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How China is harnessing tech to create a terrifying modern dystopia

Technology can have far larger implications than bigger smartphones and gaming consoles with better graphics. 

In China, tech is being harnessed to create a society that is somewhere between Blade Runner and A Brave New World on the scale of dystopian nightmares.

It can be easy to regard China’s growing dominance over manufacturing, security and technology as a distant problem – the blockbuster films are terrible, the air is even worse and the babies wear open-crotch pants rather than nappies – but what is happening in Chinese cities is far from a laughing matter.

60 years ago, as part of the first Five Year Plan, The Great Leap Forward aimed to organise China’s population, particularly in large-scale rural communities, to meet the country’s industrial and agricultural problems.

It quickly turned into a national disaster, resulting in widespread famine and an estimated 20 million people dying of starvation between 1959 and 1962.

Now, over half a century later, China is undertaking its 13th Five Year Plan. But where the first was about agriculture and industry, the thirteenth is about technology and surveillance.

According to a Chinese state-owned newspaper, Legal Daily, the 13th Five Year Plan necessitates 100 per cent surveillance and facial recognition coverage across the entire nation.

More than 40,000 surveillance cameras have been installed across in more than 14,000 villages in what the government is referring to as the “Sharp Eyes” network.

Sharp Eyes links surveillance cameras and smart devices installed in the homes of Chinese citizens so they can be watched live by anyone given access.

As if it already didn’t sound enough like something George Orwell thought up, the term ‘Sharp Eyes’ comes from the Chinese Community Party slogan, “the people have sharp eyes,” which refers to how neighbours are supposed to keep tabs on each other.

Within two years, police and other government officials will be able to monitor people’s activities in their own homes – all they need is a single internet-connected camera.

Smartphones are already being targeted. Chinese social media app WeChat has started warning people who post messages the government doesn’t approve of.

An (understandably) anonymous WeChat user told Radio Free Asia:

“The internet and smartphones have been under government surveillance for a long time already.

“We can be placed under restriction or persecuted, or asked to ‘drink tea’ [with state security police], or placed under surveillance at any time.

“Overall, it feels as if we’re not free at all.”

Gee, I wonder why? (Spoiler: you’re not.)

Sharp Eyes is being implemented alongside the pre-existing “social credit” system, which seems to asks the question: what if we made our country as close to an episode of Black Mirror as possible?

The social credit system makes everyday actions equate to a personal score. For example, buying a train ticket will get you positive points. Having your feet up on the seats, however, will earn you a negative score. Activities as heinous as fare evasion and buying too many video games will earn you bad social credit scores.

Those with good credit scores will be rewarded with perks, while those with low scores will be punished and blacklisted from certain services.

The ultimate goal of the social credit system is for President Xi Jinping to build a database that allows government bodies to share information on citizens’ behaviour and ensure every individual has an assigned score.

State-of-the-art technology is powering these initiatives. Police in Zhengzhou now wear smart glasses that connect to a database to scan for potential criminals in real-time using facial recognition. The officers snap a photo, the glasses request a match from the database and they are instantly provided with the individual’s name and home address.

Similar technology is used in the city of Xiangyang to combat jaywalkers and speeding drivers; street cameras with facial recognition technology are linked to a giant outdoor screen.

Photos of people who break the law – by speeding, jaywalking or committing public acts of disorder – are displayed on the big screen, alongside their names and government I.D. numbers. The idea is to publicly shame them into not doing it again.

These are just a few examples of China’s massive surveillance market which is valued at more than A$110 billion in 2018. There are also robotic drones disguised as birds, webcams in classrooms from pre-school all the way to high school, an army of tiny drone ships and a robotic police force.

To quote George Orwell’s 1984, “Big Brother is watching you”. We needn’t delve into the realm of fiction for fitting quotes, though. People in China are living this reality.

A more fitting quote comes from Ding Yua, a 17-year-old senior at Yuzhou No. 1 High in Xuchang, who told The New York Times:

“I hate it. I feel like we are zoo animals.”

[Feature image by Li Yang]

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