China's weapon of mass surveillance is a human rights abuse

China's weapon of mass surveillance is a human rights abuse
© NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Pervasive surveillance by the Chinese government has eliminated privacy for the Chinese people. This is significant human rights abuse and, unfortunately, it is not well recognized or reported. What makes this bad situation worse is that China exports these technologies to other authoritarian governments, allowing them to control their people more effectively. China has taken us closer to George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare of “1984” than any other state.

Mass surveillance is natural to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and in keeping their longstanding belief in thought control. Increasingly, published political thoughts must be in line with the ideology of the CCP Central Committee or, more precisely, in line with that of the paramount leader of the party: Xi Jinping.

Because thought control requires monitoring people’s activities, mass surveillance is required. The Chinese have spent lavishly to build a massive surveillance system that allows China to deploy its sophisticated network of population control. Just as with the Party in Orwell’s Oceania, the reason is to eliminate any possibility of an uprising against the regime.

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The digital surveillance system consists of three main platforms — Skynet, Safe City and Sharp Eyes — that target both cities and rural areas. Our sources claim that China is about to complete its installation of 2.7 billion cameras around the country, to achieve a goal of allowing no blind spot in urban areas. This is in addition to the existing 50 million cameras with visual recognition.

As stunning as this is, the cameras are only one element of control. Their use is in combination with banking data, mobile payment apps, WeChat, Social Credit Score, third-generation national ID card, biometric info, Great Firewall, mobile phones, televisions and other surveillance hardware and software. The totality of these sources of data means that CCP has abolished privacy for its population and established a control that is exceeded only in fiction.

China weaponizes surveillance for repression and persecution, and the power of this weapon is tangible. The surveillance apparatus has effectively silenced the voice of political and civil activists, as evidenced by the crackdown on rights defense lawyers. In the massive concentration camps in Xinjiang Province, millions of ethnic Uighurs are detained and subjected to brainwashing and torture. The rest are under 24/7 surveillance in their homes and communities, all in the name of “public safety.”

China’s mass surveillance truly is omnipresent. For example, as is reported on social media, after Americans use WeChat to talk with Chinese friends, the latter immediately receive an official SMS from the Chinese government to warn against U.S. spies.

Mass surveillance and intelligence collection against the Chinese people, foreign residents and visitors have greatly aided the CCP’s ability to remain in power. It also allows the party to stay ahead of its opponents. In essence, mass surveillance greatly lowers the cost of population control and repression. It makes authoritarianism effective.

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It also is profitable. Today, over 30,000 Chinese surveillance companies have more than 1.6 million employees. These firms are led by Huawei, Zhejiang Dahua and Hikvision, and they labor to perfect and export China’s mass surveillance system. Their products such as Hikvision cameras are widely sold in the United States. Some of them, such as Alibaba, use America’s free market to access capital and technology to develop surveillance products.

Some American companies participate in building China’s surveillance system. For example, Remark Holdings, a Las Vegas-based public company, has provided artificial intelligence-based facial recognition technologies to China. Infinova Corporation of New Jersey, which designs, develops and manufactures CCTV surveillance systems, is a main supplier for the Chinese surveillance system and a player in China’s Sharp Eyes platform. Other big players include Tyco, Bosch and Panasonic, according to Chinese tech media.

Many small Silicon Valley companies and major American universities have research and development projects for Chinese surveillance companies. For example, iFlyTek, a Chinese company, recently launched a five-year partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to use voice recognition technology “to develop a pilot surveillance system that can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations.” Lamentably, other American tech giants also are involved in China’s mass surveillance system.

In the interests of human rights, we must disarm China’s weapon of mass surveillance. If we allow China to continue to use our technology, investment and talent to build a global police state, then we accelerate the destruction of human rights within China and, increasingly, outside of it. China’s surveillance not only has protected the party-state, it also is helping to prop up dictators around the world. Over a dozen countries, including Zimbabwe and Venezuela, use the system to watch their populations and suppress dissidents.  

The Trump administration’s action against Huawei is timely and necessary, but it is not sufficient. Additional steps are necessary. Although a U.S. law prohibits the export of crime-control products to China, the sale of cameras and other dual-use technologies are not banned. Congress could take an important step to weaken the ability of the CCP to surveil and control the Chinese people by passing a broader law that we’ve dubbed the “Defeating Surveillance Human Rights Act.”  

We suggest such a law might include six measures:

  • Prohibiting the export of hardware or software that can be used for surveillance, tracking and censorship to government end-users in China and, in particular, image processing chips used for surveillance camera and video equipment;
  • Denying foreign tax credits for any tax paid or accrued to the People’s Republic of China by American companies that participate in China’s surveillance system building and operation;
  • Imposing an import ban on surveillance products from China;
  • Banning financing of, investing in or research and development for Chinese surveillance companies by U.S. citizens, corporations or research institutions;
  • Delisting and de-registering Chinese surveillance companies and their investors to deny their access to capital markets in the United States; and
  • Redefining surveillance products and technologies to recognize and anticipate their potential for human rights abuses.

Our proposed U.S. law would send a strong signal to the Chinese government that Congress understands the extent of the threat to freedom posed by China’s weaponization of surveillance and will not accept this human rights abuse. It is time to increase the costs of authoritarianism.

Bradley A. Thayer, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at the University of Texas, San Antonio. He is coauthor 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 and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, Dr. Han 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.