China syndromeRole of U.S. companies in building China's internal security system reviewed

Published 4 February 2008

The Chinese government decided last year to invest heavily in security technology — especially intelligent CCTVs equipped with facial recognition capabilities; the Chinese say it has to do with security for the Summer Olympics; the sheer scope and breadth of the project, though, means that the new security system aims to strengthen the government’s ability to repress basic freedoms; role of U.S. companies questioned

Some things change, some things do not. Chinese rulers, since Imperial times, have relied on neighbors to inform on each other as a way to maintain social control. What with the migration of close to ten million peasants to cities each year, this centuries-old system of citizens watching one another is eroding, leading China’s leaders a year ago to decide to rely much more on technology to maintain internal control. That decision — or, more accurately, the important role of U.S. companies in helping the Chinese government carry out the decision — is casuing consternation in Congress, discomfort in the administration, and anxiety among American security companies that new regulations would bar them from the lucrative Chinese market.

The New York Times’s Keith Bradsher writes that the Chinese government is now embracing the extensive use of street-by-street surveillance technology, but that the United States government is becoming less sure that American companies should be playing a central role in the effort. The Commerce Department is drafting new rules on what security equipment American companies can sell to China. The move comes in response to rapid advances in surveillance technology and the increasing involvement of American companies in the Chinese market as the Summer Olympics approach. People knowledgable of the process said the Commerce Department was singling out biometric technology — face-recognition software, in particular — which Chinese security agencies could use to identify political and religious dissidents. E. Richard Mills, the department’s chief spokesman, confirmed that the agency had begun drafting new rules, but said it was unclear whether the regulations would have the overall effect of tightening or loosening export controls. Mills said any changes would have to be reviewed by other government agencies and submitted to public comment.

Chinese security agencies are rapidly increasing their spending on intelligent video systems, that is, video systems with powerful computer analysis tools. American companies, with heavy financial backing from American hedge funds, have played a major role in helping Chinese cities install thousands of street surveillance cameras and use computers to process the video. Congress has become concerned about the export controls on such activity, especially as it can be used not only for tracking terrorists and criminals but also for government repression of basic freedoms. Industry does not agree. General Electric and United Technologies have been aggressively pursuing contracts in China to sell advanced surveillance equipment from the