This is the third part of CDT’s Sharper Eyes series. See also “Surveilling the Surveillers (Part 1)” and “Sharp Eyes Project Map (Part 2).”
In previous posts, CDT introduced the background of the government’s “Sharp Eyes” surveillance program, a rural-focused initiative that combines cutting-edge technology with Mao-era, crowd-sourced surveillance efforts. Closer examination of some of the hundreds of Sharp Eyes projects across China reveals not only the program’s sheer physical scope, but also its wide-ranging ambitions in rolling the many aspects of public security and city management into one. The more than 20 basis documents that established Sharp Eyes do not provide a single clear, coherent central blueprint for implementation, which is instead highly contingent upon local priorities. Having explored Sharp Eyes’ overarching goals of expanding surveillance to rural areas, we will also more closely examine how this program marries cutting-edge technologies with more low-tech citizen policing that encourages residents to surveil public video feeds and report suspicious incidents using their TVs and mobile devices.
Linyi: A Key Role Model
Pingyi County in Shandong Province’s Linyi City was Sharp Eyes’ birthplace and served as a role model for projects nationwide. In 2016, Linyi hired a technical team and drafted a construction plan authored by Dahua. According to Chinese reports, this region was chosen as the role model due to a high crime rate and lack of sufficient police force; after seeing the success of video monitoring on crime rates in another village, local authorities took the initiative to begin implementing this type of monitoring.
With this groundwork laid, the municipal committee then incorporated Sharp Eyes into Linyi’s 13th Five Year Plan. To reduce costs, the Shandong Broadcasting and Television Network was chosen to serve as the network transmission provider utilizing its excess bandwidth, while Shandong-based Seasoft was chosen to build the surveillance networking application. Ultimately, 4,611 “integrated governance (information) platforms” were built to streamline “public stability maintenance” work among different official bodies.
Linyi established technical and supervisory Sharp Eyes groups that included comprehensive efforts to improve village surveillance capabilities. 876 city and county comprehensive management committee members were paired with villages that had weaker public security foundations to provide targeted assistance on constructing video surveillance systems. Each month, these committee members ranked the work of each county and district. Those responsible for the projects that had fallen behind would have direct face-to-face interviews and discussions conducted by relevant municipal Party committee leaders.
The municipal government prioritized video surveillance construction as one of the city’s “Top Ten People’s Livelihood Projects.” Video construction was included in financial budgets at all levels to provide major funding support. The central government provided 28 million yuan in construction funds, while the municipal and county-level comprehensive management committees provided a further 24 million yuan. Funding came not only from government sources, but also from personal donations, which raised more than 13 million yuan from activities such as a campaign called “I send peace to my hometown.”
Xinjiang: A Lab for Surveillance
Sharp Eyes has also been deployed in the northwest region of Xinjiang, which has been the focus of a major government security clampdown that escalated after at least 200 were killed in riots in 2009. A subsequent crackdown in the name of counter-terrorism has resulted in stifling controls over the cultural and religious practices of the local Muslim Uyghur population. An estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are currently detained in internment camps that aim to “re-engineer” the Uyghur identity. After a spike in camp construction in 2017, researcher Adrian Zenz cited regional government figures showing a 92.8 percent increase in Xinjiang’s security spending from 30.05 billion yuan in 2016 to 57.95 billion yuan in 2017. This was a nearly ten-fold increase from a decade prior, and three times higher than the national per-capita average. Chinese media reports claim that in 2017, Xinjiang was the site of 30 of the 80 nationwide public security projects each worth over 100 million yuan. Nine of the 80 were Sharp Eyes projects. The spending in Xinjiang for these 30 combined initiatives reached 14.36 billion, accounting for more than 55% of total spending nationwide.
Karamay, a prefecture-level city in northern Xinjiang, was designated as a national demonstration city for Sharp Eyes in 2016. By the following July, it had completed coverage and networking applications across the city and surrounding districts. Situated close to the Kazakh border, Karamay was an early adopter of policies cracking down on Muslim practices, and is now a primary location for internment camps.
By the end of 2017, Karamay completed coverage of key industries, work units, traffic intersections, heavily frequented public areas, and all communities, hospitals, and schools. This included construction of over 800 video surveillance points across scenic spots throughout the city, as well as over 100 monitoring centers that were integrated into public security video surveillance feeds of over 12,000 byways to achieve decentralized monitoring and 24-hour coverage. Lastly, there were three sets of long-distance urban camera systems, which allow for even more comprehensive coverage to address traffic safety, environmental protection, anti-terrorism, and “illegal public gatherings.”
