Mass surveillance in China

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Mass surveillance in China is the complicated network of surveillance used by the Chinese government to supervise the actions of Chinese citizens.[1] In China, mass surveillance mainly comes from the government, though non-publicized corporate surveillance is also a possibility. There are multiple ways in which the Chinese state engages in surveillance, including Internet surveillance, camera surveillance in public,[2] the recent social credit surveillance, and other supporting digital technologies.[3] Chinese mass surveillance has witnessed an increased spending, intensity, and coverage in recent years.[2]

History and Overview[edit]

Mass surveillance in China started to emerge in the Maoist era, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.[4] Mao invented this mechanism of control that encompasses the entire nation and its people to strengthen his power in the newly founded country.[4] In the early years, when technology was not yet quite developed in China, mass surveillance was realized through dissemination of information by word of mouth.[4] Chinese people kept a watchful eye on one another and reported inappropriate behaviors that infringed upon dominant social ideals of the time.[4]

In the late 20th century and 21st century, as a result of the Chinese economic reform, computer and Internet technology spread to China and were developed.[5] As a result, more means of mass surveillance started to emerge. The most notable mechanisms are mass camera surveillance on the streets, Internet surveillance, and the newly invented surveillance based on social credit and identity.[2][3]

By technique[edit]

Internet surveillance[edit]

The Chinese government has been strengthening its tight control over the Internet and digital communication. There are more than 750 million Internet users in China, and what they can do or cannot do online is strictly regulated.[6] In 2017, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) released a new regulation which imposed restrictions on the production and distribution of online news.[7] The regulation required all platforms, such as online blogs, forums, websites, social media apps to be managed by party-sanctioned editorial staff.[7] These editorial staff must obtain approval from the national or local government Internet and information offices and get training from the central government.[7]

Launched in 2011, WeChat, China's most popular messaging app, has been under surveillance by "Internet police". Any message sent through a WeChat group is monitored by the app's operator Tencent which is a Chinese technology giant, and those conversations will be kept for six months.[8] Tencent is using big data technology to watch WeChat users. Even conversations deleted by WeChat users can be retrieved back by Tencent, especially when the authority wants to find evidence of a suspect due to illegal activities.[9] Authorities have admitted that they can retrieve archived messages once sent on WeChat.[9][10] Tencent CEO Ma Huateng said that they will not use user chats for big data analysis or invade in the user's privacy.[9][10]

In 2017, the Chinese government has required all Sina Weibo (microblogging) account users to register with their real names and identity numbers by September 15.[11] Weibo users who refused to register their accounts with real names were not able to post, repost and comment on Weibo.[11]

At the beginning of 2018, Ma Huateng, chairman and CEO of Tencent, said that WeChat's MAU(monthly active users) across the globe reached a billion for the first time.[12] Since Tencent has good cooperation with the central government to implement self-censorship and mass surveillance, it enjoys the dominance in China. Other messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, Messenger, Line, etc., are mostly blocked or even forced out of the Chinese market.

Chinese Internet users have several ways to circumvent censorship. Netizens generally rely on VPN, i.e.“Virtual Private Networks”, to get access to those blocked websites and messaging apps. However, in July 2017, the Chinese government required telecommunications carriers, including China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom to block individual access to VPNs by February 1.[13] In August 2017, more than 60 VPNs, such as Astrill and Express VPN, were removed from the China App Store.[14] VPNs that are allowed to be used in China must be approved by state regulators and use the state network infrastructure.[15] For those sensitive words which can be censored online, Chinese netizens use puns and Chinese homophones to communicate.[16]

Sex and Pornography on the Internet[edit]

Movies, books, comics, or videos involving sexually sensitive or provocative material are typically banned on Chinese Internet.[17] The government denounces sex and porn culture and actively establishes sex education for teenagers and high school students that diverge them from developing an interest in this culture.[17] Additionally, there are sections in China's criminal law that explicitly forbid the production, dissemination, or sale of obscene material, for which people can be imprisoned.[17][18] In the 1980s, there was a campaign against "spiritual pollution," referring to sex-related content.[17][18] In 2018, a Chinese erotic writer who wrote and sold a gay porn novel called Occupy online was sentenced a 10-and-a-half year jail time.[19]

