Social surveillance in China: from Confucius to Mao and Xi Jinping

(To Antonio Vecchio)

The spread and pervasiveness of social surveillance make China the most guarded country in the world. At the end of 2020, there were over 626 million CCTV cameras, and as many will be deployed in the coming years, thanks to a security expenditure that has long exceeded that for Defense1.

Such a mass of sensors and cameras is not only due to the Party's (CCP) urge to control citizens. It is necessary to draw on the history and culture of the country to fully understand the meaning of Chinese Orwellian society. And starting from its Confucian roots, which for 25 centuries have nourished the spirit of one billion and four hundred million inhabitants, shaping their individual and social behavior.

It is from the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC) that China derives the concept of authority and social order antithetical to its Western counterparts. In fact, if with us, authority has over time been defined as an expression of the popular will, which alone is responsible for the exercise of sovereignty in the forms and ways provided for by law, in the Chinese tradition this is only an investiture that descends from Heaven.

By analogy, if in the West the social order results from the balance between the different components of society, aimed at favoring free initiative and individual freedom of expression, in China it is the product of a rigid canon of individual behavior.

In the Middle Kingdom, in fact, except for the period of Mao's cultural revolution (in which the teachings of Confucius were bitterly fought as a legacy of a past to be erased), authority took on a "metaphysical" value: a ' celestial investiture, which once fell on the Emperor, while today on the one who exercises power on behalf of the Party.

It follows that the exercise and modalities of expression of the authority of government, and of that which emanates from it at the lowest levels of the apparatus, are accepted by the Chinese as an ontological axiom, by virtue of the rigorous respect due to the fundamental precepts - known as Five Relations (wulun, 五 伦) - that Confucius placed at the basis of social coexistence, between:

1. sovereign and subject, based on loyalty;

2. father and son, on filial piety;

3. older brother and younger brother, on respect;

4. husband and wife, on tolerance;

5. friend and friend, about affection.

From these principles alone, the Chinese derive the rules of coexistence within the family and society. According to them, the State stands as the only source of morality, it is up to every good citizen to blindly follow its indications.

It follows that the violation of a rule, even the most banal, transcends the private sphere, to invade the - wider - field of the public interest.

China is therefore a society in which the interests of the state prevail over those of the individual: a society that aims to mirror the"Natural order of the universe", in which everyone holds a place and exercises a role, within a finely hierarchical social structure.

The action of the Communist Party, which since the establishment of the People's Republic (PRC) in 1949, has tried to consolidate control over society has grafted onto this historical and cultural heritage - to return to the subject of surveillance from which we started. , on the one hand by using the public security organs of the State, on the other by security committees formed at the local level in order to maintain internal social stability and suppress potentially counter-revolutionary activities.

It was these committees that promoted the direct participation of citizens, who were asked to observe the behavior of others and report any violations to the authorities in charge, according to the principle known as "mass defense, mass rule".

This combination has allowed the CCP for years to guarantee itself a capillary control of society, which lasted until the huge migratory phenomenon started, produced in the 80s of the last century by the openings to capitalism of Deng Xiaoping (photo), with which millions Chinese, coming from the countryside, poured into the industrial areas of the country, thus breaking the traditional link with the territory on which the maintenance of public order was based.

It is at that moment that, hand in hand with the industrial development of the country, we begin to make more and more use of technology, with the use of a dense series of surveillance systems with various names, such as Golden Shield, Skynet, Safe Cites and Police Clouds, Project Sharp Eyes, and others.

Tools that over time, all without distinction, have given life to a sort of "Panopticon", the circular prison building designed by the philosopher and jurist J. Bentham, at the end of the XNUMXth century, with a central compartment from which it was possible to control all cells arranged along the perimeter.

The first system, launched in 1998, was the Golden Shield Project2, and consists of an information and e-government security network, managed, up to the municipal level, by the Ministry of Public Security.

Made up of 12 (sub) systems, it ranges from social security to that of banks, from network security to traffic security, up to managing a database on crime, including financial ones.

It is a system that also aims to guarantee digital security and protect the web adequately, with the creation of a national firewall.

The Golden Shield Project was followed in 2005 by the 3111 project essentially consisting of cameras scattered (initially) in 22 cities, as well as two other video surveillance systems.

