In a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster’s trailer, a Chinese policeman dons a pair of futuristic facial recognition–equipped sunglasses. He scans each member of the crowd at Shanghai’s People’s Square subway station. Before long, he pinpoints a crook—whose disguise may have fooled humans, but not technology—and starts chasing him down.
The video is an advertisement for state-owned telecom giant China Mobile’s new 5G network. The voiceover in Mandarin at the end of the clip doesn’t endorse facial recognition outright, but it does boast that 5G is speedy enough to make “smart cities possible.”
People around the world are grappling with facial recognition. Earlier this month, it was officially banned in San Francisco. Congress recently held a hearing about the pitfalls of the technology. Meanwhile, a backlash broke out in the U.K. last week after a Welsh man complained that the authorities breached his privacy with facial recognition, prompting police to defend what they call a valuable crime-prevention tool.
All that pales in comparison with China’s usage of the technology. Critics have accused the Chinese government of using such technology in its suppression of the Uighur minority, with experts digging up copious amounts of evidence to back up those claims. There are also concerns that facial recognition will be abused nationwide. Cameras equipped with the technology have sprung up alongside most major Chinese city streets, and even in some public bathrooms.
Alarming as such widespread state surveillance might seem to many Westerners, much of the Chinese population has welcomed its increasing ubiquity. As author Jianan Qian wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “Many people in China seem to be happy about the physical security promised by the surveillance network. Our mind-set, long ago, was wired to see safety and freedom as an either-or choice.”
That sentiment is echoed by Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He told me, “People care most about efficiency and order in China. They are not really concerned with so-called privacy.”
Privacy is certainly not paramount for the policeman in the China Mobile ad, who scans countless faces before zeroing in on his suspect and chasing him through the crowded Shanghai subway. One Chinese viewer of the ad, Fan Popo, said he couldn’t help but be “impressed with how well this video is made.” Anyone familiar with his work might be shocked to hear him praise such an advertisement. After all, he’s a filmmaker known for speaking truth to power. In 2015, he brought a successful legal case against China’s state media regulator when his LGBT-themed documentary Mama Rainbow was censored. And while he liked the quality of the ad, he was troubled by the themes behind it, saying, “It’s well-made propaganda, promoting how facial recognition is supposedly helping to improve society, and if you don’t accept it you will have bad people running away without being caught.”
According to Wu, the ad’s “highlighting of how facial recognition can catch criminals is little more than justification. Justice isn’t the intention of such surveillance—it’s a byproduct of top-down control.”
However, average citizens might not feel such pressure from on high when they think of facial recognition, which has become part of consumer life too. Cosmopolitan Chinese increasingly turn to face scans for chic conveniences, including paying for the subway and KFC. That trust may be misplaced: A recent survey found the “pay with your face” function on Alipay, a widely used Chinese app, to only be 70 percent accurate, well below the 90 percent accuracy pledge that Alipay made five years ago. But Wu says that such issues haven’t phased many Chinese users, in part because the technology’s potential for convenience and efficiency is high
Matthew Brennan, co-host of the China Tech Talk podcast, is hesitant to make blanket statements—pointing out that plenty of cosmopolitan Chinese share values and viewpoints with Westerners—but he does suspect that facial recognition is widely accepted in China for deeply cultural reasons. He calls China a “low-trust society, while Western societies tend to be high-trust.” Brennan chalks that difference up to rampant scams, from street corners to social media feeds, that have long plagued the People’s Republic of China with uncertainty.
Oddly enough, that lack of trust typically doesn’t apply to government higher-ups or the cutting-edge tech firms linked to those officials. Instead, those upper echelons are often seen as sources of strong leadership or innovation that can root out lower-level, local corruption, including scammers and unscrupulous neighbors. A recent Bloomberg article unravels that paradox by describing an app piloted in one Chinese city, through which users can report what they deem to be dubious behavior of fellow citizens to the authorities. It goes on to say, “Depicted outside of China as a creepy digital panopticon, this network of so-called social-credit systems is seen within China as a means to generate something the country sorely lacks: trust. For that, perpetual surveillance and the loss of privacy are a small price to pay.”
“In business, Westerners tend to trust people until they prove themselves untrustworthy, but the opposite is true in China,” Brennan said. “It stems back to the deep tradition of guanxi, or relationships, where friends introduce you to people you can trust for tasks or transactions.” He thinks most domestic viewers of the China Mobile supercop ad would “see it putting forth strength to hunt down bad actors. Meanwhile in Western society, we’d say the state has too much control, and facial recognition is being used for negative purposes. It boils down to perceptions of trust.”
Despite that thoughtful take, Brennan was right to be hesitant about making blanket statements. There was no shortage of nuanced comments made by Chinese viewers of the China Mobile ad on microblogging website Weibo. For instance, one commenter wondered, “What if a bad guy uses this facial recognition technology to cheat you?” Another wrote, “5G is ushering in a scary, naked period, where personal rights mean nothing compared to the rights of the broader public.”
Cynical as all that sounds, another netizen was even bleaker, writing, “This technology is creating a cage for us that is invisible to the naked eye.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.