On one of my recent reporting trips to China, I booked my plane tickets on the airport route. Instead of checking into a hotel, which in China requires handing in a passport scan which is sent directly to the local police, I decided to get on a plane as soon as possible, finish all my reports by same day and return the same evening.
I randomly found a driver outside the airport – she was even quick to translate the local dialect which appealed to me. As night fell, I was on a flight back to Beijing with all my reports safely stored on multiple microSD cards. Success, I thought.
The next morning, my contact called me in a panic. Several local officials had gone to his house after our meeting and threatened him. I was disappointed, but also perplexed: how had the Chinese security apparatus managed to track me down so quickly?
The new book by Josh Chin and Liza Lin, Surveillance State: In China’s quest to usher in a new era of social control, tries to answer this question. The two veterans the wall street journal journalists have spent years covering China’s political and technological rise. They draw on this experience to unravel how China built its formidable digital surveillance apparatus (spoiler: in collaboration with US companies) and the often flawed assumptions behind its application, with disastrous consequences.
Chin and Lin describe how authorities use a sophisticated national database linking identification documents, facial recognition data, fingerprints and travel history (including, most likely, mine). A second, more powerful level of control is China’s vast network of CCTV cameras, the footage of which is analyzed in real time by artificial intelligence software sold by a host of Chinese companies like Huawei, Sensetime, Megvii and China Electronics Technology. Group Corporation (CETC). . Unconstrained by China’s weak legal system and an emerging digital privacy code, Chinese tech giants and security devices are able to track phones, monitor online purchases and decrypt messages.
The idea – pioneered by seminal Chinese scientific thinkers like Qian Xuesen – is that harnessing vast behavioral data can create predictive policing and safe and stable societies. With tons of big data generated by more than a billion mobile internet users in China, this vision is now a reality. The founder and chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, is quoted in Monitoring status as said at a 2015 conference attended by high-level security officials, “He who has enough data and computing capacity can predict problems, predict the future and judge the future “.
Government surveillance is difficult to discover and understand because it is secretive in nature. In the absence of hard facts (and on top of a strained geopolitical relationship between the US and China), less-savvy journalists might insert hyperbole or speculation. Chin and Lin do none of this, preferring to use real examples to illustrate both mundane and dystopian applications of China’s surveillance power.
One of the book’s strongest features is its unflinching analysis of how these big data approaches are being used not just by China, but by governments around the world, including the United States. China, say the authors, is no exception to the rule in its adoption of a police system reinforced by video surveillance and artificial intelligence. Western companies such as Intel, IBM, Seagate, Cisco and Sun Technologies are among those Chin and Lin examine the business relationships that have helped make China’s surveillance state technologically and financially viable.
China has undoubtedly unlocked an impressive, if frightening, achievement: absolute social control with relatively little unseemly and highly visible physical oppression seen in low-tech authoritarian countries, such as Iran or Russia.
However, such scrutiny masks a disturbing level of systemic bias and outright inaccuracy in China’s deeply penetrating digital surveillance systems. Some of the anecdotes Chin and Lin include are laughable. In one, a prominent political dissident is visited by the police after, out of boredom, he buys a slingshot online; officers suspect he purchased the toy to remove the numerous CCTV cameras installed in his home.
Other stories are far more disturbing. Chin and Lin tell the haunting story of a Uyghur poet and filmmaker named Tahir Hamut Izgil, who now lives in the United States Hamut and his family say that their blood, irises, fingerprints and voice recordings were collected by Xinjiang police, to be integrated into a biometric database. At least hundreds of thousands of their fellow Uyghurs have been detained or imprisoned, often on the basis of seemingly flimsy evidence such as the use of chat apps like Whatsapp; inquiries filed by cadres sent to live and report on Uyghur families; or are determined by general algorithms to indicate religious extremism.
Monitoring status was widely reported in the years before the global coronavirus pandemic, and the two journalists were not based in China as the country locked down its borders and erected a series of digital Covid tracking tools. (Chin was expelled from China by authorities in 2020, one of more than a dozen journalists working for US media to be expelled that year.)
Conveniently, these Covid tracking tools are also perfectly suited for tracking people’s movements. Everyone in China must now submit location data and recent travel data to keep digital QR codes on their smartphones. To travel or even enter a store, a person’s code must remain a healthy green; it will turn a dangerous red color requiring immediate quarantine if someone is infected or considered a close contact.
The power to track and control a person’s daily movements is unsurprisingly ripe for abuse. Shortly before Monitoring status was published, local authorities in the city of Zhengzhou were reprimanded after deliberately turning red the digital health codes of hundreds of protesters defrauded by a local bank of their savings. If Chin and Lin were to write a sequel, they would find rich material delving into the dual-use nature of China’s digital public health apparatus.
Monitoring status is a warning book. He is fair in detailing the rapacious speed at which China has built a model of digital authoritarianism that other countries are no doubt eager to learn from. Its value is to show how such surveillance systems are only as good (or bad) as the people who build them.