Beijing Harnesses Big Data & AI to Perfect the Police State

Even by the standards of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the brutal treatment of China’s first Nobel Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, has breached the norms of civilized behavior. The third day after Liu‘s death from liver cancer—which deteriorated into the terminal stage last June largely due to lack of medical attention during his eight-year incarceration in northeastern Liaoning Province—the authorities cremated the body of the pro-democracy icon and scattered his ashes in the sea. This followed a short funeral, during which two dozen police and state-security personnel posed as relatives and friends paying their last respects. Liu’s supporters from all over China, some of whom had congregated in Shenyang, were barred from the hastily arranged ceremony. Although Liu’s widow, Liu Xia, has never been charged with any crimes, she has been held under house arrest since 2010. It is unlikely that she will gain her freedom anytime soon (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], July 15; Liberty Times [Taipei], July 15; HKO1.com, July 14).

The biggest question after Liu’s death is: Will this galvanize the badly demoralized and out-gunned pro-democracy community in China—and ignite another wave of protests? Most of China’s prominent dissidents either are in jail or kept under 24-hour surveillance. Only a few of them have been able to talk to the Western or Hong Kong media about Liu’s demise. It does not look as though they were confident about the future of democracy. Human rights activist and liberal columnist Mo Zhixu, a good friend of Liu’s, would only say that Liu’s death would have “a far-reaching influence on citizen movements.” Hu Jia, an internationally famous dissident who is under house arrest, said Liu’s writings and actions had “planted the seeds of democracy among Chinese.” When asked about the prospect of democracy, however, Hu had this to say: “To be pessimistic is meaningless… We only have one option, and that is to remain optimistic about China’s democratization.” The bitter truth is that thanks to the CCP’s through control over information and its relentless efforts in hunting down critics of the regime, few Chinese citizens outside intellectual circles know who Liu Xiaobo is. As Hu said: “In Beijing, if you ask 100 people and one of them says he has heard of Liu Xiaobo, it is quite something.” (Hong Kong Citizen News, July 14; Cable News, [Hong Kong] July 14; Central News Agency [Taiwan], July 13).

The biggest difficulty facing dissidents is that they are up against a fully digitalized and all-embracing tianluo diwang (天罗地网; “a dragnet that stretches from heaven to earth”), or what Politburo member in charge of internal security Meng Jianzhu calls a “multidimensional, all-weather and foolproof fangkong (防控; prevention and control) grid.” This wei-wen (维稳; “stability maintenance”) network was created even before President Xi Jinping came to power five years ago. It was Xi, however, who in 2014 introduced the concept of “mega national security” soon after he created the Central National Security Commission (CNSC), China’s top security organ. Xi, who doubles as CNSC chair, vowed that Beijing would lay out a “road map for national security with Chinese characteristics that will meet the challenges of the 21st century.” “We will pay utmost attention to both external and internal security; territorial security as well as citizens’ security; traditional and non-traditional security,” he instructed (Xinhua, April 16, 2014; China News Service, December 1, 2009). (See “Terrorism Fears Push Muscular Approach to ‘Overall National Security’,” China Brief, May 7, 2014). [1]

The supreme leader’s biggest contribution to thwarting pro-democracy and other “anti-government” movements, however, has been his determination to modernize Beijing’s already formidable police-state apparatus through the application of top-notch spy and related surveillance software. Xi set up in 2014 the Central Leading Group on Cyberspace Affairs, which is charged with building the world’s largest digitalized data bank to keep tabs on “destabilizing elements” ranging from criminals and terrorists to dissidents, underground church personnel, and NGO activists. Specialized weiwen cadres have the full cooperation of the country’s social-media and e-commerce platforms, as well as cloud-computing and related high-tech firms in establishing a seamless and all-encompassing intelligence network that would do George Orwell’s Big Brother proud (Hong Kong Citizen News, July 12; MIIT.gov.cn, June 5).

The Omniscient State

The biggest breakthrough is the successful use of artificial intelligence (AI) to uphold political stability. As the Anhui Daily put it earlier this month, anfang—“security protection,” which covers police and national-security work—has taken a leap forward due to AI-enabled security systems that have benefited from big data, cloud computing, “deep learning,” and identification and surveillance software. “‘AI plus anfang’ has changed passive defense [against dissent] to active advance-warning,” the official daily said. “This has rendered possible management of public safety based on [high] visibility, digitalization and AI-enablement” (Anhui Daily, July 11). Indigenously developed facial recognition software has enabled police and state-security agencies to keep track of all “destabilizing agents” in society. The mugshots of criminals and suspects, as well as dissidents, are being stored in police-run facial-recognition data banks. China boasts more than 170 million surveillance cameras and video facilities all over the country, most of which are interfaced with these state-of-the-art AI-enabled data collections (South China Morning Post, May 26; Liberty Times, December 4, 2016).

While facial-recognition techniques have in the past couple years been used for mundane activities such as accessing ATM machines or unlocking mobile phones, more instances of anfang-related applications have been reported in the open media. Take, for example, the case of a Wuhan resident surnamed Xiao who was wanted by police for alleged fraud. He was earlier this month bicycling along the city’s famed East Lake when the computer in the local police surveillance center blipped. Xiao’s face had appeared on one of the several facial-recognition enabled surveillance cameras installed on the East Lake waterfront. The local media reported that there was a 97.44 percent resemblance between Xiao’s facial features as captured by the spy camera and the photo that was stored in the data bank for criminals on the lam. Xiao was arrested within 24 hours (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], July 10; Wall Street Journal, June 26; Hong Kong Free Press, June 19).

