Surveillance cameras looking out over Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. There is a distant poster of Mao Zedong.

Anthropology: Living in China’s Oppressive Surveillance State

As you go about doing your daily errands, you approach a security checkpoint. Police scan your identification card, face, and iris before you can pass through. They also take your phone, plug it into a device, and return it after a routine search. In a few hundred yards, you repeat the process over again at another checkpoint. All the while, facial recognition systems are tracking your movements. Cameras watch where you go, who you meet, and even if you’ve jaywalked. This is what daily life is like for hundreds of thousands of people living within China’s heavily surveilled borders.

Privacy has become a hotbed issue in the 21st century. Because of technological booms, there are more ways now than ever before to peek into the lives of people. Large institutions such as companies and governments have noticed this. Although China is by far not the only place surveilling its people, its technological advancements and surveillance rate have made it the most-watched country in the world. In major cities, China has over one camera for each citizen. Accordingly, people’s culture and perceptions have changed as a result of China’s surveillance state.

What is a Surveillance State?

An illustration of surveillance cameras.
Image source: Getty Images

A surveillance state is categorized by its pervasive use of surveillance on its citizens. It applies mass surveillance to collect and control data. With mass surveillance, governments indiscriminately monitor a large or indefinite group of people. The UK-based charity Privacy International lists several features of a surveillance state. This includes the state:

  • Viewing surveillance as a solution to social issues
  • Monitoring those that pose threats to the state’s interests
  • Villainizing those who oppose surveillance
  • Using fear to enact more data collection
  • Disregarding personal security and privacy

What is the History of Surveillance in China?

Mao’s Paranoia

A photo of Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong waving.
Image source: Universal History Archives

In 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong would go on to declare the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. His dream was to reshape China both economically and ideologically. If the country was to take the ‘Great Leap Forward,’ there could not be opposition getting in the way. Subsequently, Mao’s party began creating a sense of suspicion.

Anyone with foreign ties or conflicting ideas towards the Communist Party was a ‘class enemy.’ Accusations, many unfounded, soared during this period. At a young age, schools taught children to look out for and report spies. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, police beat and killed suspected individuals. Mao did not need security cameras or online tracking. Instead, he instilled fear in his own people so that they would do surveillance on the state’s behalf. 

Xi’s Fight for National Security

A photo of the current Chinese Chairman, Xi Jinping.
Image source: Alan Santos

Mao’s era of China is long gone. Yet, the current leader’s actions have prioritized national security as Mao once did. Since his ascension in 2012, Xi Lingping has implemented many regulations set to safeguard national security. The Central National Security Commission (CNSC) acts with substantial power. Due to sweeping reform in 2015, the CNSC decides on what is a security threat to the nation. The CNSC, led by Xi himself, will also punish any threat harshly.

Additionally, Xi has directed mass efforts in enforcing digital surveillance and censorship. Cybersecurity laws in 2017 mandated that all websites distributing news must have a government license. Laws also forced internet companies to hand over data to state investigators. One of China’s biggest surveillance feats is the development of the Great Firewall. The Great Firewall is the legislation and technology that allows China to regulate the internet. Essentially, Chinese citizens experience a completely different and highly monitored form of the internet. Xi has vastly expanded the Great Firewall’s reach as a means of preventing political change.






How Does China Use Surveillance?

Smart Cities

A crowd of Chinese people with facial recognition software surveilling them.
Image source: Gilles Sabrie

One instance of modern-day surveillance is through smart cities. There has been a dramatic increase in smart cities in the last decade. Across the world, smart cities aim to boost connectivity in urban settings. They accomplish this by creating high-speed communication networks that collect and distribute heaps of data. Cities use this data to help reduce traffic or make local services more efficient. Proponents of smart cities have supported it as a digital solution to the future of growing urbanization.

However, others are skeptical of smart cities. They believe what makes these cities ‘smart’ is simply mass surveillance. From home appliances tracking behavior to sensors following individual cars, smart cities collect a great deal of data. China has especially invested in smart city infrastructure. In fact, Chinese cities make up for half of current smart city projects in the world. With the huge volume of surveillance China already has, smart cities pose to bring in even more data for government and big tech use. These futuristic infrastructures may aid the ordinary citizen in menial tasks. However, smart cities will also eventually deepen mass surveillance efforts.

