'People's war of surveillance' ensures China will never be free

'People's war of surveillance' ensures China will never be free
© Getty Images

Advocates of accommodation with China often argue that compromise will aid democracy within China. Even if that were true, a democracy movement needs a supportive civil society. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) unfortunately has killed civil society through its creation of the world’s first truly effective and efficient surveillance state

Thus, when the CCP rounded up more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic people in the Xinjiang region and sent them to internment camps, there were no protests. Nor were there criticisms of Hong Kong police atrocities against that city’s peaceful protesters this year. Perniciously, this absence of protest is interpreted as support for the Xi Jinping government. In reality, the absence of protest is not because China’s civil society is indifferent, but because the CCP has put in place a most sophisticated surveillance system, creating a true Orwellian state that has erased all space for civil society organizations or, in fact, any dissenting voice.

Few Americans are aware of this monstrosity, which has a name — the CCP calls it a “national multidimensional, informationized prevention and control system for society’s public security.” This refers to a multilayered control system that centers upon people’s behaviors and thoughts, in cyberspace and the real world. Unlike China’s previous surveillance system, which relied on police reactions to incidents, this is a massive social engineering project that requires the entire society’s participation to watch each other and report regime security risks. In other words, it is the CCP’s “people’s war of surveillance” against potential or imagined threats to the one-party state.

ADVERTISEMENT

Since Xi came to power, his primary goal has been to consolidate his power and ensure the communist regime’s security. Building this prevention and control system has become the party’s survival strategy. In 2015, the CCP issued a directive for a full construction of the system, aiming to effectively root out any perceived risks to the regime.

The system already has become a nightmare for Chinese human rights activists and for Uyghurs and other ethnic groups; the oppressive Chinese police and other government organizations keep the country’s entire population under constant surveillance. With the help of Western tech companies and astronomical amounts of money poured into the project, the CCP has realized the nightmare of an all-powerful police state.

Although the CCP uses public security and crime prevention as a pretext for its weaponization of surveillance, the system ruthlessly targets against what it calls the “key population” within Chinese society — defined as anyone suspected of endangering national security or social order, including political dissidents and, especially, the Uighur minority.

This dystopian surveillance with Chinese characteristics relies on both a human-operated network and “big data” and artificial intelligence platforms to track and detect “politically unreliable elements.” Technology is backed by an army of watchers. 

For example, the human layer of the surveillance system in Xinjiang consists of over 10,000 “convenient police stations” and government task teams stationed in 8,921 villages. According to witnesses, in every town in Xinjiang, each traffic light junction is guarded by two SWAT team members. Every 50 yards or so along the streets, there is a convenient police station, guarded 24/7 by either SWAT, regular police or assistant police, who constantly check passers-by, including searching their smartphones for banned apps and “sensitive” information.

ADVERTISEMENT

Some locals in Xinjiang joke that each day they are stopped and searched by police multiple times — when they’re out for breakfast, on the way to work, upon arrival at work; when they shop for food, enter a supermarket, deposit money at the bank; when they go home, take a walk after supper, or have a snack at a night market. 

Moreover, there is the grid management system, which is a massive man-powered surveillance system the CCP devised to deal with China’s increasing migrant population. It essentially divides the government jurisdiction into small cells, and anyone in a cell will be accounted for and his or her activities monitored and dealt with, if necessary. In other words, the party assigns 1.4 billion people into each grid cell, which has a leader, several grid supervisors and grid police responsible for everything in the cell. They are equipped with smart terminals or mobile phones, and a dedicated grid management software system used to transfer information the grid monitoring center in real time. The entire system is designed as, according to China’s former deputy police chief Li Dongsheng, a total surveillance net from which no one can escape. 

Government task teams are known as the fanghuiju team, which is an acronym for “visiting people to understand their conditions, benefit people’s livelihood and win people’s hearts.” The CCP sent out 56,000 teams to the region’s villages, with a real aim of systematically checking for potential security threats. 

In a particularly perverse enterprise, which violates the sanctity of the family, the “pairing up as relatives” program has more than 1.69 million Uyghur households across Xinjiang forced to pair up with over 1.12 million government employees who present themselves as relatives. According to the official state media, their job is to “dine, live, work and learn together with their Uyghur relatives, in order to deliver policy, laws, warmth and civilization” to the Uyghur people. But all of this is a euphemism for indoctrination and surveillance. It also is an example of the CCP’s racial discrimination toward the Uyghur people.

Today, Xinjiang has become China’s surveillance technology research and development base, product-testing site, implementation site, and now a surveillance technology and product export hub. 

The Trump administration has recognized that Xinjiang police committed atrocities and in October blacklisted 20 police organizations and eight companies that helped build the surveillance system. But two weeks later, Hikvision announced that most of its American suppliers had resumed business with it and its revenue was not affected by the sanctions. 

Rather than helping the CCP to create a truly effective dictatorship, U.S. firms should be devoted to undermining it.

Bradley A. Thayer is professor of political science at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and is the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”

Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.