The first of these, Safe Cities, launched in 2003, focused on disaster warning, traffic management and public safety; the other, Skynet (from 2005, but revealed in 2013), widespread in urban areas of the country, essentially based on video surveillance with facial recognition algorithms. According to Chinese state media, it is able to scan the entire Chinese population with an accuracy of 99,8% in one second.

It is always made up of cameras, Sharp Eyes3 (2015), the latest system in chronological order, which focuses more on rural areas of the country and stands out from the others for the particularity of integrating the most modern video recording and facial recognition technologies, with surveillance guaranteed by a network of simple volunteer citizens, who view the images from their computer or smartphone, sitting comfortably in their home, and report to the police any violations and crimes perpetrated "in front of their eyes".

One of the Sharp Eyes networks has sprung up in Pingyi, a small county in the Shanghai region, where more than 2013 cameras have been installed since 28.500 for the next three years.

Also of importance is the fact that in the 13th five-year plan (2016-2020), the Chinese government has set itself the goal of extending Sharp Eyes to the entire national territory. Objective that is not known if it has already been achieved.

What is certain is that the approval of the population seems high, if the news is true that in some municipalities numerous popular collections have been activated to increase the number of CCTV on the streets.

The acme of the surveillance network just described is undoubtedly the social credit system4. This aims to catalog the lives of citizens in a "system of systems" interacting with each other, capable of assigning a vote on the basis of the civic behavior of each, from which only the quality and quantity of public and private services that these will be able to derive. receive from society.

The Chinese social credit system (SCS), as it is structured today, was born in the 90 of the last century, from the efforts of the local banking system to facilitate the granting of loans, especially in those rural and less developed areas of the country traditionally lacking in instruments. with which to assess the financial credibility of loan applicants.

Over the years, consistently with the desire to transform the company into one based on legal certainty, governed by regulations and rules, the SCS has gradually transformed from a means of serving banks to a social evaluation (and control) tool.

To date, it is made up of 47 public institutions that bring their data together, posing, among other things, an obvious problem of interface between the various components. The system, however, despite strong territorial limitations and inhomogeneities, is spreading in regions, counties and municipalities, with the not secondary effect of providing citizens with the perception of constant control, perhaps even higher than the potential actually expressed by the system. .

This is a control not only aimed at monitoring the population (which in any case represents a relevant target of the system), but also national and foreign companies registered in China, as well as non-governmental organizations. The only organs that are excluded are those of the Party.

An example of how sensitive companies are to SCS occurred in 2018, when some foreign airlines were blacklisted in the system because they had indicated on their websites the destinations Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan without completing them with the name "China" . It goes without saying that to avoid retaliation, all the indications were changed within a few days.

On the other hand, the punishments inflicted on non-virtuous citizens, in addition to providing for blacklisting, may include a series of limitations including: the impossibility of being hired as a public employee or of state-owned enterprises, the prohibition of using airliners, to book higher category hotels and exclusion from private schools. The impossibility of having a fast connection at home or accessing affordable rates in public services can also be included in the category of punitive measures for those who see themselves inscribed on the black list.

On the other hand, having a good social credit produces advantages such as: discounts on the bill, the possibility of renting bicycles and hotels without paying a deposit, that of having the best interest rates applied by banks, or being able to book medical examinations in a short time.

Finally, the news that the SCS was also used in the context of the Covid 19 pandemic, to sanction citizens who did not respect the quarantine, demonstrates its great versatility and the possibility of future use.

Despite the fact that even in Europe or the USA the number of surveillance cameras is increasing dramatically, in the eyes of a Westerner, the Chinese surveillance network is the most abhorrent a state can field against its citizens.

On the other hand, for the inhabitants of what was once the Celestial Empire, or at least for most of them, this is only one of the legitimate tools with which the authorities of the state have the duty to govern the masses. It follows that the confrontation between the West and China is not played only on the level of relations between governments, but also on the more subtle one of the different perceptions that their respective citizens have on divisive issues, as can that of individual freedoms.

A theme in which, very often, we tend to align the inhabitants of China on what our positions are. And in so doing, we often fall into error. Even just taking note of this would greatly help the path towards a mutual understanding of our two systems.

1 China ranks second in military spending in 2019, with $ 261 billion, up 5,1% from 2018. SIPRI data.

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