By Mareike Ohlberg and Jessica Batke
This article is part of a larger investigation of the PRC’s surveillance apparatus, including a feature article, a number of sidebar articles, and supplemental materials, all originally appearing on ChinaFile. The text below does not include illustrations and charts that are part of the full article.
The Chinese government’s surveillance capabilities, while vast and impressive, do not result from one monolithic project. Rather, various central and local government and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) entities have participated in a series of initiatives spanning decades, in waves that sometimes touched upon certain parts of the country and not others, and that at other times overlapped in both space and time. Each national surveillance initiative involves its own ecosystem of localities and government actors. The resulting wave-like expansion of surveillance reflects not only the fitful process of infrastructure development in any country, but also the specific “campaign-style” in which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) implements government policy. It also shows that the Party-state’s obsession with monitoring its own citizens spans leadership changes: No matter the person at the helm, keeping tabs on “the people” is an unquestioned part of managing China.
No one bureaucracy fully controls the tentacles of the surveillance state. That said, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) often takes the lead on major initiatives. Local police, known as Public Security Bureaus or Public Security Departments, report through several levels of administrative bureaucracy up to the MPS. Notably, the MPS is a state government body, nominally separate and apart from the CCP. In the PRC, however, the Party is never completely divorced from the state’s levers of power. The composition of the larger surveillance bureaucracy ensures that the Party, not the state, is the ultimate arbiter of population monitoring.
At the top of the surveillance bureaucracy sits the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. This is a Party body, to which the Ministry of Public Security reports. This hierarchical structure is mirrored at the local level, with the Party’s local Political and Legal Affairs Commissions supervising local Public Security Bureaus. The Commission does not merely oversee law enforcement. It is also in charge of the country’s prosecutorial and judicial systems, among other domains.
Until 2018, there were two other central Party organizations deeply involved in surveillance: the Central Public Security Comprehensive Management Commission, formed in 1991 and consisting of about 30 commissioners, and the Central Leading Small Group for Stability Maintenance, established in 1998 with roughly a dozen committee members. Both of these institutions were dissolved in 2018 as part of a larger reshuffle of the Chinese bureaucracy. Their responsibilities were folded into the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, leaving them within the Party’s direct ambit.
“Urban management” (chengguan) bureaus at the local levels are also fixtures of the surveillance landscape. Described as perhaps “the most reviled public servants in China,” chengguan operate under the auspices of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (a state body) and act as a sort of supplemental, unarmed police force in urban areas, charged with keeping order on the streets. In practice, chengguan often end up in conflict—sometimes violent—with people living on the margins of urban life, among them “rural pushcart vendors, workers on illegal construction sites, and apartment dwellers whose homes are slated for demolition.”
State government entities made up the lion’s share of purchases of the roughly 22,000 awarded bid notices, dated between June 29, 2004 and May 19, 2020, that ChinaFile analyzed. Public Security Bureaus (or, more precisely, purchasers with the term “public security” (“公安”) in their names) accounted for about 65 percent of purchasers. Urban management made up about 6 percent of purchasers, while approximately 16 percent had “people’s government” (and neither of the previous terms) in their names.
On the Party side, Political and Legal Affairs Commissions accounted for about 7 percent of awarded bid notices. Purchasers with the terms “stability maintenance,” “comprehensive management,” or “petitioning” in their names—all of which refer to Party entities—accounted for 3 percent of awarded bid notices. (At the local level, these nominally separate offices are often combined into one; for example, beginning in 2008, Guangdong province had one Comprehensive Management, Petitioning, and Stability Maintenance Center at each of the county, township, and village levels.) Less than 1 percent of awarded bid notices included just the phrase “Communist Party”, referring to local Communist Party offices, and none of the other Party-related terms, in their purchaser names.
A remaining 2 percent had none of the above.
Safe Cities, launched in 2003, marked the beginning of a nationwide video surveillance push. As China Digital Times explained, the Ministry of Public Security oversaw this campaign, which aimed to render, among other services, “urban management and public security maintenance.” Two years later, Safe Cities spawned Project Skynet, which promised “round-the-clock coverage of major districts, streets, schools, and business centers, and timed surveillance over minor streets” through its 20 million cameras positioned across 16 provinces and cities. (It is likely unintentional that the English translation of its name is the same as the artificial neural network attempting to eliminate humankind in the Terminator movie franchise.) In some cities (like Harbin), Skynet has also been known as the “Eye in the Sky.”
Smart Cities kicked off in 2012 with the goal of fusing time-tested methods for policing and social control with new approaches made possible by the Internet of Things. The surveillance dimensions of Smart Cities don’t differ completely from those of “smart cities” the world over, which rely on data about residents’ movement and behavior to, for example, redirect traffic flows. Yet, in the PRC, the constant monitoring inherent in “smart city” design also serves the CCP’s political goals. As Leiden University’s Rogier Creemers told the Financial Times, China’s conception of “smart cities” includes “across-the-board surveillance that is partly political and partly about mechanizing ordinary street-level policing.” Procurement notices reflect these dual aims: In addition to referencing “smart policing” and “smart monitoring,” they also reflect officials’ hopes to enact tighter social control through “smart comprehensive management.”
Safe Cities, Skynet, and Smart Cities focused explicitly on urban areas. To ensure adequate surveillance coverage of rural areas—as well as integration of urban and rural surveillance assets—a conglomeration of Party and state government organizations launched Project Sharp Eyes in 2015. This initiative aspires to “global coverage” of public spaces by the end of 2020. In contrast to Safe Cities, Skynet, and Smart Cities, which are overseen only by the Ministry of Public Security, nine different state and Party bodies issued the policy document that formed the basis for Sharp Eyes, a document frequently referenced in the notices ChinaFile reviewed. Three of these nine bodies—the National Development and Reform Commission, the erstwhile Central Public Security Comprehensive Management Commission, and the Ministry of Public Security—also promulgated a 2015 five-year plan for video surveillance. One procurement notice describes the responsibilities for carrying out Sharp Eyes as follows: “The Party and the government lead, comprehensive management initiates, public security is responsible, (all other) departments cooperate, and society participates.”
In addition to these major initiatives, smaller projects also dot the surveillance landscape. Sometimes they are conducted under the auspices of a particular government or Party department but draw on resources from other projects. For example, in 2018, the People’s Armed Police launched a project called Boulder of Wisdom in order to improve information-sharing, create monitoring platforms, and more efficiently deploy personnel. Boulder of Wisdom incorporates facial recognition capabilities and purports to draw on Skynet information systems and other resources.
Types of purchases that appear in notices referencing Skynet do not differ significantly from those in notices referencing Sharp Eyes. Some notices also refer to more than one project, for example, Safe Cities and Smart Cities, or Safe Cities and Skynet. Similarly, some notices mentioning Safe Cities use slogans commonly associated with Sharp Eyes. These overlaps demonstrate that, at least from the perspective of local authorities, the central government’s various campaigns constitute parts of a single, iterative enterprise, one whose underlying goals remain consistent and clear.