In their book “Surveillance State,” journalists Josh Chin and Liza Lin illustrate how Chinese authorities use an advanced national database, connecting identification documents, facial recognition data, fingerprints, and travel history. Additionally, China’s extensive network of CCTV cameras serves as a second, more powerful layer of scrutiny. The footage captured by these cameras is analyzed in real-time, using artificial intelligence facial recognition software provided by various Chinese companies such as Huawei, Sensetime, Megvii, and China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC). Due to the absence of strict legal regulations and a fledgling digital privacy code in China, the country’s tech giants and security apparatus operate without constraints. This enables them to track phones, monitor online purchases, and decrypt messages.
The logic is that the Chinese government can create a stable society and maintain tight control through preventive policing by employing and analyzing massive behavioral data. As Jack Ma said to high-level security officials in 2015, “Whoever owns enough data and computing ability can predict problems, predict the future, and judge the future.”
However, as advanced as China’s digital surveillance network may be, it still ultimately relies on humans. And, as Suzanne Scoggins argues, Chinese police officers view the emphasis on social control as detrimental to their daily job of solving crimes and burdensome to their already heavy workload.
For example, one police officer near a famous tourist destination in Beijing said that he had to randomly check people’s ID cards every hour to fulfill the strict quota from “above.” During the conversation, he expressed that he did not want to complete this job; he viewed it as meaningless busywork that took valuable time away from his busy schedule. He further said he wanted to help people, not intimidate them.
He pointed to his police station, a small, bus-sized house on the sidewalk, and stated that he worked with three police assistants. However, he viewed the police assistants as “low quality.” Therefore, the officer did not trust them to do even the most mundane jobs, such as the ID check.
The work experience of subway security guards also sheds light on another dimension of front-line security workers. Unlike the rest of the world, subway systems in Chinese cities have security checks, where body scanners use metal detectors to scan all passengers. In addition, every bag must go through an X-ray bag scanning machine. In a survey of eight random subway stations in Beijing, each subway entrance had around 10 subway security guards doing the job of four workers. They are often equipped with anti-mob and anti-terrorist weapons, such as shields, armor, helmet, and long steel forks. It’s clear that the Beijing government pays extra attention to subway security.
In contrast to the high attention from the government and extensive resources invested in subway security, however, the security officers themselves often complete their jobs carelessly. Security officers in only four of the eight surveyed stations were properly monitoring the bag scanning machine; the rest of them were either chatting with each other or looking at their cell phones rather than the monitor. None of the body scanners in these eight stations carried out their job properly. They barely raised their hands and did not stop any passengers, even when the metal detector beeped. All of them were chatting with other security guards, who did not appear to be performing any meaningful duty.
Compared to Beijing, subway stations in Shanghai have fewer security guards; each entrance has only four guards. They carry out their job in a more superficial manner. Bag scanning is not mandatory; people can just open their bags and “show” the inside to guards. The guards do not require passengers to open all zippers. They often cannot even see what is inside the bag when people open it, and they do not even try to see what is inside. It is more of a formality rather than a true security measure.
In addition, during rush hours, the guards stopped all security measures altogether and tried to get people through the checkpoint as quickly as possible. In several cases, they even tried to prevent people from putting their bags on bag-scanning machines and hurried them to pass the checkpoint.
Who do these observations on street-level security workers matter? Some might think these street-level enforcers are just placeholders waiting to be replaced by digital mass surveillance systems powered by AI. However, such a view overlooks the Chinese Communist Party’s emphasis on the mass line in building a security state.
In recent years, Xi Jinping has emphasized the “Fengqiao Experience” as the ideal model in social governance. The Fengqiao Experience originated in Zhejiang during the Socialist Education Movement in the early 1960s. It was the process of mobilizing the masses to “strengthen the dictatorship over class enemies” and directing masses at the local level to rectify “reactionary elements” in society. Rather than arresting and killing these bad elements, the Fengqiao experience emphasizes reeducation through popular monitoring.
The Fengqiao Experience was essentially a mass line approach; it employed a dynamically interactive bottom-up and top-down process of “from the masses” and “to the masses.” It depended on “the masses” to solve social and class conflicts and “contradictions” at the local level.
Building a surveillance state is the means to a goal, not the goal itself. The greater goal is building a “harmonious society.” In this process, hi-tech surveillance is only part of the formula. The most crucial component of Xi’s interpretation of the Fengqiao Experience is local problem-solving: preventively resolving conflicts before they emerge as serious social problems and threats to stability. Therefore, Xi believes social governance must put people first. Social control, security maintenance, and problem-solving must combine the security apparatus, “the experts,” with the masses. Local governments must consult the masses, pool their wisdom, interpret their will, and implement policies in their interests.
Therefore, frontline security workers, whether police, security workers, social volunteers, or grid managers, are irreplaceable in Xi’s eyes; technologies only aim to enhance their capability. They represent the mass line and play a vital role as credible social arbitrators. Their interactions with people in daily life and during problem-solving give a human face to the regime. They help people solve problems, enhancing the legitimacy of local party branches and the entire regime. The cadre-people interaction also led to higher trust and bonds. The CCP propagates security workers’ hard work to fulfill the role of model cadres and reminds society that the party’s motto of “Serving the People” is still alive.
Local cadres should benefit from the Fengqiao Experience, because technology upgrades are supposed to enhance their capability and make their job easier. However, one of the most important applications of the Fengqiao Experience, the grid-management system, leads to widespread complaints from cadres, especially cadres in remote areas. One cadre said they “go to meetings to study Fengqiao and come out of the meetings to curse at Fengqiao.”
In big cities, people live in compact communities, and the grid-management system overlaps with neighborhoods. However, in rural regions, grids often cut through borders of natural and administrative villages, sometimes even township borders. As a result, one cadre called it “nothing but a formality.” Due to the lack of manpower in rural regions, local cadres at the township level, the CCP’s frontline soldiers in rural and remote areas, must perform grid-manager duty. In theory, grid managers should visit all households within the grid, collect their information, and log the information into the government database. However, as one township-level cadre said, household visits in a big grid take such a long time that if he actually made the home visits, he “would not have any time to do other jobs.” Therefore, he fabricated information without making any visits, because he realized that “no one would ever use or verify the information.”
The CCP aspires to build a comprehensive surveillance system to vanguard a new “harmonious society,” and rapid technological advances enable the government to achieve this dystopian goal. However, it is incorrect to interpret China’s rapid surveillance buildup as replacing the traditional, mass-driven security system. People still occupy the front and center of Xi’s social control vision, and technology only aims to complement the “mass line.”
However, these real-life examples show that there are loopholes in this security state, due to street-level security workers passively resisting mundane jobs. They view these jobs as meaningless, so they complete these social control tasks perfunctorily, only to complete target requirements. The police example also reveals the conflict between police officers and police assistants, who are supposed to reduce police workload and solve the personnel shortage of the police force. Subway security guards in Shanghai demonstrate that they are willing to relax security rules to make people’s life easier during rush hours. Rural cadres struggle to balance their never-ending tasks as both local cadres and grid managers.
Security workers’ passive resistance places a question mark on Xi’s mass-line social control vision. Despite a massive investment in technology and resources, the façade of China’s strong security state is prone to breaking down at the human level.