One of China’s largest and most pervasive surveillance networks got its start in a small county about seven hours north of Shanghai.
In 2013, the local government in Pingyi County began installing tens of thousands of security cameras across urban and rural areas — more than 28,500 in total by 2016. Even the smallest villages had at least six security cameras installed, according to state media.
Those cameras weren’t just monitored by police and automated facial recognition algorithms. Through special TV boxes installed in their homes, local residents could watch live security footage and press a button to summon police if they saw anything amiss. The security footage could also be viewed on smartphones.
In 2015 the Chinese government announced that a similar program would be rolled out across China, with a particular focus on remote and rural towns. It was called the “Xueliang Project,” or Sharp Eyes, a reference to a quote from communist China’s former revolutionary leader Mao Zedong who once wrote that “the people have sharp eyes” when looking out for neighbors not living up to communist values.
Sharp Eyes is one of a number of overlapping and intersecting technological surveillance projects built by the Chinese government over the last two decades. Projects like the Golden Shield Project, Safe Cities, SkyNet, Smart Cities, and now Sharp Eyes mean that there are more than 200 million public and private security cameras installed across China.
Every five years, the Chinese government releases a plan outlining what it looks to achieve in the next half-decade. China’s 2016 five-year plan set a goal for Sharp Eyes to achieve 100% coverage of China’s public spaces in 2020. Though publicly available reports don’t indicate whether the program has hit that goal — they suggest that the country has gotten very close.