The most frequent way Chinese people get access to otherwise banned sexual material is through the Internet. Web administrators are frequently on the lookout for sexual information online and remove those information as soon as they find it.[17] However, the number of sex-related pages are still increasing, according to research done by university professors.[17] The government actively surveils the Internet for sex-related material and censors those information, while Chinese netizens try hard to access the information they desire to see.[17] For example, China's Ministry of Public Security collected intelligence agents from student groups to spy on people's Internet activities.[20] On the other hand, erotic activism arose online when government efforts at porn censorship and surveillance heightened during 2010.[17]

Camera surveillance[edit]

A camera monitoring warning sign near the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, Lhasa, Tibet, 2018

By 2018, the Chinese government has installed close to 200 million surveillance cameras across the country, which amounts to approximately 1 camera per 7 citizens.[2] For reference, approximately 40 million surveillance cameras were active in the United States in 2014[21], which amounts to approximately 1 camera per 8 citizens. According to official statistics in 2012, more than 660 of the mainland's 676 cities use surveillance systems.[22] In Guangdong province, 1.1 million cameras were installed in 2012, with plans to increase the number to 2 million by 2015 at a predicted cost of 12.3 billion yuan.[22] By 2020, the Chinese government expects to integrate private and public cameras, leveraging the country's technological expertise in facial recognition technology to build a nation-wide surveillance network.[23] After taking camera shots on the streets, the government uses an artificial intelligence system and facial recognition technology to identify each person captured and create an activity profile for the person.[2][23]

The facial recognition technology has its limitations.[2] There are technological and systematic restrictions to this innovation.[2] For example, A supervisor at an artificial intelligence firm that provides research support for this technology has stated that the system of activity profile can only look for a maximum of 1,000 people in one search.[2] Additionally, the system cannot work 24/7, and will require reactivation in cases of extreme need.[2]

Social credit surveillance[edit]

In connection to the previous section on camera surveillance, the Chinese government is also developing a Social Credit System that rates the trustworthiness of its citizens by analyzing their social behaviors and collecting fiscal and government data.[24][25][26] After capturing people's activities and identifying them through facial recognition techniques, the government links their activities to this personal credit so that the information is restored in a quantifiable and measurable way. Under this "algorithmic surveillance system," people, their identity, and their actions are connected to a "citizen score."[27] By utilizing information gathered about the citizens' activities captured by cameras and analyzing them with artificial intelligence and data mining techniques, the state calculates and updates their “citizen score" regularly. Participation in this system is currently voluntary, but will become mandatory in 2020.[3][25][27] As of now, many Chinese citizens have already started using the Sesame Credit created and operated by Alibaba, an E-commerce company.[27] In fact, the Sesame Credit is designed such that people with good credit can live a more convenient life than people with low credits scores.[3][25] For instance, people with high credit scores don't need to pay deposits when checking in at hotels, or can obtain a visa to Europe more quickly than others.[24][25] On the other hand, people with low credit scores can't easily eat in restaurants, register at hotels, purchase things, or travel freely.[24][25]

Other new digital technologies[edit]

China has topnotch facial recognition technology in the world[28]. Nowadays in China, facial recognition technology is integrated with other high technologies, such as big data and artificial intelligence so as to build a national surveillance and data-sharing platform.[29] Facial recognition technology has been used in many different fields. In the domain of social security, facial recognition technology has been installed in banks, airports and shopping malls to monitor crowds. In 2018, “Electronic Police at Zebra Crossing” or also known as “the Smart System for Collecting Evidence of Jaywalking” has been put into use in Shenzhen.[30] The smart system is equipped with facial recognition technology to record jaywalkers and non-motor vehicles which break traffic rules.[31] When shopping in the self-service markets of Alibaba and Jingdong which are top two Chinese e-commerce companies, customers can use e-payments through "the facial recognition system" linking with their bank cards.[31] Moreover, Baidu, a Chinese multinational technology company, cooperated with China Southern Airlines to install the facial recognition technology in Jiangying airport, Nanyang Henan province for boarding.[32]

