Skip to main content

People check their phones during the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China, November 17, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

As part of a new multimillion-dollar project in Xinjiang, the Chinese government is attempting to “build a fortress city with technologies.” If this sounds Orwellian, that’s because it is. According to the Sina online news portal, the project is supposed to strengthen the authorities’ hands against unexpected social unrest. Using “big data” from various sources, including the railway system and visitors’ systems in private residential compounds, its ultimate aim is to “predict … individuals and vehicles posing heightened risks” to public safety.

And this isn’t the only project in China that aims to expand surveillance while denying people privacy rights. Across the country, local governments are spending billions of dollars implementing sophisticated technological systems for mass surveillance. The consequences for human rights are ominous.

Beijing’s impulse to surveil is certainly not new. But mass migration and privatization during the transition to a market economy have undermined the power of older practices that allowed the state to keep tabs on people, such as the “hukou” residency registration system. To bolster and broaden surveillance, the Ministry of Public Security turned to new technologies, launching the Golden Shield Project in 2000. The project aims to build a nationwide, intelligent digital surveillance network capable of identifying and locating individuals, as well as offering the state immediate access to personal records at the push of a button.

This dystopian project is bearing fruit. China’s pervasive Internet censorship and its use of countless security cameras in public spaces are well known. Recent reporting reveals authorities’ aspirations to enable facial recognition through upgraded cameras, to calculate citizens’ “social credit” scores based on economic and social status and to establish a national DNA database that logs genetic code irrespective of anyone’s connection to a crime.

But we still know little of China’s full range of efforts to revolutionize surveillance. We have few details about China’s use of voice and speech recognition. There has not been any investigation into China’s nationwide “safe city” projects that vow to promote public safety using technology. We know even less about how China plans to use big data for crime prediction.

If the Chinese government’s Orwellian drive at home does not alarm the international community, its willingness to export that approach should.

What we do know is that China has no effective privacy protections and that it often treats peaceful speech as a crime.

It is also worrying that some of these systems are designed to identify “focus personnel” — a catchall term for both those with a criminal record and those whom authorities deem threatening or antisocial, including peaceful critics, political activists, minorities or people with a drug use record.

The story of Wu Bing may offer a taste of what is to come. Wu is one of nearly 3 million individuals whose name is logged into a police database known as the “Online Dynamic Control and Early Warning System for Drug Addicts.” Wu kicked the habit in 2005, but whenever he uses his ID — when he checks into a hotel, for example — the police are alerted and sometimes force him to take a drug test.

What’s worse, the Chinese government is promoting its surveillance model abroad. It has pushed the concept of “Internet sovereignty” — the idea that, instead of a free World Wide Web, a country’s rulers should determine what netizens can say and read. And its efforts are aided by Chinese companies eager to peddle their wares. In 2014, a Human Rights Watch report found that Chinese telecom giant ZTE sold technology and provided training to monitor mobile phones and Internet activity to Ethiopia’s repressive government. Meanwhile, closed-circuit television cameras and monitoring systems made by Chinese companies — some high-definition and equipped with facial and movement recognition powers — have been sold to countries around the world, including BrazilEcuadorKenya and Britain.

But we are beginning to see a backlash against Chinese companies with strong ties to the Chinese government, prompted by security concerns. In July 2017, Germany became the first European Union nation to tighten rules on foreign corporate acquisitions; this ensures that Germany retains control over critical technologies, including artificial intelligence applications. Others, including the United States and Britain are mulling similar restrictions.

Yet foreign governments need to take stronger and more systematic action. They should first understand and review the ways in which the transfer of technologies used for abusive purposes is taking place. The United States needs to review and enhance a long-standing ban on exporting policing and “crime control” equipment to China. The sanctions, passed in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, have been largely ineffective in preventing U.S.-based companies from selling software and hardware for surveillance purposes. That review should ensure that the list of equipment barred is regularly updated or supplemented to cover the latest technologies and that the sanctions are vigorously enforced.

If the Chinese government’s Orwellian drive at home does not alarm the international community, its willingness to export that approach should. It’s not just the liberty of people in China at stake — it is the liberty of people across the globe.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country