Sharp Eyes Surveillance Program Expands Dramatically

Mao Zedong wrote, “The people have sharp eyes.” The phrase incited people to spy on their neighbors and loved ones during the Cultural Revolution. In 2015, that slogan was resurrected for Sharp Eyes, an aggressive government surveillance program designed to reinstitute the social monitoring that eased after economic liberalization eroded traditional means of control. In 2019, China Digital Times published a three-part series on Sharp Eyes: “Surveilling The Surveillers,” ”Sharp Eyes Project Map,” and “Shandong to Xinjiang.” The Sharp Eyes program, concluded report authors Joshua Rudolph and Dahlia Peterson, “is an attempt to combine advanced surveillance technologies with tried-and-tested methods of crowd-sourced monitoring harkening back to the Mao era…[that could] potentially be used to infringe on individual privacy and to persecute dissent in China.”

Today, ChinaFile published a new investigation into Sharp Eyes, “State of Surveillance: Government Documents Reveal New Evidence on China’s Efforts to Monitor Its People.” Through the analysis of tens of thousands of government procurement documents related to surveillance technology, Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg were able to draw conclusions about Chinese authorities’ intentions:

Together, they paint a stark portrait of a leadership craving the ability to penetrate ever deeper into Chinese citizens’ private lives and animated by fear of a population on the move. They also portray the leadership’s utmost confidence—faith even—that if only it possesses sufficient quantities of the right technology, then there exists no threat it cannot detect and eliminate. [Source]

The report focuses on three locations: Xiqiao Township in Guangdong, Shawan County in Xinjiang, and the Heilongjiang provincial capital, Harbin, showing how Chinese officials see high-tech surveillance as a “breakthrough in addressing the difficult problem of how to control people.” These examples are seen as representative of the nation as a whole.

Officials in Xiqiao, a satellite township of Foshan in Guangdong, divided the city into three areas: “core,” “key,” and “auxiliary.” By tactically deploying hundreds of surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology, officials hoped to “ensure no one going about their business in town would escape notice.” The facial recognition technology would then be applied to fulfill a Maslowian hierarchy of the state’s surveillance desires:

Thus, the cameras would be arrayed to align with the “four basic needs” of human life: food, clothing, housing, and transportation and five additional “quality-of-life needs”: healthcare; finance; arts, education, and culture; entertainment; and leisure travel. Xiqiao would install its new facial recognition cameras at the entrances and exits of restaurants, grocery stores, shopping malls, bus stations, kindergartens, movie theaters, and even a martial arts gym—where they could detect the faces of passers-by and feed these “portraits” back into a larger monitoring system. [Source]

China’s new surveillance projects incorporate “grid management.” Introduced in Shanghai in 2004, “grid management” is, in a sense, a digital age replica of the Song dynasty’s Baojia system, wherein neighbors were responsible for each other’s behavior. Sheena Greitens wrote a synopsis of the “grid management” system in a 2019 article for China Leadership Monitor:

Grid management works by dividing cities into geographic cells that become administrative units. In each grid, a grid manager and related staff collect information, identify and report potential problems, and address resident complaints. At the district level, information from the grids is integrated with other layers of data (on public utilities, traffic, sanitation, housing, population, crime, etc.), as well as with information collected via mobile applications and citizen/volunteer input provided through online portals and phone hotlines. [Source]

CDT reporting on the origins of the Sharp Eyes program in Shandong’s Linyi County documented how residents received “[upgraded] cable boxes…so that they could directly view surveillance feeds. This allowed citizens to report crimes by pressing a button on their remote control.” Mobilizing community members to report on each other is a key component of Chinese surveillance.

The Xinjiang portion of the ChinaFile investigation further analyzed public-private surveillance partnerships. In Shawan county, a majority-Han area near the Kazakhstan border, officials hope to integrate private cameras into government-directed surveillance networks. From the ChinaFile report:

To address these deficiencies, the study outlined a more comprehensive surveillance system. On the front end: 4,791 networked HD cameras, 70 of which were to be facial recognition units, would be positioned in crowded places with clear entrances and exits, including mosques, with others to be installed in train stations and bus stations. On the back end: a set of interlocking platforms would span three administrative levels (the village/township level, the county level, and the prefectural level) and three network layers (the public Internet, a private video network, and the Public Security Bureau’s own intranet). Critically, the system would allow for information to flow from private cameras to the police via a “societal resource integration platform” that drew from surveillance in “hotels, Internet cafes, gas stations, schools, hospital monitoring [sic], bicycle rental points, and shops along the street, etc.” Such systems are not unique to Xinjiang. Procurement notices from Shandong, Fujian, Heilongjiang, and Shanxi provinces, as well as Beijing, all mentioned the need for this type of platform in their jurisdictions. [Source]

In an October report for Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, Dahlia Peterson explained how programs such as Sharp Eyes have been adopted and transformed by public security bureaus in Xinjiang to create the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). Through extensive monitoring of phones, vehicles, and ID cards, the IJOP “treats many ordinary and lawful activities—such as using WhatsApp or VPNs, driving a car that is not theirs, or using “too much” electricity—as inherently suspicious.” An ASPI report published this summer detailed how such electronic surveillance is also paired with a forensic DNA database in Xinjiang.

In Harbin, officials plan to use Sharp Eyes as a form of predictive policing, whereby digital surveillance and big data combine to “predict” crimes (and criminals) before they occur. By using algorithms to analyze mobile phone data, railway ticket purchases, hotel stays, vehicle numbers, financial transaction data, and more, authorities in Harbin’s Xiangfan district aim to draw connections between potential co-conspirators. Officials ascribe the necessity of this monitoring to anti-terrorism efforts, as they do in Xinjiang:

Finally, a terrorist and violent person prediction module would take existing case files involving “terrorism and violence” and use them to train police computers to “classify and make predictions about all people, to identify key persons with the potential to get involved in terrorism, bombings, and so on.” [Source]

Local surveillance systems are not always fully realized. The limits of bureaucracy, technology, and humanity mean that there is no “eye-in-the-sky” tracking and recording all movement in China. The ChinaFile report noted that “[g]aps in the overall surveillance system—between bureaucracies, between superior and subordinate offices, between projects, and between technologies—mean that the Chinese government does not have a seamless dragnet to ensnare any individual target.” Yet problems with integration do not prevent the Sharp Eyes program from realizing its ultimate goal, social control.

The impact of such surveillance, fragmented and unrealized as it yet may be, is in the “chilling effect” it has on behavior, said Daragh Murray in the report. CDT’s Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Xiao Qiang, quoted in the article, spoke of “internalized fear.” “You know the government can get you at any time. That fear is real in China. Once you have that fear—when there’s cameras all over the place—it instills that fear in you to get you to control your own behavior,” he said.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.