August 2, 2010
At the intersection with Shanxi Lane, a busy crossing in this northwest China metropolis, 11 surveillance cameras eye the bustle from a metal boom projecting over one corner. Still more cameras stare down from the other three corners — 39 in all, still-photo and high-resolution video.
“The whole city is under surveillance,” said one nearby shopkeeper who, like many here, refused to give his name. Asked why, he replied sourly, “It’s not my business.”
But it is no secret. Roughly a year ago, Urumqi’s ethnic Han and Uighur populations took part in the worst ethnic rioting in modern Chinese history, killing at least 197 people. The riots caught the Communist Party and the local government unaware.
Now at least 47,000 cameras scan Urumqi to ensure there are no more surprises. By year’s end, the state news media says, there will be 60,000.
Video surveillance is hardly uncommon in the West. But nowhere else is it growing as explosively as in China, where seven million cameras already watch streets, hotel lobbies, businesses and even mosques and monasteries — and where experts predict an additional 15 million cameras will sprout by 2014.
Much of the proliferation is driven by the same rationales as in Western nations: police forces stretched thin, rising crime, mushrooming traffic jams and the bureaucratic overkill that attends any mention of terrorism.
But China also has another overriding concern — controlling social order and monitoring dissent. And some human rights advocates say they fear that the melding of ever improving digital technologies and the absence of legal restraints on surveillance raise the specter of genuinely Orwellian control over society.
Video software can already spot a chosen automobile in a stream of traffic by reading license plates, and cameras have improved so greatly that some can even take clear pictures of people inside autos. Facial-recognition software is in its infancy, but already, China requires Internet cafe users to be photographed, so that computers can identify them no matter which cafe they patronize, and what identification they present.
“This is not a self-contained system of video surveillance, but one part in a much larger architecture of surveillance that includes Internet monitoring and censorship, telecommunications and law enforcement databases,” Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in an e-mail exchange. “Privacy safeguards are simply nonexistent in China, making the state entirely free to mobilize this architecture of surveillance for political ends.”
It is unclear what share of China’s growing camera population is government-controlled. The Ministry of State Security reported one year ago that police had installed 2.75 million cameras nationwide, most in urban public spaces, and had asked local police forces to place more in rural areas.
IMS Research, a company based in Britain that tracks China’s surveillance industry, estimates that 30 percent of new camera installations have purely governmental uses, from police surveillance to cameras in libraries or prisons. Cameras on roads and in airports, subways and other modes of transport are the second most common use.
But that underestimates the extent of state surveillance. The video cameras in China’s Internet cafes are required to be linked to government security offices. Guangdong Province, in southeast China, last year ordered hotels, guesthouses, hospitals and places of entertainment to install cameras in all main rooms and reception areas, joining museums and galleries, schools, newspapers and television stations on a growing list.
In Guangdong, adjoining Hong Kong, security officials are just wrapping up a reported $1.8 billion installation of one million video cameras covering major cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Beijing was expected to have 470,000 cameras by the end of 2009, says the Beijing Security and Protection Industry Association. Chongqing, a sprawling South China city, will add 200,000 cameras by 2012 to the 300,000 it now has.
China’s string of “coming-out parties,” from the 2008 Olympics to this year’s Shanghai Expo and the Guangzhou Asian Games, have all been preceded by security clampdowns that included extensive installations of surveillance cameras.
Officials say the cameras leverage the latest technology to battle crime and terrorism. Guangdong provincial officials told Chinese news services last year that their new cameras had deterred more than 18,000 street crimes even before the one million cameras had been fully deployed. In Kunming, in south-central China, crime dropped 10 percent after the police installed new cameras, the city’s deputy police chief told a security forum last spring.
That said — and some Western skeptics dispute claims of the cameras’ crime-fighting success — China’s video surveillance clearly has a darker side.
After ethnic rioting in Tibet in 2008 and Urumqi in 2009, security authorities installed live cameras both inside and on the grounds of monasteries and mosques, and hoteliers were ordered to place high-quality cameras and scanners in their buildings. Deploying video cameras for 24-hour monitoring of dissidents and troublemakers, such as citizens seeking to bring grievances to authorities, is now standard procedure.
Most recently, Mr. Bequelin said, the Beijing writer Yu Jie and environmental activist Wu Lihong have come under constant video watch after coming under official scrutiny.
The longer-term concern, he said, is that video surveillance will become a pervasive tool for controlling not only China’s comparative handful of dissidents, but the masses of people who ordinarily would not run afoul of the state.
In Urumqi, Communist Party and security officials initially agreed to a reporter’s request for an interview about cameras there, then demurred, explaining that cameras were a well-known anticrime tool and that there was nothing new to say. Still, recent reports in the Chinese news media, which was given broad access to security officials to report on the surveillance system, hint at the cameras’ potential.
Urumqi’s taxi fleet has had live video cameras for two years. Officials said they had since posted cameras on the city’s 3,400 buses and in 200 bus stations, 200 major stores and markets, 270 schools and along 4,400 roads — and would continue to mount new cameras until the entire city is blanketed.
In the city’s Tianshan district, a Uighur neighborhood racked by riots a year ago, a report on the Chinese Internet portal NetEase described 20 staff members at the local Public Security Bureau scanning the monitors. “One showed the picture inside of a Line 50 bus; the other showed the picture in front of a major supermarket on Qinnian Road,” the report said. “As the monitoring camera rotated 360 degrees, every corner in front of the supermarket was in clear panoramic view.”
Which was a comforting sight, the report assured its readers. The purpose of the surveillance, it stated, “is to ensure the safety of the public places, and to provide good public service for all people of different ethnicities.”
When asked, Han Chinese in the city generally saw the cameras as a good thing. “I think the whole thing was probably triggered by the incident last July,“ said 42-year-old Xie Gang, a wholesaler, referring to last year’s ethnic riots. “But the significance of the cameras is not to crack down on rioters, but to prevent crimes. If something happens, the message will get to the authorities right away.“
Ethnic Uighurs had a markedly different take. “Oh, the security is very, very good here,“ one man who refused to give even his first name said, with evident sarcasm, when asked whether the cameras deterred crime. “You can see the police patrolling everywhere.“