Surveillance and Its Uses (Updated)

At a recent Sinology conference here in Beijing, I met again a very interesting person. He was for decades the Danish consul-general in Beijing, with access to the highest levels of government. After retirement, he became active in research centres and speaking to many audiences around the world. These presentations focus on outlining a much fuller picture of the situation in China to audiences who have a piecemeal and often distorted view. He also takes a longer historical perspective on such matters.

At one point in his presentation, he raised the question of surveillance. He did so in light of some rather strange efforts to paint recent developments in China as dystopian, as the ultimate effort by the government to control its citizens. Specifically, he was concerned with facial recognition cameras, the unrolling of the social credit system and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. I can affirm that all of these and more are realities in China today.

Then came the crucial point: in accusing China of the ultimate form of citizen surveillance and control, some external critics are actually imposing categories and experiences from the Euro-American context. That is, many forms of surveillance have existed for a long time. The most recent technologies are simply another dimension of this longer history. Governments in the ‘Western’ tradition have typically used these forms of surveillance to monitor their own citizens. Obviously, you can see how this history is applied uncritically to China.

But what is the experience in China with surveillance: it has historically been used to monitor external and internal threats to the state, to social stability, harmony and security. Chinese authorities have been wary indeed to use such mechanisms to monitor their own citizens going about their everyday lives. Again, this is the reality today.

For example, the government is currently rolling out a foreigner rating card, with various categories such as education level, skills, language ability, and employment. Your rating (A, B, C etc) is determined by all these factors. I do not have one as yet, but my next residency and work permit will include this new card. It is, in other words, a social credit system for foreigners. Why? Many reasons, but the main one is to weed out those who are in China under dodgy pretences. Used to be more of those in the past, but there are already fewer now.  Clearly, this is the use of surveillance to counter foreign intervention.

There is, of course, one exception: if some citizens (for example, in Xinjiang or other places) become radicalised through external influences, then they too come under surveillance, re-education, vocational training and reintegration within the community.

As a result, there has not been a terrorist attack in China for some years now, unlike the United States or Germany, which have experienced them in the last few months.

Footnote: in another presentation a scholar from Turkey pointed out that some of the efforts to irritate China in regard to Xinjiang have a distinct geopolitical agenda. From a Turkish perspective, they seek to drive a wedge between China and Turkey and slow down developments in the Belt and Road Initiative. Given that Turkey is aware of such an agenda, it should be no surprise that they are wary of what some ‘Western’ countries are seeking.