China – the ultimate surveillance state?

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.

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

3 thoughts on “China – the ultimate surveillance state?”

  1. Well, you know more than anyone else does then! No-one really knows how many cameras there are in Britain. Newsnight did a survey of local government cameras recently, which I blogged – and I have disussed this question ad nauseam over the last year here – do a search on the blog for ‘how many cameras’ and you’ll see.

    In any case, the more important thing is who (or what) watched and what the cameras are used for. Here in Japan, there are plenty of cameras but most are not monitored at all. China is doing much more than just installing cameras – that is the point of my contention and indeed Naomi Klein’s article in Rolling Stone last year – which I recommend everyone reads.

    Believe it or not there are worse regimes in the world than New Labour…!

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