I visited China for the first time earlier this month. While there, I spent a lot of time thinking about state surveillance.
Many Americans have some notion of what censorship looks like in China. We think of the Great Firewall, state-controlled news, and political self-censorship. Mass surveillance, however, is a distinct other matter.
For the purpose of this post, I’ll define surveillance as the intentional monitoring of individuals by others in power. Mass surveillance simply means scaling up the process to monitor large populations. The latter is almost always used to effect oppression, and can be employed by governments, businesses, and capable individuals. In case there is any doubt: I detest it, and hope you do too.
In China, I noticed mass surveillance in three forms: Internet traffic monitoring, CCTV or camera recording, and physical data collection.
The first form, Internet traffic monitoring, was the easiest to expect because it’s already universally pervasive; since at least the global surveillance disclosures of 2013, it’s difficult to be anywhere and believe that your online activity isn’t being overseen. Moreover, whether you’re a user of FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) products or their BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) counterparts, intentionally or not, it’s very clear that most of us are also monitored by a number of omnipresent corporations. There’s no difference in China (though the straightforward alliances between the government and top Internet companies are especially disturbing).
I was specifically wary of WeChat, Tencent’s ever-present mega-app. It’s a sort of everything-gadget in China: people use it for messaging, social networking, payments, and more. This huge surface area of personal information and Tencent’s casual attitude towards protecting users’ privacy has attracted the scorn of groups like the Indian government and Amnesty International. I’ve been intentional about never installing it, but in a city like Beijing, it is common to encounter vendors who refuse to accept anything else, including cash.
The silent force of video cameras was even easier to spot. They’re everywhere in Beijing, but just like Internet surveillance, I was never sure who was watching. There’s really nothing even that notable about the apparent mechanics of the camera networks, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
I couldn’t stop thinking about them because I knew they reminded me of a hypocrisy in my world view: why did they bother me more than the network of ones in New York? I walk past dome cameras outside my apartment, face scanners at work, and a citizen army of cell phone shutters every day. I’ve thought about all these things in the past, but in China I had a sinking feeling about how comfortable I’ve become with the status quo.
Finally, physical monitoring and document collection. This one bothered me the most, even to the point of brief distress. That’s because this third form of surveillance in China puts residents and tourists alike in the position to willingly and regularly hand over documents, personal information, and timestamps of their location; it feels so bad to just give in like that.
Customs and immigration paperwork at the border can be expected in just about any country, but China’s policies for foreign visitors extend quite a bit further than the standard. For example, after arrival, I was required to register with the neighborhood and municipal police departments, in person and with detailed plans for my whereabouts. I also needed to carry my passport everywhere after that so that it could be examined at security checkpoints or used as identification at ticket booths for even the most innocuous tourist spots.
To be clear, I’m not sharing this for sympathy nor to grumble about China specifically. I’m thankful to have the resources, personally and politically, to travel openly and without serious fear of danger or sanction. I’m also thankful that I have the same freedom to share these ideas; I think that privilege is reason enough to write this all down. Mass surveillance affects all of us, and my trip was a good opportunity to reflect on this reality abroad and at home.
P.S. China is great and I can’t wait to return. If you have the means, I hope you will consider visiting someday too.