The 'New World Order': 'The Entire System Is Designed to Suppress Us.'
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The New World Order
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'The Entire System Is Designed to Suppress Us.'

What the Chinese Surveillance State Means for the Rest of the World


Every morning, Mrs. Chen dons her bright purple tai chi pajamas and joins the dozen or so other members of Hongmen Martial Arts Group for practice outside Chongqing’s Jiangnan Stadium. But a few months ago, she was in such a rush to join their whirling sword-dance routine that she dropped her purse. Fortunately, a security guard noticed it lying in the public square via one of the overhead security cameras. He placed it at the lost and found, where Mrs. Chen gratefully retrieved it later.  

“Were it not for these cameras, someone might have stolen it,” Mrs. Chen, who asked to be identified by only her surname, tells TIME on a smoggy morning in China’s sprawling central megacity. “Having these cameras everywhere makes me feel safe.”

What sounds like a lucky escape is almost to be expected in Chongqing, which has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most surveilled city. The seething mass of 15.35 million people straddling the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers boasted 2.58 million surveillance cameras in 2019, according to an analysis published in August by the tech-research website Comparitech. That’s a frankly Orwellian ratio of one CCTV camera for every 5.9 citizens—or 30 times their prevalence in Washington, D.C.


Every move in the city is seemingly captured digitally. Cameras perch over sidewalks, hover across busy intersections and swivel above shopping districts. But Chongqing is by no means unique. Eight of the top 10 most surveilled cities in the world are in China, according to Comparitech, as the world’s No. 2 economy rolls out an unparalleled system of social control. Facial–recognition software is used to access office buildings, snare criminals and even shame jaywalkers at busy intersections. China today is a harbinger of what society looks like when surveillance proliferates unchecked.

But while few nations have embraced surveillance the way China has, it is far from alone. Surveillance has become an everyday part of life in most developed societies, aided by an explosion in AI–powered facial–recognition technology. Last year, London police made their first arrest based on facial recognition by cross–referencing photos of pedestrians in tourist hot spots with a database of known felons. A few months earlier, a trial of facial–recognition software by police in New Delhi reportedly recognized 3,000 missing children in just four days. In August, a wanted drug trafficker was captured in Brazil after facial-recognition software spotted him at a subway station. The technology is widespread in the U.S. too. It has aided in the arrest of alleged credit-card swindlers in Colorado and a suspected rapist in Pennsylvania.

Still, the risks are considerable. As Western democracies enact safeguards to protect citizens from the rampant harvesting of data by government and corporations, China is exporting its AI-powered surveillance technology to authoritarian governments around the world. Chinese firms are providing high-tech surveillance tools to at least 18 nations from Venezuela to Zimbabwe, according to a 2018 report by Freedom House. China is a battleground where the modern surveillance state has reached a nadir, prompting censure from governments and institutions around the globe, but it is also where rebellion against its overreach is being most ferociously fought.

“Today’s economic business models all encourage people to share data,” says Lokman Tsui, a privacy expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In China, he adds, we are seeing “what happens when the state goes after that data to exploit and weaponize it.”

Some 1,500 miles northwest of where Mrs. Chen recovered her purse, surveillance in China’s restive region of Xinjiang has helped put an estimated 1 million people into “re-education centers” akin to concentration camps, according to the U.N. Many were arrested, tried and convicted by computer algorithm based on data harvested by the cameras that stud every 20 steps in some parts.

In the name of fighting terrorism, members of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups—mostly Uighurs but also Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz—are forced to surrender biometric data like photos, fingerprints, DNA, blood and voice samples. Police are armed with a smartphone app that then automatically flags certain behaviors, according to reverse engineering by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Those who grow a beard, leave their house via a back door or visit the mosque often are red-flagged by the system and interrogated.

Sarsenbek Akaruli, 45, a veterinarian and trader from the Xinjiang city of Ili, was arrested on Nov. 2, 2017, and remains in a detention camp after police found the banned messaging app WhatsApp on his cell phone, according to his wife Gulnur Kosdaulet. A citizen of neighboring Kazakhstan, she has traveled to Xinjiang four times to search for him but found even friends in the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reluctant to help. “Nobody wanted to risk being recorded on security cameras talking to me in case they ended up in the camps themselves,” she tells TIME.