Future Tense

What Is the Future of China’s Surveillance State?

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves from in front of the red background of the Chinese flag.
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he leaves after speaking at a press event on Oct. 23 in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Listen to What Next: TBD:

There’s a video that surfaced out of Beijing on Oct. 13, right before China’s Communist Party congress met to give Xi Jinping a precedent-breaking third term. The video is of a one-man protest: a man standing atop the Sitong Bridge, with something on fire, holding two banners. One has a bunch of things written on it, but it’s essentially saying, “We’re tired of COVID tests. We want to eat. We’re tired of lockdowns. We want freedom.” The other one calls for the “autocratic dictator” or the “autocratic traitor” Xi Jinping to be deposed.

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Josh Chin, who has covered China for more than a decade, said that under Xi Jinping, you almost never see protests like this—the levels of control that the Communist Party wields now are too high. But the other thing that’s striking in this clip is that you can see nine security cameras just in one frame of the shot. And this is where Josh comes in. He and his colleague, Liza Lin, have just written a remarkable book about the rise of China’s surveillance state and how Xi Jinping has used high-tech surveillance to consolidate his power. Because bathrooms are the one place in China that aren’t really subject to surveillance, after this brief and brave protest, the slogans displayed by the man on the bridge started popping up in bathrooms across China. What does it mean that the only viable spaces for political expression in China—the only places where surveillance is not yet common—are bathrooms?

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On Sunday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Josh Chin, deputy bureau chief for China for the Wall Street Journal, about Xi Jinping’s high-tech surveillance state and some American companies that helped get him there. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: In a story you wrote in 2017, you described Xinjiang province, home to China’s ethnic Uyghur minority, as one of the “most closely surveilled places on earth.” What was it like to actually visit? 

Josh Chin: When we got there, it was like just driving into a dystopian counterinsurgency war zone where essentially everywhere you went, you were encountering cutting-edge, A.I.-driven technology—surveillance cameras, microphones. Uyghurs, who are a Turkic Muslim group, come from Xinjiang and were the targets of the surveillance. If you were a Uyghur, what they were telling us is you would go outside and from the minute you left your door, you were being tracked. There were security checkpoints everywhere, every public place. If you wanted to go into a bank or a hotel or a market, anything like that, you had to go through a security checkpoint. You had to scan your ID card and also scan your face to match it with your ID card, and so they would have a record of where you were going. Walking down the street, police could wave you over and make you hand over your phone and they would plug it into a scanning device and they would scan your phone for some digital contraband.

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The Chinese state took this data and slotted people into one of three categories: safe, average, and unsafe.

People who were unsafe were disappearing and they were being sent to what the government described as schools, but when we went to go visit them, we visited one and it was essentially a prison. It had 20-foot-high walls with razor wire. There were guards out front with assault rifles. What we later found out was that those were internment camps where people were being subject to political reeducation.

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You met the Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut, who has since fled the country, but he and his wife were subjected to a lot of this stuff. What did he tell you about the granular level of stuff that they experienced?

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Tahir’s probably most vivid experience was early on in 2017 as the system was being rolled out. He and his wife were called into a police station, ostensibly to have their fingerprints taken, which they both thought was weird because of course every Uyghur in Xinjiang has already had their fingerprints taken before, but they didn’t really have a choice. I remember Tahir describing this, and you could still see the fear in his eyes, because he had heard screams emanating from this basement because it’s where police conducted interrogations. And so, he’s standing in a line with a bunch of other Uyghurs. Nobody really knows why they’re there. They start talking amongst themselves and they figure out that it’s all because all of them had recently traveled abroad or they all had passports.

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The line wound past an interrogation room and Hamut could see chairs with bloodstains on the floor underneath them.

When he got to the end of the line, they subjected him to this series of biometric tests. They took his fingerprints, but then they also took his blood, and then they had him read from a newspaper article for five minutes while they recorded his voice. At the end, the finale was a 3D image of his face where he had to sit in front of this camera and move his head back and forth and up and down and open his mouth and close it.

And he had no idea what any of this was for. Obviously he realized it was not good. And then later, he and his wife got out and started to notice all of these cameras that had been popping up in their neighborhoods and these police stations that were just suddenly mushrooming on street corners. And they realized that they were all part of this experiment in surveillance. And then their friends started to disappear, and then they basically decided that they needed to try to get out.

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When you wrote that story, did you think they were building a surveillance apparatus for Uyghurs? Or did you think Xi Jinping was building something national?

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We didn’t know. On the surface it looked very targeted at Uyghurs. Xinjiang has always been a place that’s always really strategically important to Chinese rulers because it’s on the doorstep of Central Asia. It used to be where the Silk Road passed through. It also has a lot of natural resources, but it’s always been difficult to control because Uyghurs and other groups aren’t really Chinese—culturally, linguistically, they don’t have very much in common with China and they’ve always resented Chinese attempts to control Xinjiang, and so there’s always been a lot of conflict.

