How would you feel if your every move and decision were being tracked, recorded, and ranked? Nobody really wants a camera to follow them everywhere they go. Welcome to China where the Chinese government is experimenting a new system of surveillance as part of its overt and covert expansion of government intervention and surveillance. Alarmingly, this surveillance system is increasingly showing up all around the world.
China is widely expanding its surveillance network to strengthen and maintain vigilance of its entire populous by tracking peoples’ movements through cellphones and monitoring content of telephonic conversations and emails. Attempts by the government to transform the internet into a system of surveillance and censorship represent a fundamental threat to media freedom and democracy at large.
Cities in China are under the heaviest CCTV surveillance in the world, according to a new analysis by Comparitech, which provides information for research and comparative analysis of tech services. It has been widely reported that China today has about 200 million CCTV cameras in use, a figure predicted to rise 213% by 2022 to 626 million. China is projected to have one public CCTV camera for every two people. However, the Comparitech report suggests the number could be far higher.
These monitoring systems are tighter and heavier handed in Tibet.
Another striking corroboration of China’s sophisticated surveillance system is the widespread use of highly advanced cameras with artificial intelligence which have facial recognition system and can estimate people’s age, ethnicity and gender. These cameras can run recognition systems that match you with your relatives and your associates and within no time pull out a list of people you frequently meet. These invisible eyes that follow you, wherever you go and whatever you do make you suffocated and generate a strong and lasting sense of fear.
The Chinese government admits that the technology using facial recognition, body scanning, and geo-tracking are matched with personal data to keep tab on people in real life and online. Their master plan is to use these technologies as the backbone of their nascent social credit system.
Social credit system
Since Xi Jinping tightened his power grip on technology and surveillance many new notorious strategies to suppress the freedom of expression have been implemented. These include the introduction of new cyber security law, the launch of Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and the initiation of a social credit system – a score-based system relying on the adoption of desired behavior based on social merit. This system both punishes and rewards key behaviors through a range of initiatives such as public shaming, travel bans, limited or extended business opportunities, and favorable or devalued credit ratings. The ultimate goal is to hammer into citizens the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful”
The point system citizens will incentivise lawfulness, integrity, and trustworthiness with real time impacts on what citizens can and can’t do. Perks like good behavior could lead to privileges of faster internet services, travel ticket booking convenience in flights and trains, and even concessions on advance deposits for renting cars and booking hotels. Having a low social credit score could mean restrictions on traveling, refusal of passport, difficulty in getting employment and being publicly shamed among others.
China’s National Public Credit Information Center reported that it had cancelled airline tickets of 17.5 million people due to their unproductive scores and 5.5 million were barred from booking train tickets in 2018 because of low social credit scores.
China’s technological power grip around the world
For the Communist Party of China the key motive for gathering, analyzing and evaluating data is to preempt and uncover any threat to the social and political stability of its iron grip on China. It is indeed for the first that a government is employing highly advanced technology to expand internet surveillance and censorship to maintain the stability of own rule. China uses surveillance technology to spy on human right defenders, dissidents, and lawyers, deny freedom of speech and subvert anti-communist party campaigns. This abuse of technology fundamentally undermines democracy and threatens human rights.
According to the People’s Daily, the party-owned largest newspaper group in China, the Chinese capital of Beijing is now completely covered by surveillance cameras that watch over “every corner of Beijing city”.
Authoritarian governments across the globe are acquiring state of the art technologies to repress dissent at a rapid pace. For construction of “Smart Cities” in Pakistan, Philippines and Kenya, Chinese companies including Huawei and ZTE are involved in supplying extensive built-in surveillance technologies. Bonifacio Global City in the Philippines outfitted by Huawei has internet-connected cameras that provide “24/7 intelligent security surveillance with data analytics to detect crime and manage traffic.”
Surveillance built with loans from the Chinese Government
Chinas export of surveillance technology began in 2008 during the Beijing Olympic where it marketed its surveillance mechanisms and ‘solutions’. Prior to the Olympics, 300,000 new cameras were installed in the capital. China then invited many foreign officials to observe the effectiveness of its new authoritarian technologically advanced tools. Since then, the Party has exported its ‘solutions’ to many countries with severe human rights records including but not limited to Ecuador, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Kenya, Iran, and Zimbabwe.
China’s collaboration with authoritarian governments across the globe to build large-scale surveillance systems has given rise to global threats to free speech and privacy.
