China has been covered in a blanket of surveillance cameras which monitor everything from street life and traffic to hotel lobbies, karaoke bars, and the homes of political dissidents.
My wife did not think anything of the fact that there were CCTV cameras in her classroom. She went in, taught, went home — business as usual. Then one day she had a student who was being disruptive during nap time. No big deal, this was normal given the fact that she teaches three year olds. So she just moved the rowdy boy to another room so the others could sleep.
But then a phone call came into the school.
“Where is my son? Where is my son?”
It was the boy’s mother. She was watching. When she sat down at her home computer, loaded the school’s website, signed in, and cued into the camera in her son’s classroom she found that he was not there. So she called the school to figure out what was going on.
It then became apparent to my wife that those CCTV cameras in her class were not just beaming stale footage to the security guard, but were broadcasting live footage on the internet for all her students’ families to watch.
My wife and her Montessori class in China is a show, and it is not rare for members of the live viewing audience to call in with questions and concerns.
This is normal in China, a country where the idea of privacy has very different parameters than in does in the West in most all aspects. Why would my wife care that people are sitting back in their homes and offices watching her class live on the internet? This is a country of 1.3 billion people, what’s the big deal of a few more are watching you remotely?
But it’s not just a few concerned, nosy, or bored parents that are watching you in China. CCTV cameras are everywhere in this country, and, as my wife found, they all are not just being benignly watched by underpaid security personnel.
Being remotely viewed, being watched on camera, is a part of life in China. It is just too normal here to even think about. There are now millions of CCTV and other surveillance cameras through the country. They are above traffic lights at nearly every intersection, in movie theaters, hotel lobbies, karaoke bars, religious buildings, most stores, malls, and, as my wife found out, in classrooms. Some of these cameras are controlled by the government and the footage is logged in massive public security databases, some are genuinely closed circuit and are for private use, while others are a blend of these two types, being private cameras that the authorities can tap into.
A surveillance camera mania has broken out in this country. The more there are they more they become socially acceptable; the more they become socially acceptable the more there will be. This is a trend that began around ten years ago that just keeps growing. Last year, Shanghai announced that it would be hiring a team of four thousand people just to monitor the city’s surveillance feeds 24/7. Chongqing said that it will be adding another 300,000 public cameras to the 200,000 they already have. A district in the city of Changsha brags that it has one camera for every ten people living there. 400,000 new cameras are slated to go up throughout Inner Mongolia. The amount of surveillance equipment that has been put up in potentially volatile ethnic areas such as in Xinjiang or Tibet is enviable by a prison camp. And hundreds and hundreds of other places in China are following suit.
These surveillance cameras are said to be set up in the name of preventing crime and inhibiting/ monitoring political dissidents, but the effect is a blanket of video footage that is quickly covering the country. The government has even installed cameras in entertainment venues to monitor the content of plays, music, and other performances.
The rise of surveillance cameras in public and private places is nothing out of the ordinary throughout the world, and the designers of China’s Golden Shield Program, which is designed to paint the country in a sea of cameras with face recognition technology, says that the system was modeled off of similar ones in the United States and UK — but this is how the Chinese often try to justify actions they know are screwed up:
As part of China’s Golden Shield Project, several U.S. corporations such as IBM, General Electric, and Honeywell have been working closely with the Chinese government to install millions of surveillance cameras throughout China, along with advanced video analytics and facial recognition software, which will identify and track individuals everywhere they go. They will be connected to a centralized database and monitoring station, which will, upon completion of the project, contain a picture of the face of every person in China: over 1.3 billion people. Lin Jiang Huai, the head of China’s “Information Security Technology” office (which is in charge of the project), credits the surveillance systems in the United States and the U.K. as the inspiration for what he is doing with the Golden Shield project.
But there is one guiding rule for the tendencies of the Chinese that comes up throughout history: when they do something they do it to the extreme. No other country on the globe has more surveillance cameras than China, and the extreme pace at which they are going up everywhere is the stuff of insanity. Just about everywhere has a watchful electronic eye on it, and many are feeding into a massive public database that covers each and every of China’s 1.34 billion people.
I’ve often made poor jests about how it’s suiting that China’s government controlled television network and closed circuit television have the same acronym, but the facts of the matter are evident: CCTV cameras are everywhere. Big Brother really is watching you when you walk through the streets, when you shop, go into hotels, sing karaoke, teach in a classroom, drive a car, and when you eat noodles at a corner stall.
On a per individual level does this surveillance really matter? Does it really impact our lives? I don’t feel particularly violated as I walk through the streets of China: everyone is already staring at me anyway, what do I care if they’re watching me on a screen as well? If you’re a law abiding citizen, are politically neutral, and have nothing to do with government or big business — if you’re like 99.9% of the people in this country — then this surveillance will probably never directly impact your life. This is not a country that you could get away with much without someone seeing you in person anyway, let alone through the lens of a video camera. But it is the security culture that is overtly disconcerting, and it makes me feel compelled to ask a few simple question:
Why does this government feel that it needs to monitor its citizens so closely? What is it afraid of?
Why is China so insecure in its internal authority?
What’s really going on here?
Is this surveillance blanket just the new, hot techno-gadget toy that the Chinese government wants to play with? Or is there something more dire brewing under the surface that harkens back to the time before the reform era?
“If the purpose is for the public security of society, personal rights have to give way to public rights,” commented a Chinese political science professor in an article that appeared on the Guardian.
This is how the government and their pet media and education system sell the issue of video surveillance. But, unlike in the USA and UK, there isn’t much discernible public outcry about the blanket of surveillance equipment that has popped up seemingly everywhere. I’ve never heard anyone complain about the cameras or even mention them — life goes on as usual, people seem far more concerned with getting into university, landing a good job, or finding a wife than they do over the potential that Big Brother is watching them.
But this is also a country where life is far easier if you just pretend the government doesn’t exist. The Chinese government and Chinese people seem to exist on two different planets, and the former monitoring the later with all their CCTV gadgets is like a race of aliens studying earthlings to to figure out ways to better control them. China has one of its feet in the modern age, the other in the communist era, and its head in the days of dynasties.
Like with so many other things in China, the reaction of the people about the actions of their government is all too often a silent shrug meaning “What can we do?” But there is an undercurrent of often unspoken thought and emotion among the Chinese that is overtly human. The issue of public surveillance was perhaps put best to the Global Times by an unnamed theater director in Beijing:
“I hope the authorities will think deeply about this plan. Monitoring us is not appropriate. Would you be comfortable if you knew that someone was watching you all the time?”
When in China, be sure you look (behave) your best: you never know who’s watching.