Examining Chinese citizens’ views on state surveillance

The relentless advance of new and more invasive surveillance technologies poses a growing threat to open societies and human rights. The need to understand their impact around the world has never been more pressing.

Freedom House’s Freedom on the net 2023 report underscores this urgency, highlighting an escalation of digital repression in many countries including Iran, Myanmar and the Philippines. The report has identified China as the nation with the most oppressive internet environment for the ninth consecutive year.

A new ASPI report, Surveillance, privacy and agency: insights from China, examines how, in addition to online repression and surveillance, the People’s Republic of China has become the world’s primary example of tech-enhanced social control with its society-wide system of ‘techno-authoritarianism’. Over the past year, ASPI and a non-government research partner worked on this project, which is designed to share detailed information on state surveillance in the PRC and engage thousands of PRC residents on the issue of surveillance technology. The decision has been made not to identify this partner to preserve its access to specific research techniques and data and to protect its staff.

The Chinese Communist Party is increasing its grip on power through an expanding and near-ubiquitous physical and digital surveillance system facilitated by a strict online censorship apparatus and internet-linked physical surveillance devices. China’s cities are covered by more CCTV surveillance cameras than any other cities in the world. Police agencies use facial recognition to monitor human behaviour; link people’s digital identities with their physical movements through specific devices; and collect DNA, voice prints and iris scans into vast databases.

The CCP is working on ways to centralise the data collected and analyse it in more detail.

We set out to develop a better understanding of how surveillance technologies impact PRC residents, and how they perceive such surveillance. The report shines a light on how the state communicates on issues related to surveillance and provides insights into how a subsection of PRC residents view state surveillance, data privacy, facial recognition, DNA collection and data-management technologies.

By looking at how Chinese citizens’ perceptions of surveillance relate to trust in government, one of the main findings offers a glimpse into a complex range of views that is far from a simple dichotomy. Project participants sit across a spectrum of varying degrees of trust and comfort with surveillance technologies. Analysis suggests that survey respondents fall into seven distinct groups, with several in-between categories ranging from dissenters to endorsers.

The project explored the reach and potential of an interactive digital platform as an alternative educational and awareness-raising tool designed to engage in environments where information is harshly restricted and controlled. Presenting an analysis of more than 1,700 PRC government procurement documents, the platform encouraged participants to engage with, critically evaluate and share their views on that information. The research platform engaged more than 55,000 PRC residents.

Insights from the platform indicate that most participants value privacy but hold mixed views on surveillance. Some participants expressed a preference for consent and active engagement on the issue of surveillance. More than 65% agreed that DNA samples should be collected from the general population only on a voluntary basis. On the other hand, participants were generally comfortable with the widespread use of certain types of surveillance that are seen to provide a ‘security dividend’, such as cameras.

In general, the project found that PRC state narratives about government surveillance and technology implementation appear to be at least partly effective. Our analysis of PRC state media identified four main narratives supporting the use of government surveillance: surveillance helps to fight crime; the PRC’s surveillance systems are some of the best in the world; surveillance is commonplace internationally; and surveillance is a ‘double-edged sword’ and people should be concerned for their personal privacy when surveillance is handled by private companies.

It’s apparent that public opinion often aligns with PRC state messaging tying surveillance technologies to personal safety and security. For example, when presented with information about the number of surveillance cameras in their community today, a significant proportion of research platform participants said they would prefer the same number of cameras (39%) or more of them (38%). In addition, PRC state narratives make a clear distinction between private and government surveillance, which suggests state efforts to ‘manage’ privacy concerns within acceptable political parameters.

Despite the widespread acceptance of surveillance technologies, most people who interacted with our research platform still preferred the option of consenting to surveillance rather than being passively subjected to it.

This type of research and approach can provide key insights and nuance to better support local and international advocacy efforts. It’s important for non-government organisations, governments and human rights advocates combating the misuse of surveillance technologies to assess people’s perceptions of those technologies, especially in the realms of privacy; freedom of expression, movement and assembly; and equal access to public services. Gauging the perceptions of populations living with such technologies can support local and international advocacy efforts to improve online and privacy rights by providing a better understanding of local views on privacy, security and governance. That can help shape effective messaging that raises awareness or resonates with existing concerns.