Mass surveillance in China

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Surveillance cameras at Tiananmen Square in 2009. In 2019, Comparitech reported that 8 out of 10 most monitored cities in the world are in China.

Mass surveillance in China is the network of monitoring systems used by the Chinese government to supervise the lives of Chinese citizens.[1] It is primarily conducted through the government, although non-publicized corporate surveillance in connection with the Chinese government has been speculated to occur. China monitors its citizens through Internet, camera as well as through other digital technologies.[2][3] Mass surveillance in China is closely related to its Social Credit System, and has significantly expanded under the China Internet Security Law and with the help of local companies like Hikvision, SenseTime, Huawei and ZTE.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10]



Mass surveillance in China emerged in the Maoist era after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.[11] Mao invented this mechanism of control that encompassed the entire nation and its people in order to strengthen his power in the newly founded government.[11] In the early years, when technology was relatively undeveloped in China, mass surveillance was realized through disseminating information by word of mouth.[11] Chinese people kept a watchful eye on one another and reported inappropriate behaviors that infringed upon the dominant social ideals of the time.[11]

21st Century[edit]

In the late 20th century and 21st century, as a result of the Chinese economic reform, computer and Internet technology spread to China.[12] As a result, more means of mass surveillance emerged. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said China's mass surveillance mechanisms and machinery of private communications was “utterly mind-boggling”.[13] The most notable mechanisms today are mass camera surveillance on the streets, Internet surveillance, and newly invented surveillance methods based on social credit and identity.[3][14]

As part of a broader surveillance push, the Chinese government also 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 state-run tabloid Global Times.[15][16] Besides mobile phone apps, the Chinese central government has adopted facial recognition technology, surveillance drones, robot police, and big data collection targeting online social media platforms to monitor its citizens.[17][18][19]

As of 2019, it is estimated that 200 million monitoring CCTV cameras of the "Skynet" system have been put to use in mainland China, four times as many as the surveillance cameras in the United States.[2][20][21] State media in China claim that Skynet is the largest video surveillance system in the world, utilizing facial recognition technology and big data analysis.[7][22][23] In 2019, Comparitech reported that 8 out of 10 most monitored cities in the world are in China, with Chongqing, Shenzhen and Shanghai being the world's top 3.[24][25][26] In addition, the number of surveillance cameras in mainland China is expected to reach 626 million by 2020, while Shenzhen alone reportedly intends to raise its number of surveillance cameras from 1.93 million to 16.68 million in the upcoming years.[24][27][28] In 2019, China supplies surveillance Technology to most of the world, positioning the country to have control over the Mass surveillance industry.[29]


  • In 2011, the Beijing Municipal Science & Technology Commission proposed a mobile phone tracking program, to be called the Information Platform of Real-time Citizen Movement, which was ostensibly intended to ease traffic flow on the city's streets.[30]
  • Officials asserted 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."[31]
  • In 2013, the government saw the severe atmospheric pollution in Chinese cities as a security threat because the closed-circuit television cameras were rendered useless.[32] 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 implement a real name registration scheme.
  • In 2014, it followed with a request to regulate the dissemination of objectionable information over the network.[33] Also in 2014, China have used a government-backed brain and emotional surveillance project on an unprecedented scale in factories, public transport, state-owned companies and the military.[34][35]
  • 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.[36]
  • In 2016, China introduced a cybersecurity law, requiring Internet companies to store all network logs for at least six months and to store all personal data and critical information within mainland China.[37] Also in 2016, China deploys AnBot Police Robot equipped with stun weapon and facial recognition cameras start patrolling the Shenzhen airport.[38]
  • In 2018, Chinese law enforcement officials have been equipped with facial recognition Smartglasses in order to apprehend criminals, especially drug smugglers.[39] This technology was adopted at the 2017 Qingdao International Beer Festival.[39] With the assistance of it, policemen captured many criminals, including 25 fugitives, 19 drug smugglers, and 37 plagiarists.[39] Also in 2018, Chinese authorities admitted for the first time that they could access WeChat users' deleted messages without their permission.[40] The Chaohu city discipline inspection and supervision commission retrieved a suspect's entire conversation history that had already been deleted in one incident.[40]
  • In March 2019, China announced a regulation on small video apps, which was deemed to be a method preventing teenagers' Internet addiction by China. It allows related apps tracing users' location and analyzing users' behaviors to forcibly trigger teenager mode. It started in March 2019 and was used in all small video apps by June.[41] In 2019, China announced that the third generation of Resident Identity Cards will be able to trace location. Blood information will also be collected and recorded in the card.[42]
  • 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.[43]



