Surveillance in Chinese cities is ubiquitous, with highly visible security cameras trained on most every intersection, public space, and building, but over the past decade, it has been seeping into the countryside as well. In an interview with China Digital Times in September of 2022 about his and Liza Lin’s book, “Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control,” WSJ deputy bureau chief Josh Chin noted that “China is already home to more than 400 million surveillance cameras—roughly half of all the cameras in the world.”
In 2015, the Chinese government unveiled Sharp Eyes, a “rural-focused initiative [that] marries cutting-edge technology with Mao-era, crowd-sourced efforts by encouraging residents to surveil public video feeds and report suspicious incidents using their TVs and mobile devices.” The initiative was portrayed as an extension and upgrade of predecessor programs such as the Golden Shield Project, Skynet, and Safe Cities. China Digital Times founder and editor-in-chief Xiao Qiang characterized it thus: “Sharp Eyes is not just about the state trying to surveil its own people to the point of ‘no blind spots.’ It’s also about the state inducing citizens to surveil one another.”
China Digital Times has been following the Sharp Eyes project closely, including a notable 2019 three-part series by Joshua Rudolph with Dahlia Peterson (“Surveilling The Surveillers,” “Sharp Eyes Project Map,” “Sharper Eyes: Shandong to Xinjiang). More recent coverage delves into topics such as surveillance equipment procurement documents, the use of data fusion in surveillance, the export of surveillance systems, the development of surveillance systems to track journalists and students, and the misuse of app-based health codes to target depositors seeking recompense from failed rural banks.
In this translation of a six-part photo essay by Pang Li for Esquire Studio, the author offers a humorous but enlightening glimpse into what rural surveillance looks like on the ground. He describes a pandemic year in his hometown, a village in Hubei, where many of his friends and neighbors have installed free home-surveillance cameras offered by local branches of China’s three main internet providers. In part four, the author delves into broader themes of surveillance and privacy, including the history of and motivations behind the Sharp Eyes program, how the pandemic has fueled private citizens’ awareness of privacy rights, and how a new government initiative known as “Secure Countryside” seeks to fill in surveillance “blind spots” by incorporating cameras installed in the yards of private citizens. Along the way, the essay reveals the rhythms of village life, the relationships between people (and between people and animals), petty neighborhood disputes, labyrinthine local politicking, joyful celebrations, and somber funerals—all seen through the lens of home surveillance footage.
In the summer of 2020, my family installed a home security camera. In our mountain village in Hubei Province, three home-surveillance service providers (China Telecom, China Mobile, and China Unicom) are fighting for dominance.
Sharp Eyes was launched in 2015 with the goal of safeguarding rural areas. As the saying goes, “The People have sharp eyes.”
Watching my home surveillance-camera footage, I have seen animals attacking each other, people arguing, police showing up at the door, and an excavator drawing a crowd of onlookers. I have also watched the seasons change, seen the leaves turn yellow and fall to the ground, glimpsed a rainstorm overturn some banquet tables, and witnessed my loved ones going about their tranquil, safe existence.
This is my year-long record of rural surveillance.
At 11:00 p.m. a spider starts to spin a web. The spider looks silvery white on camera. Its oval belly appears for a few seconds, then disappears. It hasn’t gone far, though—it’s just weaving at the periphery. An hour later, the web is done, but it’s too close to the camera to be fully visible. The clever spider chose its territory wisely, positioning its web in front of the surveillance camera: a web atop a web. At night, the camera emits a dark red light, attracting flying insects. Around 1:00 a.m., an insect gets trapped in the web. It flaps around, struggling to escape, but the spider quickly pounces on it, then scurries away again.
A chicken comes into view from camera-left. It’s getting dark, and the chicken is returning to its coop, but it’s too late: a weasel leaps from the tall grass and sinks its teeth into the chicken’s neck. The footage shows no blood, just the chicken flapping its wings and screeching.
Another night, a woman appears in the footage. She is just about to climb the steps when she shrieks and starts screaming, “Snake! There’s a snake!” Someone runs over, then backs away, casting a long, narrow shadow. The person returns with a hoe and smashes the snake’s head with it. This isn’t the only time a snake has appeared on camera. A few days earlier, our dog had started barking like crazy, and someone rushed out to see a snake on the ground in front of the dog. On camera, you could easily mistake the long snake for a dog’s leash.
One day, two sparrows flit past the camera on the way to a swallows’ nest. If we had enabled high-definition mode, we might have seen the sparrows’ dirty deed. But all I see is a chick falling to the ground, dead before its feathers had time to sprout. The chickens on the ground get excited. One of two yellow roosters, the pigeon-toed one, runs over and snatches up the chick’s corpse in its beak. The other rooster tries to snatch it away, but the pigeon-toed rooster swivels his head around and, with the chick still in his beak, starts running in circles around the courtyard, the other rooster giving chase.