In his research, Prof. Steven Feldman from Boise State University’s School of Public Service found that China is exporting AI-equipped surveillance technology to at least 54 countries around the world with government types ranging from closed authoritarian to flawed democracies”
With China’s help Ecuador now has a new surveillance system, ECU-911 meant to expand automated policing and reduce crime rates. This $200 million deal was jointly signed by China’s State-controlled C.E.I.E.C and Huawei and funded by Chinese loans in exchange for Ecuador providing them with their principal export, oil. Ecuador’s surveillance systems were not only made in China, but were installed by Chinese companies and workers. Chinese even trained the Ecuadorians how to use it.
China’s export of advanced technologies is a show of strength and capability to the world. It represents the country’s ability to compete with established powers (notably the US) in important sectors, reducing dependency and promoting self-reliance. However, Chinese companies often lack transparency and, most importantly, are without a doubt subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party.
The seriousness of the perceived security threats from Chinese technology companies is evident from the US’s notable restriction or outright prohibition of companies such as Huawei. The US has also encouraged its allies to do the same. Australia, Great-Britain, New-Zealand, the US, and Canada have all adopted measures to restrict the use of Huawei devices and Chinese infrastructure.
Security implications of the export of Chinese surveillance systems
Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has vastly extended domestic surveillance, fueling a new generation of companies that make sophisticated technology at ever-lower prices. With China’s global outreach, the domestic systems are spreading far and wide.
Loans from Beijing have made surveillance technology available to governments that could not have previously afforded it. Adding to this lucrative deal is China’s total lack of transparency and accountability of its use. This rapid development and export of China’s surveillance equipment is helping strengthen a future of tech-driven repression, potentially leading to the loss of privacy.
CCP’s export of surveillance systems to willing governments around the globe has given rise to significant national security risks for individual states as a result from their extensive reliance on and cooperation with Chinese state-owned enterprises or CCP member-owned firms in key infrastructure development projects and expansion of the state security apparatus. These high-tech exports including 5G infrastructure, fiber optics, and telecom equipment aid China’s rapidly rising control and influence over its trading partners. Ultimately, these strategic moves could lead up to China’s goal of strengthening its internet sovereignty, securing its position as a great global power; widen its sphere of influence particularly in South-East Asia and Africa with the help of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), promote its economic dominance, and provide an alternative to the United States and its allies.
The advent of modern technology in China granted the government, particularly under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, the opportunity to innovate, the expertise to initiate and the free-hand to implement modern surveillance technologies. This new and extremely effective combination of state control apparatus has proven to be incredibly valuable for the Party in tightening security measures, assuring its long-term survival, shaping public opinion, and suppressing resistance.
CCP’s evolving surveillance strategies in Tibet
The iron curtains on Tibet have been shut for a long time and the entire region is off limits for free and independent visits of international media, journalists, advocates, researchers and government and civil society representatives. The highly repressive situation inside Tibet makes it difficult to understand the scope of digital surveillance in the region. Over the years, China’s surveillance system in Tibet has been growing and evolving at an unprecedented scale. The abundance of manned and unmanned checkpoints, AI, CCTV camera networks and re-education centers under the garb of national security have added another layer of control to an already extremely controlled and oppressed environment in Tibet.
Furthermore, the CCP is constantly upgrading its ‘Great Firewall of China’ to monitor and limit online and offline traffic by creating its ‘own’ internet and limiting access to the ‘traditional’ web. Chinese authorities in Tibet are offering large cash rewards to informants in a bid to stamp out online ‘subversive’ activities curbing free flow and dissemination of information. According to a notice issued on Feb 28 by three government departments of the so called Tibet Autonomous Region information leading to the arrests of social media users deemed disloyal to China can fetch up to 300,000 Yuan ($42,582). People sharing political contents or commentary deemed sensitive they face arrest and heavy criminal penalties.
Surveillance in Tibet and Xinjiang have been widely known as “Orwellian.” In addition to the traditional security surveillance apparatus of the military, police, and neighborhood spies, modern surveillance technologies have been specifically developed and tested in these regions. According to human right reports, tight security measure currently being practiced in Uyghur to suppress the resistance movement were previously successfully developed and practiced in Tibet by Chen Quanquo, TAR’s then party secretary. Following his highly suppressive policies in Tibet, Chen was appointed the party secretary in Xinjiang and continues to be the chief architect of the massive surveillance and mass detention systems in the region.
