China syndromeChina deploys vast, pervasive surveillance system for Games -- and beyond

Published 7 August 2008

The Chinese government has installed about 300,000 cameras in Beijing and set up a network to spy on its citizens and foreigners; cabs are equipped with hidden recording devices; many hotel rooms have one-way mirrors; Mao-era practice of neighborhood watches revives

You think the United Kingdom is the Surveillance State? Think again. The blocking of human rights Web sites in China leading up to the Olympics is part of an information control and surveillance network awaiting visitors which will include monitoring devices in hotels and taxis and snoops almost everywhere. Government agents or their proxies are suspected of stepping up cyber-attacks on overseas Tibetan, human rights, and press freedom groups and the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement in recent weeks. China is also spending huge sums on sophisticated surveillance systems that incorporate face recognition technology, biometrics, and massive databases to help control the population. The Los Angeles Times’s Mark Magnier writes that China has installed about 300,000 cameras in Beijing under an estimated $6.5-billion, seven-year program dubbed the Grand Beijing Safeguard Sphere. Although face recognition software still can not process rapidly moving images, China hopes that it can soon electronically identify faces out of a vast crowd. “China is trying to project a picture and a narrative about the Olympics,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. “By limiting journalists, shutting down the Internet, arresting activists, it’s hoping to control the message.”

The world’s most populous nation has legitimate concerns, as seen this week in an attack in the far western province of Xinjiang that killed sixteen police officers. Few expect the security infrastructure to be even partially dismantled, a step Greece took after hosting the 2004 games. Critics said these systems give China more advanced tools in its bid to control domestic critics, activists, and media. In recent months China has recruited thousands of Beijing taxi drivers and hundreds of thousands of neighborhood busybodies to keep an eye on foreigners and its own citizens. “Everyone feels they’re entering a police state, which by the way it is, duh,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China. “So they’ve got people reporting down to the lowest neighborhood level, which is not new, overlaid by state-of-the-art technology. It’s the best of the old and the new.”

Another technology that raises concern involves the new identity cards China is phasing in for its 1.3 billion citizens. The cards, developed with help from Plano, Texas-based China Information Security Technology, carry radio signal devices and a chip that records not only a person’s height, weight, and identification number, but also health records, work history, education, travel,