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Prior to this surveillance state being rolled out, there had been a series of fairly surprising attacks by Uyghurs outside of Xinjiang, including one in Beijing. After that happened, Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, declared what he called a “people’s war on terror.” When we got to Xinjiang, we were like, “OK, so this is the people’s war. This is what it looks like.” But then we got back to Beijing, and I remember talking to a Chinese activist for another story, and he said, “What’s happening in Xinjiang now is just a preview of what’s going to happen in the rest of China.”

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As surveillance systems expanded to the rest of the country, the government was proud of it, talking up so-called smart cities like Hangzhou. Hangzhou, which is picturesque and affluent, is home to both Alibaba and the video technology company Hikvision. The local government has embraced their technology to create a “city brain,” a platform that controls everything from traffic to trash detection.

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When we were writing this book, we were surprised at how pleasant state surveillance was in Hangzhou and how people seemed to really be totally happy with it. And we’re like, “OK, so there is another side to this.” We were looking around for stories and how it really affected people’s lives, and we stumbled across the story of this woman who was living on the outskirts of Hangzhou in the suburbs, and she was doing her laundry in a creek, and she fell in and basically half drowned. Luckily enough, a neighbor was walking by, saw it happen, dragged her out, and her son also happened to be nearby. So, they pulled her out and they were doing CPR on her, and finally the ambulance shows up and they load her in. And on the ambulance, there was a switch that was part of the city brain system. And they flipped the switch, and essentially, it told the city brain to turn all of the lights along the ambulance’s route to the hospital green. And so they were able to rush this woman into the emergency room. They pumped out her lungs and she was fine. And it was this story where we were like, “Oh, this is lifesaving technology.”

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You also have some fascinating stories of the technology getting stuff wrong. That the A.I., instead of identifying a hump of trash that’s supposed to be picked up … whoops, it’s some leaves!

One of the Chinese government’s favorite genres of stories is of this technology being used to find lost children or abducted children because it’s such a huge issue in China. I remember one story in particular, also at Hangzhou. There was a housing complex, and they were selling themselves as this smart residential compound that had these A.I. systems that would manage security and that had helped find elderly residents who had dementia who’d wandered off and had found lost children.

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And so Liza, my co-author, went there and she was asking around for a day, asking residents, “Have you heard about these systems finding lost children?” And everyone she talked to was like, “Nah, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And she went, finally, to the property management office and she walked in and she saw this video showing how this system had found these lost kids. And she’s like, “Who’s the mother in that video? I need to talk to her.” And the person at the front desk turns around and says, “Oh, she’s not really a mother. She’s a staff member here. We made that as a promotional video.”

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The technology really … It’s good. It’s much better than it’s ever been, but it’s not perfect. But also, what we discovered is, it doesn’t matter, in some ways, because ultimately state surveillance is as much about propaganda as it is about technology. And the idea is to get you to believe that you’re being watched.

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If you believe you’re being surveilled, it doesn’t really matter.

Exactly. Because what you want people to do is to adjust their behavior. So, if people think that cameras are watching them all the time and can recognize them and pick them out of a crowd, that affects the way they behave. It also makes them feel safer. That’s the flip side of it, is this idea that, “Oh, the Communist Party is watching out for you.” And so as long as everyone believes that, the party’s achieved its goals largely without even having to actually have that technology working 100 percent.

This is a really difficult question to answer because there’s always the potential for it to be loaded with so many stereotypes, but is there a way to know how people feel about this surveillance?

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I think it really depends a lot on who you are and your context at the time. And a lot of Chinese people perceive the system as working in their favor and so they’re happy with it. But there are plenty of Chinese people who, because of who they are and their circumstances, realize that that’s not the case.

There are some U.S. companies whose products China has relied on for years to surveil its citizens. What are those?

One of the companies we looked at was Intel. Its venture capital arm turns out to have funded one of the pioneers of digital surveillance in China and also sold chips to them and gave them advice. You have NVIDIA, which is a major chip maker in California that also sells a lot of chips to Chinese surveillance companies. Microsoft. Almost any Silicon Valley company out there, maybe with the exception of Google, which essentially had to leave China, they’re involved in one way or another.

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I’m also really interested in the fact that some of these companies are exporting tools and systems to other places, to Uganda, for example. Do you think that is about selling Chinese products, or a Chinese vision of surveillance?

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It’s definitely both. Chinese companies are very commercially driven, and they’ve essentially saturated the Chinese market. There are something on the order of 400 million surveillance cameras installed in China already. There’s one for every three or four citizens. So if you’re a Chinese camera-maker, you can’t really sell into China anymore, so you have to look abroad.

