The Chinese government is developing a high-tech spy state, amassing huge amounts of data on its 1.4 billion citizens. It uses the information gathered to encourage good behavior in a morally unmoored society. That doesn’t sound bad, does it? Yet numerous surveillance projects suggest a dismal future. In China, anyone whose ideas conflict with Communist Party goals is monitored and punished. That includes human rights lawyers, house church pastors, and religious minorities.
Spying on citizens isn’t new in China. But today’s technology makes surveillance easier and more widespread. An estimated 170 million surveillance cameras now cover China.
Using a nationwide system called “Skynet,” China plans to monitor 100% of its public areas and industries by 2020. A key part of Skynet is facial recognition technology. It can scan faces in concert halls, classrooms, and crosswalks, pinpointing everyone from inattentive students to jaywalkers.
Once authorities identify a face, it’s connected to a name and government-issued ID number. Other information is also linked: Does he or she have a criminal record? Hold any views contrary to the Communist Party? Attend an unsanctioned house church?
James Andrew Lewis, a technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says, “When [the system is] fully deployed, every aspect of your public life will be recorded by the government.”
In addition, more than a billion Chinese citizens use the WeChat app to send messages. All of those are accessible to the government. This digital trail can reveal personal tidbits: plans with friends, routes around town, even a favorite dish at a noodle shop.
The near-constant surveillance makes it difficult for house church leaders to organize, hold secret services, or inform outsiders of persecution. That’s according to Dean Cheng, an expert on China at the Heritage Foundation.
Cheng says China uses a “social credit system” to score individuals and companies based on their support or harm to society. Those scores are supported by the surveillance data gathered. China uses the information to seek to force people to conform to the Communist Party’s wishes. The nation hopes these measures will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
China’s technology isn’t yet perfect: Computers can’t consistently identify a person immediately from a scan. But the tech is improving. And in areas where China lags behind, Lewis says the country steals technology from American companies. He says, “The end goal is to keep the [Communist] Party in power.”