Chinese citizens feel their government is doing such a fine job with surveillance
They know they're being watched and don't mind - maybe because Beijing says it improves safety
Chinese residents are generally comfortable with widespread use of surveillance technology, according to a year-long project conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and an unnamed non-government research partner.
The project mainly investigated how state surveillance is conducted by Beijing and how the population of the People's Republic of China (PRC) perceives it. For the investigation, the researchers conducted media analysis, and an online survey of over 4,000 Chinese citizens.
Most respondents ranked their trust in central government positively – at an average of 7.3 on a scale out of 10. Businesses received a 6.7 rating. When it came to surveillance – by video, audio or internet activity – roughly half said they were comfortable.
As part of the project, ASPI provided a tool that could be considered quite subversive in China: an interactive website that provided access to uncensored non-Beijing information about deployed surveillance technologies and the agencies that run them. It consisted of five educational modules with quizzes at the end.
The website content was shaped by the survey results and reached over 55,000 users over the course of four months. It covered facial recognition, Wi-Fi probes, DNA surveillance, database management and surveillance cameras.
ASPI declined to describe how the platform was distributed "to ensure both the security of participants and ongoing research opportunities."
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Respondents provided information on the number of surveillance cameras in China – using a figure estimated after analysing over 1700 procurement notices – 39 percent said the government had the right number of cams, while 38.4 percent thought there should be more. Only 22.6 percent said there should be fewer.
ASPI found that although camera surveillance was generally accepted, other types of surveillance – like DNA collection and facial recognition technology – created more friction.
When it comes to automatic recording of age, gender or ethnicity using facial recognition software, 61.3 percent said it shouldn't be allowed – meaning fundamentally they disagree with the alleged government tracking and monitoring of the nation's Uyghur people. Even at their own places of residence as security measures, over half wanted facial recognition to be opt-in.
The data exposed some contradictions. According to ASPI, some of those with the highest level of trust in Beijing and comfort with surveillance hold values that contradict its narratives. For example, they may express a strong preference for personal privacy over public order. Furthermore, those who distrust government, may value public order over personal privacy.
But largely, the respondents agreed with China's policies.
"Public opinion often aligns with state messaging that ties surveillance technologies to personal safety and security," explained ASPI.
The think tank summarized Beijing's messaging into four main narratives: that surveillance fights crime, it's a commonplace activity among countries, China's surveillance systems outrank other nations' equipment, and there is a distinction between surveillance from the government and from private companies. And citizens should be wary of the latter.
ASPI explained that the Chinese domestic information space is dominated by state media and government messaging, making it difficult to encounter alternative narratives. The researchers also noted that a glorification of China's surveillance capabilities allows it to promote self-censorship among its population – which doubtless serves to control their actions and speech.
Even though the project participants were allowed to operate anonymously, the outcomes could quite well be tainted by surveillance itself. The researchers conceded that participants might not respond completely truthfully out of fear or habit – and those with dissenting opinions from Beijing had particular incentive to keep thoughts to themselves.
China is known for being densely monitored by closed-circuit television cameras. A 2019 Comparitech analysis calculated that Chinese cities have around 439 cameras per 1000 people.
A 96-country study by Comparitech in 2021 revealed that China is also the most invasive user of biometric data in the world. ®