Most societies are surveillance societies of one kind or another and to a greater or lesser extent, but there are very few comprehensive surveillance states, i.e: nations where the government is really interested in what you are doing and thinking and has the will and the resources to find out. Iran has a pretty serious network of petty officials, informers and spies who enforce both moral and legal norms; Burma has a regime of fear and military rule; and several states, usually those with less comprehensive control, have vicious and arbitrary systems of punishment (like Sudan). However few have the combination of wealth, technological resources, a complete lack of concern for outside opinion, and state will to keep control on any moves to greater political diversity as that possessed by China.
According to a report in Xinhua today, China’s police have in the last few years installed more than 2.75 million cameras in public space, largely in urban areas, and are now moving to install cameras in rural locations too, “linked to police stations, community police service posts and farmer security guards in rural areas to establish a comprehensive security network”.
As Naomi Klein’s report last year showed, helped by willing western companies and law enforcement agencies, China is becoming a vast laboratory for surveillance and social control. The aim is a fully integrated system that can police real world and online behaviour. The ruling Communist Party, whilst opening up the economy is determined to prove, contrary to US assertions, that you can indeed have a free market system and still have complete one-party authoritarian control. And as anyone who has ever tried to have a discussion on Chinese politics with Chinese students or visiting academics, the control extends deep into the education system, with ‘normal’ patriotism preventing the development of all but the most banal of views counter to the approved picture.
It is probably sometimes worth remembering that however bad the UK or Japan or the USA or any other democratic state seems to have become in this regard, China still takes the prize for the world’s most comprehensive surveillance society.