Zooming In: China’s Surveillance State

Nearing its seventieth anniversary, George Orwell’s 1984 remains eerily relevant in today’s modern world. In America, it most recently manifested itself as a spread of ‘fake news’ and ‘fake news’ accusations, distorted reality, and overt manipulation during the 2016 election. Though American citizens openly condemn these infringements upon their freedom, their criticisms seem small when compared to the impact of mass surveillance in China. In fact, Orwell’s dystopia most clearly comes to life far from the Western world.

Xinjiang, an autonomous region hidden by the mountains and desert, has materialized the infinite telescreens which loomed over the citizens in 1984. Historically known for its high percentage of Uighurs, a minority population, it has consistently been a source of protests and terrorism acts since its integration into China. Most recently, the Chinese government has been experimenting with big data and computer vision to pioneer surveillance at an enormous scale in an effort to monitor Xinjiang’s twenty-one million citizens, especially those prone to criminal acts. On an average day, a Xinjiang citizen faces a barrage of cameras which detect their faces and track their movements; buying products deemed dangerous, such as a cooking knife, requires the individual to have their personal QR code carved into the surfaces of their purchases. Even the most mundane activities, such as stopping at a gas station, require identification by facial recognition software. For many denizens, this perpetual monitoring has drained their affinity towards simple activities like shopping.  

The greatest concern of China’s growing surveillance state stems from political suppression. At a fundamental level, the use of surveillance is justified by police as enforcing stability. Facial recognition and biomarkers have facilitated the capture of criminals, along with identification of jaywalkers to be fined. China’s ambition, however, is to create a national database of its 1.4 billion citizens. Each individual, then, becomes a data point affixed to a value. Already in Xinjiang, citizens are constantly re-evaluated on political reliability based on personal biometrics and recorded activity. Those who are deemed as untrustworthy face repercussions in political reeducation camps. Through a systemic analysis of citizens’ national loyalty, China intends to establish a uniform nation and ultimately censor any notion of dissent.

Of course, China is not the only government advancing national surveillance; the United States, along with many other countries, is culpable too. The astronomical technological progress of China, however, is stunning; research into artificial intelligence algorithms and computer vision have undoubtedly furthered the field of computer science. Moreover, China has been actively sharing their novel technologies with the rest of the world.

As much as these advancements are commended, they should be scrutinized as a threat to the development of democracy in other nations, especially the Global South which is susceptible to the influx of authoritarianism. Through the 21st century, China has achieved unprecedented economic growth. However, despite resulting expectations that they would increasingly liberalize towards democracy, China moves even closer towards autocracy, especially with the recent news of a prospective removal of term limits for President Xi Jinping. The incredible global influence China has amassed will constitute a concern if these mass surveillance techniques are continually promoted. The rest of the world could easily drown in the piercing glaze of Big Brother.