At 5:00 a.m. the sky is still dark, and the footage looks black and white. My grandpa, the first to wake, carries a chamber pot out to the latrine inside the pigpen. My grandma is the next to wake. You can hear her sweeping the house with a palm-frond broom, going out to collect firewood, carrying it back to the hearth, cleaning out the ashes, and chopping the wood. This is followed by the crackling sound of wood burning in the hearth, but I can’t see anything because of the smoke.
It isn’t yet 7:00 a.m., but the villagers have begun heading into the mountains to pick tea leaves. They pass by our house one by one, carrying bamboo baskets. Thick strips of adhesive tape around their waists keep the morning dew from soaking through their clothes.
It is afternoon when the wind suddenly picks up. The tree sways in the wind, and a dog leashed to the trunk of the tree paces around below it. It’s going to start raining at any moment. Just then, the spider reappears, fluttering in the wind on its broken web. The dog’s whines grow louder as it paces back and forth, trying to break free of its leash. From my apartment in Beijing, I try shouting into the app on my phone: “Pull harder, puppy!” I don’t know if it hears me, but it doesn’t let me down: seconds before the storm hits, the dog breaks free of its leash and darts inside. The spider isn’t so lucky. It sways back and forth, not unlike its prey, before it and its web are swept upward and away by a gust of wind.
In June 2020, I left Shanghai and went back to my hometown in the Hubei countryside. My first task was to put the room where I was going to stay in order. Ours is a dilapidated old wooden house, built by my grandfather 50 years ago. His room is separated from mine by the main room of the house, where a portrait of Mao Zedong hangs front-and-center, and a pair of calligraphic scrolls from Chinese New Year have faded to an ashy white. There is no glass in the room’s two windows, which are covered in a thin layer of plastic film. The ceiling, covered by a colorful tarpaulin, has become a haven for mice. They race around the tarp at night, and the thudding drives me mad, but no amount of tapping on the wall or pounding on the ceiling can get them to stop.
I spent two days putting my room in order. I rearranged the furniture, bought a bookshelf and desk, and threw away piles of old clothing that my mom had accumulated over the years. My dad insisted on giving me a set of dark green sofas that he had bought from a beauty parlor in town. They gave the room an unexpected bit of style.
A week after returning to the village, I came to the conclusion that I had to install an internet connection.
A lot of people in the village, especially families with kids, had already gotten the internet, which made sense: the kids liked to play video games and watch TV, so they pestered their parents to install it. Our neighbor kindly let me use his Wi-Fi, but the signal was spotty. Sometimes there was only one bar, and it took over ten seconds to load a web page. Plus, he’d always turn off the router before going to bed at night.
Before long, some internet people (two fashionably dressed young women and a middle-aged man carrying a ladder and a bag) just happened to show up at our gate. I was working in my room at the time, but a bunch of villagers including two village cadres, my uncle, and my grandpa were sitting around outside. “Do you have the internet?” the middle-aged man yelled at them from the gate.
“I can’t afford it,” my uncle replied. “Ask my nephew who just moved back. He earns good money.” My grandpa produced three stools and invited the internet people to sit down. It was noon, and the sun was scorching.
“How much does it cost?” I asked.
“1,399 yuan a year,” said one of the saleswomen, “and you’ll get it all back as a phone credit of 30 yuan a month, which means your internet installation is basically free.”
“They’re in the targeted poverty-alleviation program,” volunteered one of the village cadres.
“An impoverished household? We can give you a 50% discount! That’s only 699 yuan per year.” The internet salesman sounded excited, like he was telling us about a bargain we shouldn’t let slip away.
My mom thought this was still a bit expensive, and suggested I talk to some other companies, like China Unicom and China Mobile. I said I wanted it installed right away and couldn’t wait.
One of the saleswomen suggested an even better deal: if I installed the internet, they’d give me a surveillance camera free of charge. I could install an app on my phone to check in whenever and wherever I wanted.
“A camera? Is that really necessary?” I asked.
“Since it’s free,” said the woman, “you’ve got nothing to lose.”
My mind leapt to the issue of privacy. “Who has access to the footage?” I asked. “Does your company have access?”
“Theoretically, no,” she replied.
“You mean you won’t look at it? Or you can’t?”
“I don’t think we’re able to.”
“So who can see it, besides me?”
“The village,” said the woman.
That was when the village cadre chimed in: “It’s true that the village Party committee has access, but you’d position the camera to face outward, anyway. All we’d be able to see is the road outside. It’s not like we’d be peeking inside your house. Installing a camera is good for everyone: you get peace of mind, and it helps us manage the village, right?”
