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Is China Building A High-Tech Authoritarian Society?

China and A.I. tech: Freedom, or control?

Police in major Chinese cities are sporting some major sci-fi tech, and with the rising demand for facial recognition and 24/7 surveillance and security, they’re only going to get more advanced.

With millions of cameras and billions of lines of code, China is building a high-tech authoritarian future, declared The New York Times, with capital city Beijing embracing facial recognition technologies and artificial intelligence (A.I.) to identify and track 1.4 billion people.

“It wants to assemble a vast and unprecedented national surveillance system, with crucial help from its thriving technology industry,” noted the report, and so far, it’s been reaping results.

In Zhengzhou city, a police officer wearing facial recognition glasses spotted a heroin smuggler at a train station. In Qingdao city, famous for its German colonial heritage, cameras powered by AI aided the police in rounding up two dozen criminal suspects in the midst of a big annual beer festival.

Then in Wuhu, a fugitive murder suspect was identified by a camera as he was buying food from a street vendor, the NY Times report added.

“In the past, it was all about instinct,” said Shan Jun, the deputy chief of police at the Zhengzhou railway station where the heroin smuggler was caught. “If you missed something, you missed it.”

Through these initiatives however, China is reversing the popular notion of technology as ‘a great democratizer,’ where rich or poor, young or old, could come together.

In China, it has brought control.

The NY Times added that in some cities, cameras scan train stations for China’s most wanted. Billboard-size displays show the faces of jaywalkers and debt evaders. Housing complexes now have facial recognition scanners.

The report found that China has an estimated 200 million surveillance cameras — quadruple that of the United States.

“This is potentially a totally new way for the government to manage the economy and society,” said Martin Chorzempa, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“The goal is algorithmic governance,” he added.

But that’s not to say that their systems are perfect: some areas have more connectivity than others. But in China, even just the perception of surveillance can keep the public in line.

The country’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has redirected his government to support the launching of a major upgrade of Chinese state surveillance. China has become the world’s biggest market for security and surveillance technology, with analysts estimating the country will have almost 300 million cameras installed by 2020.  

Researchers who spoke with NY Times predict that China’s police will spend an additional $30 billion in the coming years on techno-enabled snooping, according to one expert quoted in state media.

This means technology will soon be able to track faces, clothing and even a person’s gait, for use in their criminal databse system.

Bu the citizenry is still slowly being prepped, but the outlying message is clear: “No matter which corner you escape to, we’ll bring you to justice,” a police man in a propaganda video called ‘Amazing China’ says.

But while the systems are still being put in place, the government wants its people to believe it’s already there.

“The whole point is that people don’t know if they’re being monitored, and that uncertainty makes people more obedient,” said Mr. Chorzempa.

Read more of the compelling piece here.

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