China’s preparations for the Beijing Winter Olympics have been characteristically extensive. Poorly advertised, but no less far-reaching, though, are the preparations of its security state. High-profile political events provide an opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party to expand surveillance and experiment with new procedures and technologies while honing well-tested measures of control.
Ahead of the Opening Ceremonies on Friday, the main thrust of such measures has been ensuring that nothing can damage China’s image during the Games. Athletes have been warned against making political statements, and foreign journalists’ ability to report on the broader social and economic impacts of the games is limited by covid-19 controls.
Attempts to ensure a propaganda win have also reached as far as Tibet and Xinjiang, two of the most tightly controlled regions in the world.
As the world turns its attention to the Beijing Games, here is what we know about what China’s security state is monitoring.
What is the scope of state surveillance in China?
The full extent of China’s domestic security state has been unclear since 2013, when the Finance Ministry stopped disclosing it after years of greater spending on internal security than on defense.
What is known is that extensive upgrades to state surveillance have been pursued across China in recent years. This surveillance state 2.0 has been built by police budgets, creating a vast market for leading Chinese companies that bring emerging technologies to bear on catching and preventing perceived sources of social instability.
The goal, experts say, is monitoring the whole of society, so avoiding state surveillance requires extreme measures — and even then, there is no guarantee.
“Whether it’s WiFi sniffers or ID checks when you get a train, book into a hotel, or simply go online, these are aspects of your life that you know could be tracked and analyzed,” said Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The aim is to make you feel watched, even when you are not.”
Alongside adopting new technologies, the Communist Party has also expanded its idea of who is considered a threat. Human rights activists fear that a growing emphasis on “extremism” and “terrorism” is being used to justify government abuses.
Ahead of the Winter Olympics, local governments from Qinghai in northwestern China to Shandong on the east coast held “counterterrorism” campaigns.
There are many overlapping parts of China’s security state. There are media censorship and monitoring of online discussion. There are surveillance and control of dissident figures. There are new methods of voice and image analysis developed by technology firms. And there is a massive network of low-level volunteer informants on the lookout for suspicious activity.
At the center of the national security state is President Xi Jinping and the upper echelons of the Communist Party. In practice, this means that the capital, Beijing, is the heart of a system of coercion and control designed to apprehend troublemakers.
Work to protect the capital is often carried out far away, however, as police departments across the country are charged with preventing petitioners or activists from traveling there. In Chifeng, a city in Inner Mongolia nearly 260 miles away, for example, police promised to inspect every car driving in Beijing’s direction.
Many of the upgrades ahead of the Winter Olympics have focused on Zhangjiakou, the joint host city northwest of Beijing that was considered to have a “poor foundation” for surveillance. Security cameras in the city were upgraded to keep track of at least 2 million people. In the mountains of Chongli, where the venues are, one high-definition camera was installed for every square kilometer.