"Robot police" has been installed in some public places such as train stations, museums, tourist attractions, etc. However, the market of "robot police" is still in its early stage, and one big challenge the government needs to deal with is its high price.[33] If the price of a "robot police" can be lowered down to 100,000 RMB, the market will more easily accept it.[33]

Furthermore, the Chinese government also uses big data technology to analyze and monitor people's online behavior, such as Zhima (Sesame) Credit which ranks its users based on their online activities.[34]

By region[edit]

Mainland (excluding frontiers)[edit]

In Mainland China, one of the most important ongoing projects is "Skynet" project with an installation of more than 200 million video surveillance cameras.[35] The real-time pedestrian tracking and recognition system can precisely identify people's clothing, gender and even age, as well as motor vehicles and non-motor vehicles.[36] Besides, the surveillance system can instantly match a person's image with his/her personal identification and information.[36] Besides, “Golden Shield” is also a giant mechanism of censorship and surveillance that blocks tens of thousands of websites which may pose negative reports upon the Communist Party's narrative and control.[37]


The Chinese government sent groups of cadres to Tibetan villages as part of the "Benefit the Masses" campaign in 2012.[38] The purpose was to improve service and living quality in Tibet, and to educate the locals about the importance of social stability and adherence to the Party.[38] The local people were also supervised in order to prevent uprisings from taking place.[38]

In Tibet, users of mobile phones and the Internet must identify themselves by name.[39] In June 2013, the government reported that the program had reached full realization.[39] An official said that "the real-name registration is conducive to protecting citizens' personal information and curbing the spread of detrimental information."[39]

In 2018, during the Saga Dawa (the holy fourth month for Tibetan Buddhists) in Lhasa, the government enforced stricter rules than before, according to Global Times.[40] People were also discouraged from engaging in religious practices in this month.[40] When they did, they were supervised closely.[40]

As a way of protesting, some Tibetans engage in self-immolation, which is a tradition of protest against Chinese control that goes a long way back to the mid-20th century.[41]


In Xinjiang and especially its capital city, Ürümqi, there are security checkpoints and identification stations almost everywhere.[42] People need to show their ID cards and have their faces scanned by cameras at a security station before entering a supermarket, a hotel, a train station, a highway station, and others.[42] The ratio of police officers stationed in Xinjiang to population is higher than elsewhere.[43] This strict enforcement of security checks is partly a response to the separatist movement in 2009 associated with some Muslim Uyghurs.[42] Additionally, the cameras on streets are denser there than elsewhere, and people's activities are captured and matched to their identity though the facial recognition technology discussed above.[42] There are in fact 40,000 facial recognition cameras around.[43] The information collected through the cameras are matched to individual profiles that include previously collected biometric data, such as DNA samples and voice samples.[44] People are rated a level of "trustworthiness" based on their profiles, which also takes into account their familial relations and social connections.[44] These levels include "trustworthy," "average," and "untrustworthy."[44]

Xinjiang residents, especially those from the Muslim Uyghurs ethnic group, are not allowed to practice certain religious acts.[43] They are also more actively and strictly monitored by "surveillance apps, voice printing, and facial recognition cameras."[43] The government has set up re-education camps in Xinjiang for the local people to improve their compliance.[43] People in the re-education camps are usually closely watched by guards and are not allowed to contact people outside the facilities, including family and friends.[44] They learn about Mandarin Chinese characters and the rules they need to follow in those camps.[44]

The security spending in Xinjiang ballooned in 2017, witnessing an increase of 90% to $8.52 billion, as compared to 2016.[43] Since at least 2017, Chinese police have forced Uyghurs in Xinjiang to install the Jingwang Weishi app on their phones, allowing for remote monitoring of the phone's contents.[45][46]

Hong Kong[edit]

Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, or known as the pro-democracy campaign, aims to demand full democracy so that Hong Kong people can have the right to nominate and elect the head of the Hong Kong government.[47] However, pro-democracy key figures, such as some lawmakers, academics and political activists are under the central government's surveillance. Some activists engaged in the umbrella movement are intimidated or arrested by policemen.[48] News reports, social media posts and images about Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests are censored in mainland China.[49]

Internet users and civil society groups in Hong Kong have been facing cyberattacks and debated threats to privacy online during the past few years.[50] In June 2014, a white paper on the "one country, two systems" agreement issued by Beijing articulated that the central government has "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong and the power to run local affairs is authorized by the central government.[51][52]


