China’s Surveillance State

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Illustration by Mark Schmeitz
Words by Joseph Jackson

Surveillance is now a fact of life throughout the modern world. It’s near omniscient, though its prevalence varies between countries and their cities — typically dependent on population. Unless you abandon the securities of society, remove yourself from the grid and take on the life of a wild hermit, surveillance is quite literally inescapable. But nowhere in the world is it more prevalent and problematic than China.

With 1.4 billion people, China has heavily embraced surveillance technologies in order to monitor, track and identify its ever-growing population. Combining hundreds of millions of cameras with facial recognition, intrusive data collection, and artificial intelligence, the Chinese government has formed an incredibly complex surveillance system capable of observing, identifying and even scoring its citizens.

On paper, its purpose seems almost justifiable: a statewide system built to incentivise good behaviour, tackling crime and terrorism while encouraging positivity between citizens. Treat those how you expect to be treated and live happily within the rules of the state.

... it poses a chilling new threat to civil liberties in a country that already has one of the most oppressive and controlling governments in the world.
— Anna Mitchell & Larry Diamond, The Atlantic

But therein lies the problem: the rules aren’t defined by the people, but by those in power. And the quantities of data being mined and stored is almost as unbelievable as the pervasive means by which it’s gathered, opening worrying questions about the future of its applications.

One of the most noted means of monitoring is the Chinese social credit score which, while currently optional, is being made mandatory in 2020. Be good and do better to raise your score and enjoy faster internet speeds and other utility services. It’s a great incentive. But commit a crime as small as jaywalking and your misdeed is automatically recorded, assigned to you, and your social score is lowered.

What might seem odd to those outside of China is that it’s introduction isn’t entirely enforced. The social credit score was introduced to fix the country’s lack of trust — something the public agrees on. Regardless, the implications it poses are troubling, as it doesn’t deny the fact that this system will allow political parties to impose their own status quo.

...your Chinese credit score could be higher if you buy items the regime likes—like diapers—and lower if you buy ones it doesn’t, like video games or alcohol.
— Anna Mitchell & Larry Diamond, The Atlantic

And it doesn’t end at consumerism. The entire system is designed to potentially oppress those whose political beliefs do not follow those of the state. Posting on social about contentious subjects, political or not, could see you reduced to a second-class citizen.

It’s a strange realisation that the dystopian surveillance state depicted in so many fictional novels is becoming (or has become) a non-fiction reality. And while it’s all well and good bringing attention to the developments in China, it should ring alarm bells closer to home for what’s happening in our own countries.

As Chinese innovation start to get ahead, so too will Chinese ethics infiltrate the rest of the world.
— Michael K. Spencer, Tech Futurist

Like with many tech products, China leads in the surveillance market, especially when it comes to facial recognition. And like with most of the country’s products, the world takes after their exports — what works for China will work for governments around the world. If it’s any consolation in this troubling future, some surveillance cameras are integrated as pigeon drones, which is probably the funnest way I can think of being pried on.

Keep reading:

China's Surveillance State Should Scare Everyone
Chinese Facial Recognition Will Take over the World in 2019
10 ways China watches its citizens