Other completed Sharp Eyes projects are in Kashgar (one of the most heavily policed cities in Xinjiang), the Tianshan district of Urumqi, a public-private partnership (PPP) in Hotan Prefecture, Toli County in Tacheng Prefecture, and Yining County in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. There is also an ongoing procurement process led by the ninth division of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary organization that has administrative authority over much of the region.
Two of the major beneficiaries of the security spending spree in Xinjiang are Dahua and Hikvision–both major companies producing surveillance products for Sharp Eyes projects–which have won over one billion USD worth of security projects in the region since 2016. They are the world’s two largest security camera manufacturers, and are both subject to U.S. federal use bans.
Hikvision’s state-owned parent company China Electronics Technology Group (CETC), which founded Hikvision under its No. 52 Research Institute, has a broader presence in over 110 countries and regions worldwide. In Xinjiang, a wholly-owned subsidiary of CETC created a predictive policing system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). The system, unrelated to Sharp Eyes, disproportionately targets Uyghurs’ way of life, and was recently reverse-engineered by Human Rights Watch.
So far, one clearly documented instance of CETC participation in Sharp Eyes is through the Anhui Province-based Sun Create Electronics Co, a subsidiary of CETC’s No. 38 Research Institute. It won a 6.37 billion yuan tender last year for a Sharp Eyes project in Hefei, Anhui’s provincial capital, and another this year in Anhui’s Huangshan City.
In correspondence with CDT, Maya Wang, who authored HRW’s recent report on IJOP, emphasized the government’s apparent wider-reaching surveillance goals, to which Sharp Eyes contributes: “This ambition for total surveillance and social control is not limited to Xinjiang—although that is a region where surveillance is most intrusive and visible. This ambition is a national one.”
Managing “Special Populations” and Urban Metropolises
The increased desire to address “special populations” is also highlighted as one of Sharp Eyes’ goals. Several projects, including in Linyi in Shandong Province and Yuzhong County in Qinghai Province’s Xining City, mention the term “special populations service management” [特殊人群服务管理]. A self-media post on Sohu explains that these groups include the mentally ill, drug addicts, and those undergoing “community correction” practices such as being on parole or suspended sentences. The goal is to monitor the exact number of such individuals, and to input their information into the grid management system so that their whereabouts are clear and authorities do not “lose the ability to manage” them. Chinese police are known to maintain databases including personal information about individuals of interest, including tags for various personal characteristics or social groups they may belong to.
Sharp Eyes is also present in major metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Guangzhou. Guangzhou began constructing a high-definition video surveillance network in 2005. It has become one of the most densely covered cities in the country with more than 574,000 cameras and full coverage of major roads and other public spaces. Guangzhou was China’s only megacity (over 10 million inhabitants) chosen as a national Sharp Eyes demonstration city by the Central Comprehensive Management Committee, the Ministry of Public Security, and the National Development and Reform Commission in September 2016.
A year later, the Longgan District of neighboring Shenzhen completed the third phase of its Sharp Eyes construction tasks, achieving complete coverage of key districts and intersections. This included an interlinked public security video network for government departments, video coverage of 11 major roadways, and 19,400 high-definition cameras. In May 2018, contractor China Eracom won a bid for a Sharp Eyes project worth 275 million yuan in Shenzhen’s Futian District. The project’s eight product requirements demonstrate an emphasis on both facial recognition and high-altitude cameras, calling for 2000 face recognition cameras and 100 sets of high-altitude surveillance cameras.
China’s Sharp Eyes program is an attempt to combine advanced surveillance technologies with tried-and-tested methods of crowd-sourced monitoring harkening back to the Mao era, creating a nationwide web of control. This ambitious goal is easily summed-up by the Cultural Revolution slogan from which this program draws its name–”the people have sharp eyes.” Presented in positive terms by authorities–and readily echoed by official media quotations from rural residents–as a means to enhance safety and eradicate crime, the program could potentially be used to infringe on individual privacy and to persecute dissent in China. As the multitude of Sharp Eyes projects continue being developed across China towards the official goals of “full coverage, network sharing, real-time availability, and full control” in all rural regions of China by 2020, CDT editors will keep a close eye on the topic. Stay tuned to our Sharp Eyes Interactive Project Map, and to the Sharper Eyes series page, where we will continue to track Beijing’s massively ambitious and equally troubling march to become a total surveillance state.
This post was co-written by Dahlia Peterson and Josh Rudolph, with research assistance from Cindy. Dahlia Peterson is a Research Analyst at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.