019/05/06/as-orwells-1984-turns-70-it-predicted-much-of-todays-surveillance-society/#52b4623d11de

2. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/chinese-rev

3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/the-day-the-nba-fluttered-before-china/2019/10/07/21638f14-e926-11e9-9c6d-436a0df4f31d_story.html

4. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-50587098

5. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/technology/hong-kong-protests-facial-recognition-surveillance.html

6. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/china-forcefully-harvests-organs-detainees-tribunal-concludes-n1018646

7. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/chinese-hackers-who-breached-google-gained-access-to-sensitive-data-us-officials-say/2013/05/20/51330428-be34-11e2-89c9-3be8095fe767_story.html

A police bus in China
Guangzhou, China – Jun 14, 2016: A Chinese police bus on a walking street at a shopping square in Guangzhou city, the capital and largest city of Guangdong province in South China.

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