Spring 2008 witnessed the historic and widespread uprisings in Tibet against China’s rule which were followed by a series of self-immolations by 153 Tibetans demanding the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and freedom in Tibet. These protests prompted China to maximize and fast track the scope and intensity of its security surveillance both in the number of security personnel and digital technology. In January 2012, the central government introduced a new surveillance system called the “grid system of social management”.In preparation of the implementing the new system, cadres in plainclothes were deployed in every Tibetan village and monastery. The campaign ironically called “Benefit the Masses” involved sending some 21,000 communist party cadres from townships and urban areas to live in teams of four or more in each of the 5,000 villages in TAR. Authorities expanded their network of small police posts known as “convenience” stations to every 200-300 meters in urban areas, to quickly respond to any threat. In 2016, a total of 696 convenient police check posts were newly set up.
New digital surveillance efforts include mandatory collection of DNA samples, Wifi network monitoring and widespread implementation of facial and voice recognition to all connected and integrated data analysis platforms. According to Wall Street Journal’s study of police department documents from across China, the Chinese authorities plan to double their current DNA trove to 100 Million records by 2020. DNA sampling of Tibetans on the Tibetan plateau is widespread under the guise of mandatory medical check-ups aimed at controlling the movement of Tibetan people and further restrict their freedom. The author’s interviews with recent arrivals from Tibet confirmed that beginning in July 2013 Tibetans in cities and villages are being asked to undergo free medical checkup and blood samples have been collected.
Tenzin Tsultrim, a researcher at Tibet Policy Institute based in India believes that China might extend its profiling of DNA samples to even foreign tourists, including Tibetans from India and western countries, visiting Tibet.
Also, CCP’s security spending has increased exponentially since 2008. Germany based researcher Adrian Zens has reported that TAR “has had the highest per capital domestic security expenditure of all provinces and regions.” In 2016, per capita domestic security expenses in Sichuan province’s Tibetan regions were nearly three times higher than Sichuan province as a whole”
The author expressed concern over China’s intention to launch Huawei 5G networks in Tibet, which would make it easier to deploy sensors and enable quick transfer of high volumes of data for real-time analysis. Companies facilitating digital surveillance in Tibet include Alibaba, search provider Baidu, chat app operator Tencent holdings, voice recognition company iFlyTek and facial recognition system Sense Time. State subsidies and other government privileges make Tibet a lucrative market for these businesses to invest and employ their latest technologies. Companies operating in Tibet enjoy a highly reduced tax rate of 9% compared to the standard cooperate tax rate of 25% for the rest of China.
The non-transparent and unchecked export and adoption of China’s highly advanced technologies to foreign markets represent severe intelligence and security threats, especially when integrated directly to national security and surveillance apparatuses. China has successfully put at risk the safety and security of dissidents and activists all over the world and strengthened rouge and undemocratic regimes with its export of surveillance technologies.
Another serious danger for states adopting Chinese technologies is their over reliance on foreign technology to run and manage core government systems thus representing a risk to their very sovereignty. CCP has not only been proliferating its methods through free or subsidized hardware, AI technology and training, but has also been gaining insights and direct connection to the information stream of partner-states.
Surveillance information stream can be realistically used in two ways as targeted micro information to gain leverage on important targets and as a means to gather and employ big data; the use of which is essentially endless. In this sense, there is little to no transparency nor accountability and imposes a very high-security threat.
Exporting the surveillance model is also a strategic move by the CCP’s to further test its model, apply it in variable contexts, and gather additional data and intelligence. The Party gains a direct access into partner-states information stream; advantageous information about markets, business opportunities, important actors, etc. and even possibly sensitive information that could be used to persuade or coerce important actors on local or international matters.
The widespread implementation of surveillance, leading to the intrusion of one’s privacy, may become a cause for further unrest in restrictive states. The absence of freedom and opportunities for people to vent their grievances will most likely expound hatred leading to even more collective anger and dissent among suppressed groups.
Inside Tibet, over the last decade, the “nets in the sky and traps on the ground” have further suppressed the fundamental freedoms of expression, movement and assembly. New and highly advanced technologies have given unrestricted and illicit power to the state security apparatus to intensify and escalate mass surveillance. Checkpoints with smart surveillance and facial recognition are present in cities and at crossings between neighboring districts and provinces. Tibetans inside their homes are tracked through their phones and once they step outside surveillance and facial recognition technologies follow them wherever they go. This is the reality of today’s Tibet and if the free world is unwilling to restrict the import of China’s technologies, this could be your reality tomorrow.
*Tenzin Dalha is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute. This opinion piece was originally published in Modern Diplomacy on 7 January 2020.