Big China is Watching You: Hot, Young Dystopias in Your Area

November, 2020
Wenying Wu, Blog Correspondent

The People’s Republic of China’s country-wide mass surveillance system has perhaps never been so prominent in the public consciousness as it is today, in a pandemic-stricken landscape where the state’s ability to track and trace citizens is instrumental to preventing the spread of Covid-19. Indeed, the ubiquity of state surveillance in China has become something of a bragging right, rather than a cause for suspicion. After all, the comprehensiveness of China’s Covid-19 prevention system is perhaps only achievable with China’s level of disregard for personal privacy and particular civil liberties. 

So, how far does Chinese mass surveillance go? A 2019 New York Times article reported that China has installed approximately 200 million CCTV cameras—a number expected to increase in 2020 and beyond. Individual mobility is limited; you need a passport or a citizenship card to buy train or long-distance bus tickets, and foreigners aged 14-70 have their fingerprints taken upon entry into the country (with my Canadian passport, I qualify; my country of citizenship doesn’t even have my fingerprints). Digital payment platforms—such as WeChat or AliPay, both of which require linkage to a Chinese bank card and some form of official ID to activate—have mostly phased out the less traceable cash transaction[1]. A widely implemented and sophisticated facial recognition technology can identify people of interest among thronging crowds. The governmental eye is a constant—a deterrence to crime, yes, but also to anti-government dissent. Technology and political expediency converge; this is truly the making of a dystopic world.  

The idea of the dystopia appears frequently in Western discourse on Chinese mass surveillance. The aforementioned 2019 New York Times article, for example. is poetically entitled “Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and Lots of Cameras[2].” The term dystopia is a pithy encapsulation of the fear and strangeness that descriptions of the Chinese surveillance status quo seem to evoke, but the usage has specific connotations. Dystopia, derived from Ancient Greek roots meaning “bad place”, is primarily a fictional construction, a product of the imagination. In recent years, the term has started seeing more frequent use in political and current events contexts, where it still connotes a type of incongruous otherness, or sense of unreality. The Trump’s administration’s assertions of “alternative facts” have incited comparison to George Orwell’s 1984 in its blatant perpetuation of untruths. These comparisons always seem tinged with an edge of hysteria: how could this happen? How could we become like a dystopia of fiction?

A dystopia is fundamentally other, defined in relation to the society that the author lives in. A place becomes a dystopia when it grows incongruous with the beholder’s expectation for society. Dystopias are affronts, societies of inconceivable conditions that seem to have sprung out of a storybook, or a dream.

To call another country dystopia, then, is really to say this could never happen here[3].

But, in a way, it’s already started. Now, I would never be so bold as to suggest that the mass surveillance implemented in the West is anywhere near as comprehensive and sophisticated as that of China. That would be the height of occidental arrogance. Fear as a response to China’s mass surveillance is perfectly understandable; the blunt instrument of its implementation is visible, even obvious, in the Chinese cityscape in a total, pervasive way. However, mass surveillance is a constant and relevant reality in Western societies as well. Within recent memory, we’ve seen Facebook exposed[4] for Cambridge Analytica’s use of the social networking website’s data for influencing the 2016 election. Around 2018, the tongue-in-cheek joke about the “FBI agent watching you” achieved mainstream memetic popularity. Who hasn’t joked about Mark Zuckerberg’s omnipresent gaze in a Messenger chat? Someone’s watching us. We already know.  

The jokes are all fun and deflection, but the practical consequences of surveillance are severe. Just a few months ago, the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests in response to police brutality have spurred writers on social media and news sites to disseminate advice on how to evade surveillance as a protestor. Those articles or posts highlight the GPS tracking capabilities of your cellphone, the ability of law-enforcement agents to access your text messages and online history, and the online surveillance infrastructure that surveys protest photos to identify arrest targets with facial recognition technology. Here, government surveillance is not sophisticated enough to track the spread of coronavirus[5], but it’s absolutely sophisticated enough to arrest you with! And, if you think that this kind of government surveillance is merely an American phenomenon, remember that Edward Snowden’s 2013 exposure of the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance[6], a supra-natural surveillance organization, revealed Canada as one of its five constituent countries. Hurray for the Great White North!

In some ways, though, these obviously threatening forms of government surveillance are comparatively less dangerous. What is seen can be resisted. The more worrying trend is the reframing of surveillance technologies as commodities, as status symbols of a convenient or luxurious life. For the sake of, supposedly, user convenience and security, most social media platforms today request that the user bind the account to a phone number. A smartphone’s GPS function also allows for the precise tracking of its owner’s location. Public transit cards—like the Presto—conveniently accept cash or card payments, with card payments creating a link between individual movement and a bank account. Amazon Echo, Google Home, and other smart-home technologies listen—and, to a degree, interpret—the words spoken within a private home, and people pay money for these devices. Smart-home technology has also grown to control doorbell systems, security cameras, lighting, temperature, and even, bafflingly, my sister’s trash can[7]. Alarmingly, Amazon launched Alexa for Residential in September, a system that facilitates the installment of Amazon Echoes by landlords, creating a way for landlords to easily infringe upon the space of their tenants. 

