In the relatively quiet Kaijiang County, nestled within China’s Sichuan Province, a significant transformation is underway. Here, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not just maintaining, but aggressively expanding its vast surveillance network. This network, part of the nationwide “Skynet” system, has become a symbol of the CCP’s relentless pursuit of absolute control over its populace.
The recent procurement initiatives in Kaijiang shed light on the extent of this ambition. Local authorities are acquiring sophisticated cameras that boast the capability to “support detection of more than 60 faces simultaneously,” as per an August procurement notice. These cameras are designed to process up to 100 faces per second and are equipped with a staggering storage capacity of 1.8 billion images. For a county with a mere 410,000 residents, such capacities speak volumes about the scope and scale of surveillance the CCP deems necessary. The procurement document explicitly demands “no blind spots,” highlighting the intent for comprehensive monitoring.
Justifying these measures, officials claim they serve to protect the public, echoing sentiments published in the People’s Daily, a CCP mouthpiece, which states that China’s surveillance infrastructure leaves “criminals with nowhere to hide.” While many Chinese citizens do report a heightened sense of safety from violent crime, the deeper implications of this surveillance network extend far beyond public safety.
Indeed, these tools of surveillance have a dual purpose: while ostensibly deterring crime, they also significantly bolster the CCP’s ability to maintain its power. With such advanced technology, dissidents and protesters can be tracked as easily as common criminals. This dual use of technology illustrates a calculated strategy by the CCP to use public safety as a veneer for political control.
The true scale of China’s surveillance state is elusive, shrouded in governmental secrecy. However, efforts by analysts, including a team led by Martin Beraja of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, provide some insight. By analyzing 3 million public-sector procurement contracts from 2013 to 2019, the team estimated the procurement of around 8.5 million surveillance cameras in 139 cities. This figure, however, seems conservative compared to the People’s Daily’s 2017 claim of Skynet comprising 20 million cameras, and other estimates suggesting numbers in the hundreds of millions.
China’s surveillance apparatus is not limited to cameras. It encompasses a vast array of activities and technologies, integrating everyday actions into its monitoring matrix. Purchasing train tickets, using SIM cards, hailing rides via DiDi (China’s Uber equivalent), and even engaging on WeChat, the omnipresent messaging app, all require a state-issued ID, making tracking and surveillance almost inescapable. The COVID-19 pandemic saw this surveillance intensify, with the mandatory use of a tracking app that, while ostensibly for public health, was also used to suppress assembly and protests, as evidenced in Zhengzhou.
Despite this Orwellian reality, Chinese public opinion on government surveillance is complex. A 2018 survey found that 82% of respondents were in favor of CCTV surveillance, with state monitoring of emails and internet usage receiving 61% support. However, these surveys are likely heavily influenced by a fear of government retribution and control. A revealing study in 2022 showed that university students, when informed about surveillance’s role in political repression, exhibited a decline in support for these measures. The pandemic and the state’s draconian COVID-19 controls may also have influenced public sentiment towards state monitoring.
The CCP, nevertheless, continues its relentless march towards an ever-more invasive surveillance state. Beyond cameras, it has deployed phone-tracking devices and is amassing voice prints and biometric data from the public. The state seems well-equipped to identify and target dissent, even if public support for such intrusive measures has diminished.
This growing surveillance apparatus epitomizes the CCP’s determination to wield absolute surveillance for its purposes.China’s lack of respect and consideration for personal privacy and freedom is not just an frightening development within China’s borders but as a global concern. The Chinese surveillance state, a blend of technology, governance, and human rights, continues to grow, reflecting a concerning trend in the modern world where technology’s potential for societal good is increasingly overshadowed by its use for control and suppression.