‘The Sentinel State’: China’s Pervasive Surveillance Apparatus

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‘The Sentinel State’: China’s Pervasive Surveillance Apparatus

Insights from Minxin Pei.

‘The Sentinel State’: China’s Pervasive Surveillance Apparatus
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Minxin Pei – Tom and Margot Pritzker ‘72 Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College and author of “The Sentinel State: Surveillance and Survival of Dictatorship in China” (Harvard University Press 2024) – is the 414th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

Explain the concept of “preventive repression” – a key theme in your book. 

All dictatorships rely on violence or repression to maintain power. But repression comes in two varieties – ex post and ex ante. 

Ex post repression happens when a dictatorship responds to an overt act of resistance and can take the form of arrests, imprisonment, use of massive force to crush protests, assassinations, and executions. Reactive repression is costly and, in some instances, may not save the dictatorship caught up in a crisis because it cannot rely on its security apparatus, especially the military, to carry out its orders. 

By contrast, ex ante or preventive repression is more effective and less costly. It relies on intelligence, surveillance, and intimidation to deter and preempt resistance or collective action against the regime. Preventive repression is not cheap or easy, but it affords the regime a higher degree of control.

Analyze the key components of China’s surveillance state with Chinese characteristics. 

Four characteristics of the Chinese surveillance are truly unique. First, it has adopted the model of “distributed surveillance,” which is a de-concentrated system of surveillance that assigns tasks of surveillance to a multitude of organizations and actors both horizontally (across different bureaucracies and organizations) and vertically (at every level of the state). This multilayered surveillance apparatus consists of multiple state security and non-security agencies and organizations (such as state-owned enterprises, universities, and neighborhood committees) and a large number of informants. 

Second, it is a top-down system with effective coordination performed by a specialized Communist Party bureaucracy, the “political-legal affairs committee,” at every level of the state. All other dictatorships, including former communist regimes, lack such a bureaucracy. 

Third, the country’s formal security agencies responsible for surveillance are small and lean. Total number of uniformed police in China is about 2 million. Local data show that the domestic security agency, The First Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security, probably has about 100,000 agents. By comparison, the Stasi in East Germany employed 91,000 full-time officers, equivalent to 0.6 percent of the population; the same ratio would result in a secret police of 8.4 million in China! 

Lastly, China has not only deployed advanced technology, but also developed well-honed surveillance tactics that focus on priority targets, both individuals and venues. The combination of labor-intensive tactics and advanced technology makes surveillance with Chinese characteristics more effective.

How does the surveillance structure intertwine the state, society, and economy of the Leninist state system? 

Essentially, China’s surveillance system is embedded in the institutions and organizations of its Leninist party-state. Politically, the party exercises direct control over this apparatus and coordinates its activities through party officials in charge of the various bureaucracies and entities in this apparatus. Because the Leninist party-state has established a deep and extensive presence in the Chinese economy and society, it can easily use its organizational cells in economic enterprises, educational and cultural institutions, and social organizations to perform surveillance functions. Financially, a significant portion of the costs of surveillance is actually borne by non-security entities, such as enterprises and universities, which pay for the salaries of their security personnel and cover the expenses of intelligence collection and security operations.

Compare and contrast the surveillance technology of Skynet and Sharp Eyes. 

Skynet and Sharp Eyes today use broadly similar technologies. A portion of Sharp Eyes is actually a technological upgrade of Skynet, such as the replacing of dated technologies. When Skynet was developed in the mid-2000s, China had access to technologies now considered obsolete. For example, the facial recognition technology was not mature enough to be adopted for surveillance at that time. But when Sharp Eyes was launched in 2016, this technology was mature and widely available. Other technologies, such as those used for tracking mobile phones, had also become more sophisticated by the mid-2010s. 

The most critical difference between these two programs is the bureaucracy operating them. Skynet is operated by the Ministry of Public Security. Therefore, it is more secure and likely uses the most advanced technologies. Only police have access to Skynet. By contrast, Sharp Eyes is the responsibility of local political-legal committees. Although police have full access to Sharp Eyes, many components of Sharp Eyes are built and funded by local government entities, commercial enterprises, and residential communities. This means that Sharp Eyes may not be as technologically sophisticated or secure as Skynet. Another important difference is that Skynet covers only urban areas while a huge portion of Sharp Eyes watches the countryside.

Assess how China’s surveillance system could benefit other authoritarian regimes and its implications for U.S. and Western responses to protect citizen privacy and security. 

Other authoritarian regimes can benefit a great deal from importing China’s surveillance hardware and services. Most of the technologies used in China’s surveillance apparatus are developed and made in China. They are relatively cheap because China can make them at large scale. They have also been field-tested and proven. Chinese companies have acquired capabilities to service such systems cheaply. There is no doubt that authoritarian regimes importing such hardware and services will see a real and substantial improvement in their surveillance capabilities. 

However, what makes China’s system truly formidable is the combination of its Leninist organizational capabilities and adoption of advanced technology. Getting China-made hardware alone will not give authoritarian regimes in other countries the same surveillance capabilities as China has today.

The options for the U.S. and its allies are limited. Competing with China by selling surveillance systems to authoritarian regimes is neither politically feasible not economically viable, due to concerns with human rights abuses, strong domestic opposition to such a policy, and China’s cost advantages. Sanctioning Chinese firms producing such equipment may be effective in the short term, but since most of the technologies are now developed and produced in China, the long-term effect will be modest. 

The best response is to increase public awareness about the importation and use of China-made surveillance technologies in developing countries. Only strong popular opposition to the use of state surveillance in harming ordinary citizens’ privacy and security can make a real difference.