In September, Spotify offered a giveaway program of Google Nest Minis for new sign-ups for their premium account, from a supply that soon ran out. My friend got one, and it works very well. The insidiousness of these products, from a surveillance standpoint, is how desirable they are, and how much they can improve someone’s quality of life. The scariest part should be that Alexa is, well, shaped like a friend[8].

How do we even escape from the universal eye? Sure, we can protect some degree of privacy by abstaining from Google Homes and the sort, but society has wholly adopted so many surveillance conduits, to the degree that abstinence is a form of self-imposed exile. How much more difficult is it to engage in society—say, find a job or an apartment, connect with your friends—without a smart phone, without a social media presence?  

Western media discourse frequently frames its own surveillance as concerning but normal, while China’s surveillance is exotified as something almost fictional, a glimpse at an arcane other—technomancy, actualized. Western media’s focus on the strange and alarming in Chinese developments—especially in the terms of unreal dystopia—wilfully ignores the cross-nation commonalities in order to construct an amplification of the distance between the Chinese and the Western conditions. Recently, we’ve seen Trump leverage this sense of difference in his argument against TikTok as a spyware program seeking to mine the data of good Americans[9]. These dramatizations of difference rely on the deeply embedded cultural conceptualization of China, the East, the Orient, as a mystical, inscrutable place. A place we can imagine, we can visit, but never reside. Who would live in a dystopia?

When I visited China in the summer of 2019, none of my relatives or family friends expressed any complaints about the nearly inescapable surveillance. Generally, they responded to my probing with the conviction that China was safer that way, and more efficient. The system of CCTV cameras and facial recognition has purportedly reduced crime; at the very least, it has reduced the criminal’s ability to get away with the crime. It’s easy to forget—or to never know—that China had, for a while, been profoundly unsafe. Even just around ten years ago, the last time I visited China before 2019, my parents would warn me of the prolific abductions of girls and young women to be sold as brides in rural villages. Considering China’s urban population density, abductors could easily slip into the crowd with their victim. With the advent of the mass surveillance system, such fears were partially allayed. My relatives accept other new developments, such as the gradual shift to a cashless society, as comforting, representing a progress towards optimized convenience.

Safety and convenience are potent drugs. In 2001, George W. Bush used the fear that followed 9/11 to push the Patriot Act, a substantial expansion of the American government’s surveillance powers. We connect our data to the cloud, bind together our accounts, and let little data-farmer Alexa into our homes for convenience. No one wants to be the object of a massive, hovering eye, but, blurred by the rosy lens of comfort and stability, we might mistake its gaze for a sunbeam. That is an illusion, of course, and a dangerous one. One might even call it dystopian.  


[1] I don’t have a Chinese bank account, so no Wechat or AliPay. When we visited China together, my dad would portion out cash allowances for me whenever I wanted to buy, say, a bottle of jasmine tea or a suspicious “milk-flavoured” beverage —which de-aged me by a few years on an emotional level, making me utterly vulnerable to the disgusted looks of the convenience store cashiers who probably hadn’t handled cash for a few weeks at least.

[2] Note how the decision to refrain from an Oxford comma allows the interpretation that A.I. is composed of Shame and Lots of Cameras.

[3] Sinclair Lewis wrote a dystopian novel called It Can’t Happen Here (1935), to refute the general American belief that the rise of fascism witnessed in Europe was inconceivable in the States. Well, how about that?   

[4] Some Facebook officials say data leak, some say breach of trust…

[5] Probably not sophisticated enough. China has much more power to restrict the mobility of its citizens and enforce quarantines. However, take my claim with a grain of salt because it’s not as if we’ve seen very substantial efforts on the part of, say, the Canadian or American governments to comprehensively track the spread of the virus. 

[6] Which is rather clumsily referenced in 2015’s Bond film SPECTRE.

[7] It opens when you say “open”. Compelling stuff.

[8] In a lot of Chinese legends, fox spirits transform themselves into alluring young singles to attract victims before sucking out all the life energy from unsuspecting, lovestruck scholars. This is just a fun fact.

[9] Which, fair enough, TikTok is probably mining data. She isn’t special; so are all the American social media apps.  

To call another country dystopia, then, is really to say this could never happen here

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