I think for the Chinese government, it is an effort to spread an idea about the use of these technologies by the government, but it’s not specifically that they’re trying to spread the Chinese model. The Communist Party is very interesting in that they want to have global influence, but they also talk all the time about the uniqueness of the Chinese model, the uniqueness of Chinese achievement. So, they’re not selling the Chinese model in particular, but what they are doing is selling this idea that it is legitimate for governments to use these technologies to exercise control in whatever way they see fit.

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The Biden administration has just done a bunch of different things that connect to what we’re talking about. They put in new controls on the export of American chip technology to China, and then the Justice Department charged two Chinese citizens with spying for Huawei. How should we think about these things? Are they the sum of their parts? Are they some message … “Hey, Xi Jinping. You have just consolidated power. We’re watching. We want to put a thumb on the scale in this whole surveillance question.” How do you think about them?

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I think the way to think about these moves is to zoom out a little bit and think more in terms of U.S.–China tech competition. What’s clear now is that the Biden administration, similar to the Trump administration, has taken a really hard line on China, and it is basically effectively trying to contain China. They don’t say it as much, but if you look at the actions, and particularly with these most recent restrictions on chip exports, it was a really bold and potentially tectonic move by the Biden administration.

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They really need these chips. They don’t make ones as good as NVIDIA does, right?

No. So essentially the Biden administration has cut China off from high-end chips, which it needs for a huge range of applications.

A lot of it is targeting the military. That’s probably the government’s biggest concern, is they want to make sure that China’s military cannot develop and use A.I. weapons. But also the surveillance state, particularly the situation in Xinjiang, has been influencing policy in a way that’s really interesting. Human rights was not a concern in the U.S.–China relationship in a real way for many, many years, but it has become that way now, I think largely because of Xinjiang.

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So that’s also motivating this, and it really does have the potential to cripple the surveillance state in some pretty significant ways in the sense that the chips that are used for something like facial recognition or for training A.I. surveillance algorithms, China really doesn’t have the ability to make those chips on its own, or at least not chips that are as good.

At the recent party congress, Xi Jinping began a third term as the country’s president and assumed even more control over China’s Communist Party. Everyone else is negligible. Even the former president, Hu Jintao, was mysteriously escorted from the event. How does Xi’s political future relate to the success of his surveillance state?

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Xi Jinping’s opening speech before the party congress was overwhelmingly focused on national and domestic security. And the country is investing hugely in technologies that feed into this surveillance system, and so the system is going to be, for him, I think extremely important because as he moves into this next phase of his rule, he has to figure out how to maintain both control and legitimacy in the country without this huge double-digit historic economic growth that his predecessors had.

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Previous leaders really benefited from that economic growth in the sense that that was all they really had to deliver. The economy was already slowing down in the early years of Xi Jinping’s rule, but he has exacerbated that, particularly during the pandemic, with his zero-COVID rules that have really crushed the economy.

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So now China has, by its standards, extremely low economic growth, and he needs to figure out what to do, how to control society in the absence of that. Surveillance answers that question, both in the carrot sense and the stick sense, in that he and the rest of the Communist Party believe that they really can use these technologies to make people’s lives better. Even if the economy isn’t growing, people’s lives can become more convenient and predictable and safe and that will be attractive. And then if it’s not enough, they have the tools to sniff out dissent and send away the people who aren’t accepting of the current situation.

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What role do you think the COVID surveillance has played here?

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This has been the really fascinating thing recently in China, to see how public attitudes toward the government and toward the surveillance system have changed as a result, basically, of mutations in the virus, because in the early days of COVID, when we were still dealing with the delta variant and the original flavor of COVID-19, the Communist Party did a really good job of controlling it, and they used these technologies roughly the way that they were supposed to. The death rates in China were much, much lower than they are almost anywhere else in the world. And people were able to live relatively normal lives for the first year of the pandemic.

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What happened is omicron came along and it moved too quickly for the surveillance system to keep up, and the Communist Party had to change the target of surveillance from the virus to people. And so they started locking down cities and using these really dystopian combinations of technologies to keep people at home. So they have robot dogs and drones prowling residential compounds, and they were putting alarms on everyone’s door. Anyone who was found to be infected would get a little device put on their door to monitor whether they were leaving their apartment and that sort of thing.

And the lockdowns were really harsh, including in Shanghai. There was this weekslong lockdown in one of the wealthiest cities in the country, and people were having trouble getting food and medical care and they were really freaking out in ways that those people, wealthy residents of this financial center in China, had not really experienced before. I think people now do feel like life under COVID-zero, with just repeated lockdowns and constant surveillance, is just too much. The other issue is that there’s no end in sight. The Communist Party keeps doubling down on it.

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