High atop Mount Xiqiao, an extinct volcano that soars above the Pearl River Delta, a towering statue of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin gazes down on the concrete sprawl of the city of Foshan. For centuries, the mountain’s scenic caves and waterfalls provided a refuge for scholars and artists. But today, Xiqiao is a far more crowded place. Some five million tourists visit each year. And as they wend their way up the mountain through groves of peach and banyan, Guanyin is not the only one keeping watch.
In 2019, local officials in Xiqiao, a district of Foshan, devised a plan for the ideal placement of surveillance cameras throughout their jurisdiction. A visitor making an ascent of Mount Xiqiao might first have her face captured by one of the three cameras at the Xiqiao bus station, and again at the bus stop closest to the mountain’s base. If she followed the usual route, a camera could next catch her entering the Qiaoyuan public bathroom, resting a moment to admire the Tingyinhu waterfall, or stopping in for a snack at the Qiaoshan hotel. All together, Xiqiao’s police would have at least nine chances to collect images of this visitor’s face during her journey. And when she reached the summit, a tenth camera, mounted just beside Guanyin’s own serene visage, would snap a final shot.
Over the past five years, local Communist Party officials charged with maintaining “social stability” in Xiqiao have planned purchases of surveillance technology to blanket their town with cameras. This would help bring about a “breakthrough in addressing the difficult problem of how to control people,” explained a document outlining Xiqiao’s desired purchases. Government records show that officials made at least six separate surveillance equipment purchases between 2006 and 2019, with the goal of installing at least 1,400 cameras throughout Xiqiao, including 300 facial recognition cameras last year alone.
Xiqiao may be just a small district of a fairly ordinary Chinese city (albeit one on the leading edge of surveillance practice in China), but the worries and aspirations of its officials are hardly unique. Rather, they reflect a profound unease among China’s leaders about what can happen when the country’s citizens go unwatched. Across China, in its most crowded cities and tiniest hamlets, this has led to an unprecedented surveillance shopping spree by government officials. The coordination of the resulting millions of cameras and other snooping technology spread across the country remains partial at best, its efficacy uncertain. Yet, despite these limitations, officials in China are working to make the system as effective and advanced as possible.
These are among the key findings of ChinaFile’s analysis of some 76,000 government procurement notices and corresponding documents related to the purchases of surveillance technology by both central and local governments across China between 2004 and mid-May 2020—the most comprehensive accounting of China’s surveillance build-up to date.
Read more: China 2021: The State Of Surveillance