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 their online actions are strictly regulated.[44] In 2017, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) released a new regulation, which imposed restrictions on the production and distribution of online news.[45] The regulation required all platforms, such as online blogs, forums, websites, and social media apps to be managed by party-sanctioned editorial staff.[45] These staff must obtain approval from the national or local government Internet and information offices and be trained by the central government.[45]

Launched in 2011, WeChat, China's most popular messaging app, is under surveillance by Internet police. Any message sent through a WeChat group is monitored by the Chinese technology giant Tencent, the application's operator. All conversations are stored for six months.[46] Even conversations deleted by WeChat users can be retrieved back by Tencent, especially when government authorities seek evidence of a suspect's illegal activities.[47] Authorities have admitted that they can retrieve archived messages once sent on WeChat.[47][48] Nevertheless, Tencent CEO Ma Huateng stated that his company will not use user chats for big data analysis or invade users' privacy.[47][48]

In 2017, the Chinese government required all users of Sina Weibo, microblogging site, to register with their real names and identity numbers by September 15 of that year.[49] Weibo users who refused to register their accounts with real names were not able to post, repost, and comment on the site.[49]

At the beginning of 2018, Ma Huateng, chairman and CEO of Tencent, claimed that WeChat's monthly active users across the globe reached a billion for the first time.[50] Since Tencent cooperates with the central government to implement self-censorship and mass surveillance, it enjoys dominance of its industry in China. Other messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, Messenger, and Line are mostly blocked or even forced out of the Chinese market.

Chinese Internet users have several ways to circumvent censorship. Netizens generally rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) to access 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.[51] In August 2017, more than 60 VPNs, such as Astrill and Express VPN, were removed from China's App Store.[52] VPNs that are allowed to be used in China must be approved by state regulators and use the state network infrastructure.[53] Instead of sensitive words which can be censored online, Chinese netizens use puns and Chinese homophones to communicate.[54]

Sex and pornography on the Internet[edit]

Movies, books, comics, and videos involving sexually sensitive or provocative material are typically banned on Chinese Internet.[55] The government denounces sex and pornography culture and actively establishes sex education for teenagers and high school students in order to prevent them from developing an interest in this culture.[55] Conservative attitudes toward sex talk have remained standard amongst the general public.[56] 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.[55][57] In the 1980s, there was a campaign against "spiritual pollution," referring to sex-related content.[55][57] In 2018, a Chinese erotic writer who wrote and sold a gay porn novel named Occupy online was sentenced to a ten-and-a-half year prison sentence.[58]

The most frequent way Chinese people access otherwise banned sexual material is through the Internet. Web administrators seek sexual information online and remove information as soon as they find it or otherwise censor it.[55] However, according to a 2012 article, the number of sex-related pages was increasing at the time.[55] China's Ministry of Public Security has collected intelligence agents from student groups to spy on people's Internet activities.[59] Instances of erotic activism also emerged online when government efforts at porn censorship and surveillance heightened in 2010.[55]


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

By 2018, the Chinese government had installed close to 200 million surveillance cameras across the country, which amounts to approximately one camera per seven citizens.[14] At the same time, approximately 40 million surveillance cameras were active in the United States in 2014,[60] which amounts to approximately one camera per eight citizens; however, these are largely installed by homeowners and stores rather than the government. According to official statistics in 2012, more than 660 of the mainland's 676 cities use surveillance systems.[61] In Guangdong province, 1.1 million cameras were installed in 2012, with plans to increase the number to two million by 2015 at a predicted cost of 12.3 billion yuan.[61] 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.[62] 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 that person.[14][62]