Social Credit System

If you have ever wondered what a game based on real life would be like, you only have to look at China’s social credit system. Indeed, the system seeks to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. But instead of running into a Goomba, bad behavior like playing music too loud can have real world consequences. It can work as a points system where good behavior will reward a higher score. Currently, there is no national system. Instead, the state is observing several local run projects. Although the social credit system is not national, some projects have given data on its users to authorities. One reason behind such a system is to create an alternative to financial credit.

Still, the main basis of the system is to punish those who break the ‘trust’ of the state. In a 2014 document concerning the government’s plans for the system, it reads “trust-keeping is insufficiently rewarded, the costs of breaking trust tend to be low.” Activities that may deduct your social credit score range from jaywalking to writing about government corruption.

Within the system, those who are blacklisted have certain rights taken away. The government bans blacklisted individuals from buying plane/train tickets, purchasing property, or taking out loans. All this is punishment, since the system has marked them as untrustworthy. As a matter of fact, officials place them on the List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement by the Supreme People’s Court. There are no protective laws for these citizens. Hence, being blacklisted can be hard to appeal and affects daily life.

Internet Censorship

In recent years, China’s government has tightened its iron grip on internet security. Vague sanctions make it so that tech companies must hand over personal data and online activity to the police. It is unclear as to what officials are searching for in these online raids. What officials have announced is that information that subverts state power will be blocked. In other countries, the internet is treated as its own entity. It is separate from political powers. In contrast, China has determined the web as part of the country’s jurisdiction. Its government holds all the power to regulate what is appropriate for citizens to view.

WeChat has proved how far the nation is willing to spy on its people. The Chinese developed platform acts as a super app. Users engage in social media, pay bills, buy items and services, and read the news. It is the single most popular app in China with over a billion monthly users. Yet what WeChat’s privacy policy will not reveal is that the app surveils and censors its users. Reports from the Citizen Lab explain how WeChat blocks content. Prior to being delivered, WeChat sends messages and images to a remote server. There, the server scans for blacklisted keywords before approving the message. Users receive no notification when messages are blocked.

Screenshots of WeChat messages reveal the censorship of topics related to coronavirus.
Image source: Citizen Lab

This type of surveillance is not limited to Chinese accounts. The app surveils international users for sensitive content. Rather than censoring content for these accounts, WeChat utilizes files and images shared to train its censorship system. In other words, WeChat uses surveillance on international users to expand censorship on its Chinese users.

Who does Chinese Surveillance Target?

While China employs mass surveillance, there are types of people the government looks out for. These citizens are flagged by monitoring systems and surveilled more than usual. Both critics of the government and the ethnic minority Uyghurs are often targets of specialized surveillance by Chinese authorities.


Under China’s constitution of 1982, citizens have freedom of speech as well as assembly. Despite this being true under law, the government frequently restricted speech. The government cites protection of the state as the reason for amending the constitutional right. But authorities do not apply restrictions equally. Those in the ‘free-speech elite’ can express themselves without much fear of consequences. This is not the case for ordinary citizens.

Those who publicly criticize the Chinese government are at risk of being punished. Officials especially target and silence activists for their outspoken views. One instance of this was when police detained human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang for five years. His alleged crime was subversion of state power. His wife, Li Wenzu, attended protests against Wang’s disappearance. Soon after, she and her children were put under house arrest. By her accounts, security agents surveilled and followed her when she left her house. This is not new for those linked with political dissidence. Some have even reported agents installing cameras outside their homes.

COVID-19 brought on a wave of online anger towards the Chinese government. However, the country’s online surveillance and censor systems would work hard to expunge negative posts. Tensions were especially high when one of the initial whistleblowers of the virus died. Dr. Li Wenliang had been under investigation for spreading false information when he died of coronavirus. Following his death, millions of posts called for freedom of speech. Government censors quickly removed every post. Such suppression has only continued as China seeks to maintain its powerful image.


