Since the outset of the 21st century, the internet has constantly changed and evolved to benefit individuals in society. However, while it has brought together many people, it has also been exploited to use those connections against us. Never before have states had the power to mobilize and monitor individuals on such a scale, and in the digital era, China is the king of surveillance.
While the rest of the world enjoys the relatively free and uncensored Web, China and its citizens face a different reality. Since the beginning of Maoist-era China, information has been tightly controlled to protect the government’s interests and control the populace. The emergence of new technologies in the past couple of decades has only made this job easier and more efficient. Since 2000, the country’s Ministry of Public Security has maintained one of the largest internet censorship systems, colloquially known as the “Great Firewall.” While it was initially limited in scope, it has only become a tighter and more constraining system of control. Today, the Great Firewall not only censors foreign websites, news, and media, but also ensures that propaganda and misinformation continue to circulate China’s insulated Web.
According to Politico, this has given rise to a radically nationalist generation of youth. Older Chinese citizens, who remember the earlier unrestricted Web, are continually at odds with the government and Chinese youth. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) used to bypass China’s firewall are constantly shut down, and attempts to educate the public are often reported, shamed, and punished by young government informants. There is a sinister ingenuity to the Great Firewall; not only is it a system maintained on the Web, but one that is protected by the very citizens it hopes to dominate and control.
The threat of Chinese surveillance has taken hold in everyday life. For example, WeChat, once considered China’s Facebook copycat, has entrenched itself as the de facto social media app for Chinese people around the globe for almost a decade. With over one billion users worldwide, WeChat has become a necessity for both Chinese citizens and mass government surveillance. For Chinese people, WeChat is the established app for contacting family overseas, sharing photos and memories, and making payments for everyday essentials. At the same time, the app siphons personal data from users, allowing the government to target, profit from, and manipulate people by facilitating and necessitating these services, as reported by The New York Times.
South China Morning Post claims that in the future, the government and local companies will develop a “social credit system,” which is broadly defined as a “set of databases and initiatives that monitor and assess the trustworthiness of individuals, companies and government entities.” Incentives for “good” social behavior include monetary rewards and exemptions while punishing “bad” social behavior with financial sanctions, travel restrictions, and public shaming.
This combination of unprecedented government surveillance and social engineering has given the Chinese government an unprecedented amount of control over its population. In conjunction with the government’s cultural and anti-terrorism policies, China’s mass surveillance programs have been especially devastating to the Uighurs, a Turkic minority in the country. For years, China has made considerable efforts to reeducate and reengineer Uighur culture, hoping to homogenize and consolidate them with the Han cultural majority. As the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reports, these efforts have only become easier thanks to government surveillance.
Uighurs are now targeted both online and in real life through user activity on the internet and facial recognition through investigative monitoring. For one, the government actively monitors religious applications, such as Zapya, a digital Quran and messaging app, mining it for personal data on Uighur users. Another surveillance tool called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) also analyzes this data, flagging “suspicious” or “threatening” individuals and giving authorities cause to arrest. According to CNET, Chinese government surveillance has evolved even to the point of accurate facial recognition, specifically filtering for Uighur activity. Together, these efforts have given Chinese authorities the ability to incarcerate Uighurs on a mass scale through “predictive policing”, punishing them for online activity and continuing unjust internment in infamous “reeducation” camps.
Chinese surveillance has become a major issue not only domestically, but internationally. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported mass online data leaking by Zhenhua Data, a private company closely associated with China’s government intelligence. It reportedly collected information on over 2.4 million people. Along with recent talks about TenCent and TikTok bans worldwide, China poses a legitimate threat to international privacy and security. In a reality where surveillance is weaponized against the world and its people, it is up to the international community to stand up against systems of encroachment and oppression.