The facial recognition technology has technological and systematic limitations.[14] 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 a thousand people in one search.[14] Additionally, the system cannot work continuously for long periods of time, requiring reactivation in cases of extreme need.[14]

The National Information Security Standardization Technical Committee (全国信标委生物特征识别分技术委), which is subordinate to the China Communications Standards Association, has, as of 27 November 2019, started a project to create a standard for facial recognition in China. The project is led by SenseTime and has been assigned to a working group comprising 27 Chinese companies. As of 27 November 2019, it is not known whether the created standards will be binding.[63] Also Chinese companies are working to shape United Nations’ standards for facial recognition, video surveillance of cities and vehicles, with ZTE, Dahua Technology, China Telecom and others proposing standards to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).[64][65]

Other digital technologies[edit]

China has highly advanced facial recognition technology.[66] The technology is integrated with others, such as big data and artificial intelligence, to build a national surveillance and data sharing platform.[67] Facial recognition technology has been used in many different fields. In the domain of security, facial recognition technology has been installed in banks, airports, and shopping malls to monitor crowds. In 2018, a system known as the “Electronic Police at Zebra Crossing” or the "Smart System for Collecting Evidence of Jaywalking” was implemented in Shenzhen.[68] The smart system is equipped with facial recognition technology to record jaywalkers and non-motor vehicles that break traffic rules.[69] When shopping in the self-service markets of Alibaba and Jingdong, two top Chinese e-commerce companies, customers can use electronic payments through the facial recognition system, which links them with their bank cards.[69] Moreover, Baidu, a Chinese multinational technology company, cooperated with China Southern Airlines to install the facial recognition technology in Nanyang Jiangying Airport, Henan for boarding.[70]

Robot police have been installed in public places such as train stations, museums, and tourist attractions.[71][72] However, the market of robot police is still in its early stage, and one challenge to the implementation of the technology is its high price.[73] If the price of a robot police can be lowered down to 100,000 RMB, the market will more easily accept it.[73]

Furthermore, the Chinese government uses big data technology in order to analyze and monitor people's online behavior, such as Sesame Credit, which ranks its users based on their online activities along with its previously mentioned functions.[74]


Social credit system[edit]

In connection with camera surveillance, the Chinese government is developing a social credit system that rates the trustworthiness of its citizens by analyzing their social behaviors and collecting fiscal and government data.[75][76][77] After capturing people's activities and identifying them through facial recognition techniques, the government links their activities to this personal credit rating so that the information is stored in a quantifiable and measurable way. Under this algorithmic surveillance system, people, their identities, and their actions are connected to a citizen score.[78] 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 scores regularly. Participation in this system is currently voluntary but will become mandatory in 2020.[3][76][78] Many Chinese citizens have already started using the Sesame Credit created and operated by Alibaba, an e-commerce company.[78] The Sesame Credit is designed such that those with good credit scores can live a more convenient life than others with low credits scores.[3][76] For instance, people with high credit scores do not need to pay deposits when checking in at hotels and can obtain visas more quickly than others.[75][76] On the other hand, people with low credit scores cannot easily eat in restaurants, register at hotels, purchase products, or travel freely.[75][76]

By region[edit]

Mainland (excluding frontiers)[edit]

In mainland China, one of the most important ongoing projects is a Skynet project with an installation of more than 200 million video surveillance cameras.[79] The real-time pedestrian tracking and recognition system can precisely identify people's clothing, gender, and age, as well as both motor and non-motor vehicles.[80] Additionally, the surveillance system can instantly match a person's image with their personal identification and information.[80] Golden Shield is a giant mechanism of censorship and surveillance that blocks tens of thousands of websites that may present negative reports about the Communist Party's narrative and control.[81]


The Chinese government sent groups of cadres to Tibetan villages as part of the Benefit the Masses campaign in 2012.[82] The purpose of the campaign was to improve service and living quality in Tibet and to educate the locals about the importance of social stability and adherence to the Communist Party.[82] The local people were also supervised in order to prevent uprisings from taking place.[82]