The "SkyNet" technology used by the Chinese government to monitor the population through pervasive cameras covers everyone appearing under the camera network.[53] Taiwanese officials informed Taiwanese people living in mainland China about the increasing prevalence of surveillance on their activities.[53] This has become an heightened concern since China started offering residence cards and a full national status to people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau who were living in the mainland.[54] As a result of Beijing's initiative, individuals such as students and workers can apply for a residence permit after residing in mainland China for six months.[53] This policy extends social service and medical benefits to them, who now enjoy those services in the same way as other Chinese.[53] Taiwanese authorities are worried about surveillance on Taiwanese because of the residence cards issued to them, which provide their identity to the Chinese government and subject them to the same kind of surveillance regime composed of cameras, facial recognition technology, and social credit.[55]

Spending estimates[edit]

In 2010, domestic security expenditure exceeded spending on external defense for the first time. By 2016, domestic security spending surpassed external defense by 13 percent.[56]

In 2017, China's spending on domestic security was estimated to be $197 billion, excluding spending on "security-related urban management and surveillance technology initiatives."[56] In the same year, the central government's total public security spending in Xinjiang has reached 57.95 billion RMB ($9.16 billion), which is ten times compared with the previous decade.[57]

In 2018, China will spend US$20 billion purchasing CCTV cameras and other surveillance equipments.[58] This large amount of purchase may reach half the size of the global market's.[58]

Current affairs[edit]

In January 2014, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television announced that real names would be required of users who wished to upload videos to Chinese web sites. The agency explained that the requirement was meant to "prevent vulgar content, base art forms, exaggerated violence and sexual content in Internet video having a negative effect on society."[59] In 2018, Chinese authority acknowledged for the first time that they could get access to WeChat users' deleted messages without their permission.[60] The Chaohu city discipline inspection and supervision commission retrieved a suspect's entire conversations that had already deleted.[60]

As part of a broader surveillance push, the Chinese government encouraged the use of various mobile phone apps. Local regulators launched mobile apps for "national security" purposes and to allow citizens to report violations, "which is a way for residents to conduct social supervision," according to a commentary in the Global Times.[61][62] Besides mobile phone apps, the Chinese central government also adopts facial recognition technology, robot police, big data collection targeting online social media platforms to monitor its citizens.[63]


In 2011, the Beijing Municipal Science & Technology Commission proposed a mobile phone tracking program, to be called the Information Platform of Realtime Citizen Movement, which was ostensibly intended to ease traffic flow on the city's streets.[64]

Officials said that in the four years up to 2012, 100,000 crimes had been solved with the aid of the cameras. However, a critic said that "one of the most important purposes of such a smart surveillance system is to crack down on social unrest triggered by petitioners and dissidents".[65] In 2013, it was reported that the government saw the severe atmospheric pollution in Chinese cities as a security threat, because the CCTV cameras were being rendered useless.[66]

In December 2013, the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology asked China Telecom, a major landline and mobile telephone company, to put a real name registration scheme into effect and to "regulate the dissemination of objectionable information over the network" in 2014.[67]

In 2016, China introduced a cybersecurity law, requiring Internet companies to store all network logs for at least six months, and store all personal data and critical information within mainland China.[68]

In 2018, Chinese law-enforcement officials have been equipped with facial recognition glasses to apprehend criminals and drug smugglers.[69] This technology was adopted at 2017 Qingdao International Beer Festival.[69] With the assistance of it, policemen captured 25 criminals and 19 drug smugglers.[69]

In March 2019, a regulation on small video apps which is described as method "preventing teenagers' Internet addiction" by China is announced by China which allows related apps tracing users' location and analyzing users' behaviors to forcely trigger into "teenager mode". It is started in March 2019 and it will be used in all small video app in June.[70]

In 2019, China announced that the third generation of Resident Identity Card will be able to trace location. Blood information will be also collected and recorded in the card.[71]

By 2020, according to an official document released in 2015, the Chinese government aims to build a nationwide video surveillance network for ensuring public security which will be "omnipresent, fully networked, working all the time and fully controllable".[57]

See also[edit]


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