Uyghur protestor with a mask of the Chinese flag covering the Uyghur flag as a hand representing their censorship and ethnic cleansing.
Image source: Amust

Xinjiang region’s history of violence and unrest has contributed to the nation’s heightened security. In 2009, the Eastern Chinese area experienced ethnic tensions rise exponentially. Rumors had spread over minority Uyghur men sexually assaulting Han women. This led to a small clash between the two groups that killed two Ugyhurs. Protests that began peacefully soon became violent and spread to different cities. Fights between Ugyhurs, Hans, and police would leave almost 200 recorded deaths and hundreds of more injuries. Five years later, a mass stabbing attack that killed 31 and injured 143 people devastated the region. Both instances were associated on Uyghur groups.

As a consequence, Xinjiang is one of the most heavily surveilled areas in China. This is similar to how other countries have prioritized national security in the face of a terrorist attack. Yet, what may set China apart is that it explicitly puts blame on the Uyghur ethnic group. China’s government has weaponized past terrorist attacks as a way to justify complete ethnic cleansing. Uyghurs are surveilled much more heavily than Han citizens. Police segregate Uyghurs at checkpoints, confiscate their phones, and assign live-in surveillance agents to their homes. Recently, tech giant Huawei has been testing facial recognition software that identifies Uyghurs and alerts police.

Yet, surveillance is only the first step in this cultural genocide. Though China keeps a tight lid on information leaks, reports show the extent of the country’s brutality towards this group. Police kidnap Uyghur families on any suspicion of religious extremism. They separate family members and send them to re-education camps across the region. Children go into the custody of the state much like orphans. As for their parents, reports reveal guards torturing, sexually abusing, and sterilizing Uyghurs in what can only be called concentration camps.

Public Reactions to Surveillance

A Cultural Bargain

Countries have long struggled to strike a balance between individual freedoms and national security. Western countries hold individualistic rights to a higher degree. Being a collectivist society, China considers the nation’s safety as paramount. While surveillance can encroach on people’s lives, it also forms a blanket of security. Criminals are easily found through China’s 200 million cameras and complex facial recognition systems. Some find the surveillance comforting. To them, giving up a certain amount of privacy is worth the sense of safety.

Along with added security, surveillance falls in line with typical cultural beliefs. A famous Chinese saying translates to “people are doing things, and the sky is watching.” Fundamentally, this saying expresses the Chinese view on karma. There will always be the sky witnessing people’s actions. Thus, each action has karma attached to it. To Chinese citizens who support surveillance, it is a way of cracking down on moral corruption. The sentiment is that police monitoring only affects bad people. Hence, good people have nothing to worry about.

Hong Kong’s Resistance

Hong Kong protestors use umbrellas while taking down a surveillance camera.
Image source: Chris McGrath

The largest seen resistance movement to Chinese surveillance was based in Hong Kong. In 2019, protests began when the local government proposed a controversial bill. Passions rose heavily as protests soon became a fight for democracy and against Chinese control. But as hundreds of thousands of people marched for their freedoms, they knew that surveillance aided police in arresting large numbers of their ranks.

For this reason, protestors developed methods for avoiding detection in a city covered with cameras. To communicate online, protestors exchanged files anonymously through Apple’s AirDrop feature. They also used encrypted apps to message each other about police whereabouts and plans of action. While on the streets, protestors cover themselves head to toe as they tore down security cameras. As well as the use of laser pointers to blind cameras, these tactics served to assist in anonymity. Protesters knew that if surveillance captured their identity, they would be arrested for years to come.

Heavy surveillance, police brutality, and harsh authorities have made Hong Kong citizens feel great distrust towards mainland China. This has boiled to the point where many now no longer identify themselves as Chinese. Instead, they call themselves Hongkongers as a form of resistance against the country that would choose to silence them.

Significance in Anthropology

The treatment of a country’s people reflects its own culture and code. China’s large-scale surveillance affects millions of lives. Whether it be access to international online forums or the complete erasure of a minority group, surveillance is a powerful tool in the hands of the Chinese government. From here, it will only grow and expand further into people’s daily lives. Through the lens of political anthropology, Chinese surveillance reveals how oppression can take on subtle forms that can soon turn extreme.

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