In Tibet, users of mobile phones and the Internet must identify themselves by name.[83] The government reported that the program had reached full realization in June 2013.[83] An official said that "the real-name registration is conducive to protecting citizens' personal information and curbing the spread of detrimental information."[83]

In 2018, during the Saga Dawa, the holy fourth month for Tibetan Buddhists, the government enforced stricter rules in Lhasa, according to the Global Times.[84] People were also discouraged from engaging in religious practices in this month.[84] When they did, they were supervised closely.[84]

As a method of protesting, some Tibetans have engaged in immolation, which is a tradition of protest against Chinese control that was first practiced in the mid-20th century.[85]


In Xinjiang and especially its capital city, Ürümqi, there are security checkpoints and identification stations almost everywhere.[86] 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, or other public place.[86] The ratio of police officers stationed in Xinjiang to population is higher than elsewhere.[87] This strict enforcement of security checks is partly a response to the separatist movement in 2009 associated with Muslim Uyghurs.[86] Additionally, the cameras on streets are denser there than elsewhere, numbering 40,000.[86][87] The information collected by the cameras is matched with individual profiles, which include previously collected biometric data, such as DNA samples and voice samples.[88] People are rated on a level of trustworthiness based on their profiles, which also takes into account their familial relations and social connections.[88] These levels include "trustworthy," "average," and "untrustworthy."[88]

Xinjiang residents, especially those from the Uyghur ethnic group, are not allowed to practice certain religious acts.[87] They are also more actively and strictly monitored by surveillance apps, voice printing, and facial recognition cameras.[87] Since 2017, The government has set up re-education camps in Xinjiang for the local people to improve their compliance.[87] People in the re-education camps are usually closely watched by guards and are not allowed to contact others outside the facilities, including family members and other close relations.[88] They learn about Mandarin Chinese characters and the rules that they need to follow in those camps as well as outside once they leave.[88]

The security spending in Xinjiang ballooned in 2017, witnessing an increase of 90% to $8.52 billion as compared to that in 2016.[87] 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 phones' contents.[89][90]

In 2018, China has deployed a flock of drones disguised to look like birds to step up surveillance levels in region.[91]

In November 2019, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published the China Cables, consisting of six documents, an "operations manual" for running the camps and detailed use of predictive policing and artificial intelligence to target people and regulate life inside the camps.[92][93]

Hong Kong[edit]

Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, a pro-democracy campaign, aims to demand full democracy so that Hong Kong's citizens can have the right to nominate and elect the head of the Hong Kong government.[94] However, key pro-democracy figures, such as some lawmakers, academics, and political activists, are under the central government's surveillance. Some activists engaged in the umbrella movement have been intimidated or arrested by policemen.[95] News reports, social media posts, and images about Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests are censored in mainland China.[96]

Internet users and civil society groups in Hong Kong have been facing cyber-attacks and debated threats to privacy online during the past few years.[97] 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 that the power to run local affairs is authorized by the central government.[98][99]


The "SkyNet" technology used by the Chinese government to monitor the population through pervasive cameras covers everyone appearing under the camera network, while it does not affect Taiwan.[100] Meanwhile, Taiwanese officials have informed Taiwanese people living in mainland China about the increasing prevalence of surveillance on their activities.[100] 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.[101] 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.[100] This policy extends social service and medical benefits to them, who now enjoy those services in the same way as other Chinese citizens.[100] Taiwanese authorities are worried about surveillance on the Taiwanese because of the residence cards issued to them, which provide their identities to the Chinese government and subject them to the same surveillance regime composed of cameras, facial recognition technology, and social credit.[102]

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%.[103]

In 2017, China's spending on domestic security was estimated to be US$197 billion, excluding spending on security-related urban management and surveillance technology initiatives.[103] In the same year, the central government's total public security spending in Xinjiang reached 57.95 billion RMB, the equivalent of US$9.16 billion, which is ten times the spending of the previous decade.[43]

In 2018, China spent the equivalent of US$20 billion purchasing closed-circuit television cameras and other surveillance equipment.[104] This large number of purchases reaches half the size of the global market's, according an estimate reported in a state newspaper.[104]

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