Both Chinese and foreign experts reckon that China has the most advanced— and cheapest—AI-enabled surveillance technology in the world. The reason is simple: China has the fastest-expanding market for facial recognition and similar know-how. This is coupled with the absence of enforceable laws and regulations protecting citizens’ privacy. According to Zhao Yong, the CEO of DeepGlint, a successful AI firm, it takes a mere second for company technology to compare and contrast tens of millions of sets of facial features (CPS.com.cn, March 9). Zhong An Wang (中安网,literally “China Security Net,” or http://www.CPS.com.cn/), a popular website for anfang-related AI start-ups, noted that this sector manufactured products worth 486 billion yuan in 2015. Major funders include not only the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security and other government departments but also private companies. Multi-billion-dollar firms in the areas of IT, e-commerce, finance as well as universities which have made big investments in facial recognition technology include Alibaba, the Citic Group, the Pingan Group, Vanke, and Tsinghua University. Megvii Technology Inc, a leading facial recognition software manufacturer, has received hefty investments from multinationals including the Taiwan IT giant Foxconn Technology (China Daily, January 12; 36kr.com [Beijing], December 6, 2016).

China’s leading clout in big-data engineering has also yielded a bonanza for the crafting of a police-state apparatus choc-a-choc with essential data of its estimated 700 million netizens. The Central Leading Group on Cyberspace Affairs has fostered the establishment of a national “social credit” data bank. With information provided by the social media, e-commerce platforms as well as banks and e-banking firms, police and state-security departments have since 2015 established a nation-wide social credit system to keep tabs on even the apparently mundane activities of citizens (South China Morning Post, November 24, 2015; BBC Chinese Service, October 27, 2015).

Social credit data depositories are not unique to China. Banks and credit card companies in Western and Asian countries keep thick files on the income and credit-worthiness of customers. The difference is that in China, all such information kept by supposedly privacy-conscious banks, e-banking, and e-commerce platforms as well and social-media firms is fed into the security forces’ mass surveillance system. Big Brother has a full picture of citizens’ credit ratings, their spending habits and punctuality in paying taxes. Also input into the data pool is citizens’ education levels, consumption patterns, and records of travels abroad (China Safety.gov.cn, June 26; Hong Kong Free Press, January 3). While this sensitive data is not necessarily security-related, it forms an important part of a comprehensive database that police departments can use to rapidly access important information about every Chinese citizen.

Of course, the crudest form of data collection is happening particularly in restive districts such as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where police and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police are battling the activities of Uighur dissidents and separatists. Since 2016, police have been collecting samples of DNA of Uighurs with the apparent purpose of constructing a national Uighur DNA bank. A recent report by New York-based Human Rights Watch noted that Xinjiang authorities recently bought $10 billion worth of equipment for the purpose of DNA collection, storage, and analysis (BBC Chinese, May 7; Radio Free Asia, May 7). HRW China Director Sophie Richardson pointed out that “mass DNA collection by the powerful Chinese police absent effective privacy protections or an independent judicial system is a perfect storm for abuses” (Human Rights Watch, May 15).

The Party’s Eyes

The emphasis on high-tech surveillance has been complemented by ground level “human intelligence” gathering based on Chairman Mao’s famous “people’s warfare” strategy. Mobilizing the masses for the cause of anfang and fangkong was first used successfully to prevent mishaps in the 2008 Summer Olympics. That year, 850,000 “volunteer-vigilantes” (治安志愿者or “law-and-order volunteers”) were recruited in the capital. Part of their jobs was to provide information to local public security bureaus upon seeing “suspicious characters” or coming upon “plots” supposedly hatched by terrorist and dissident groups. The same tactics were adopted by Shanghai and Hangzhou authorities to ensure public safety during the 2010 Shanghai Expo and the G20 summit last year. Cai Qi (蔡奇), the newly appointed Party Secretary of Beijing, has taken things forward by pledging to draft significantly more Beijing residents into the capital’s fangkong network. The New Beijing Post reported that different categories of informants and other weiwen personnel had breached the 1.4 million mark. Cai heaped particular praise on the wei-wen contributions of the city’s Chaoyang and Xicheng Districts. Registered volunteer-vigilantes in Chaoyang numbered more than 130,000, meaning there are 277 such personnel per square kilometer. The party chief vowed to turn volunteer-vigilantes in Chaoyang into “the world’s fifth-largest intelligence agency” (New Beijing Post, July 12; Global Times, July 4). This staggering number of part-time spies and informants have rendered it even more difficult for members of dissident groups and NGOs—even those involved with apparently innocuous issues such as environmental protection—to either expand their organization or to stage public events.

Conclusion

After Liu’s Xiaobo’s death, all references to him or even associated terms such as the Nobel Peace Prize, Charter 08, “sea burial,” the initials RIP were scrubbed from Chinese websites and media. Even a candle-shaped emoji used by some as a memorial was blocked. A number of Liu’s friends and supporters who had gone to Shenyang or who had staged brief, small-scale protests in a handful of Chinese cities, have received severe warnings or been subjected to brief detentions by the police. The country’s pro-democracy movement is currently at low tide. The increasing sophistication and reach of the country’s AI-enabled police-state apparatus mean that it is possible that Liu’s peaceful, moderate and incremental goals for political liberalization might lapse into dormancy for the foreseeable future.

 

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (Routledge 2015).

 

Notes:

  1. For a discussion of Xi’s reasons for setting up the CNSC, see for example: David Lampton, “Xi Jinping and the National Security Commission: Policy coordination and political power,” Journal of Contemporary China, March 18, 2015, pp. 759–777; Elizabeth C. Economy, “China’s Imperial President: Xi Jinping tightens his grip,” Foreign Affairs, 2014, http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/fora93&div=135&id=&page=.