Right, I thought.
So I paid a fee of 699 yuan, and they even threw in two free phone cards: a primary card and a secondary one. To use the wireless network, I also had to pay a minimum monthly fee of 70 yuan. After promising to come back the next day to install it, the internet salespeople continued on their way through the village.
Shortly after they left, a car pulled up and parked across the street from our house. A man and a woman got out of the car and asked me if I wanted the internet.
“You’re one step too late,” I told them.
The next day, some people from China Mobile showed up. Upon hearing that I chose China Telecom, they said, “You should back out and go with us. China Telecom is a scam. They promise you phone credits, but they don’t follow through. And they force you to commit for at least two years. It’s not worth it.”
Worrying that I had been scammed, I spoke to some of our neighbors. Among the 20 or so families living nearby, seven were considered “formerly impoverished households,” and all had opted to go with China Telecom, attracted by the 50% discount. The other households had all installed surveillance cameras for the same reason: after all, who doesn’t want free stuff?
But mainly, everyone was excited by the novelty of it. We could monitor our homes from our phones now. Yang Xiaobing, out doing road-construction work hundreds of kilometers away, could now check in on his wife and kids back home. The surveillance system also had a voice-chat function, so Yang could chat with his wife almost as if they were still under one roof: “It’s going to rain, so remember to bring the quilt in.” “It’s late. Have you eaten yet? What are you up to?”
Besides that, everyone felt more secure. The village is peaceful at the moment, but what if something were to happen? We sometimes think that the village is idyllic, while at other times we feel like the world is getting more and more dangerous. It’s hard to explain these mismatched perceptions. Villagers install home security cameras for the same reason city folks buy commercial insurance—for peace of mind.
Several days passed, but the China Telecom people didn’t return. I got impatient and called them.
“Please don’t let this interfere with my work,” I told the woman who answered. “You should follow through on your promise.”
“There are over ten households in your area waiting for installation,” she explained. “The technician was planning to do them all in the next two days, but it started raining today and the utility poles are too slippery. It’s not safe to do the work.”
On the afternoon of June 19, they finally showed up. A male technician worked on the pole in front of our window for ten minutes before giving up and switching to another pole. The family kitty-corner from us switched from China Mobile to China Telecom because their son said that China Telecom had faster internet speeds. The son had gone to a junior high school in town, but had dropped out due to a combination of bad grades, fights with classmates, and getting slapped by his teacher. Now he just lazes around at home playing video games. You can see the light on in his room in the middle of the night. His dad earns about 400 yuan per day doing odd jobs on construction sites in other cities.
After installing the internet, the technician started setting up our surveillance camera. He took out a box labeled “E-life,” with a logo shaped like the surveillance cameras you see everywhere in the cities. The camera itself was a white rectangle with a black lens in the center. Right now, the lens looked like a bottomless dark eye, but at night, it emitted a dim red glow.
The camera had to be installed facing outward, with a good view of the exterior. The best location was the far corner of the eaves outside my grandpa’s room, facing the courtyard entrance where people and vehicles entered and exited—the place that needed to be monitored the most. The technician said all we had to do was connect it to the Wi-fi, and the device would be ready to use.
“Your device is now connected,” said the female voice emanating from the surveillance camera.
I opened the app, which was called “Xiaoyi Guanjia,” and a pop-up ad appeared: “The good life starts now.” I clicked on “My Home,” and a video feed appeared in the center of the screen. I could choose whether I wanted it in standard definition or high definition. The China Telecom people had recommended that I sign up for their “cloud playback” service. There were three packages: you could store your surveillance footage for one day, seven days, or a month. I chose the cheapest “one-day playback” package, which only cost an additional five yuan per month.
The surveillance camera is trained directly on a ginkgo tree, planted the same year I was born. Five years ago, it started to bear fruit. It’s summertime now, so the leaves are green. Next to the tree is a shed, once used as a pig pen, but my family hasn’t raised pigs for ten years. You can see a swallows’ nest; sometimes sparrows come to invade the nest, kick out the swallows’ eggs, and lay their own. The road next to the ginkgo tree was resurfaced two years ago. Across the road are two wooden houses, the only wooden houses left in the village besides ours.
Every time I return home from the big city, I notice new buildings springing up all around our house. They’re building them higher and higher—two, three, four, even five stories tall—but most people only renovate the first and second floors, and leave the third floor and above unfinished and unpainted. In our village, it costs about 200,000 yuan to build the main body of a two-story house, a sum that takes a family of several wage-earners three or four years to save up, so that many people have to borrow money if they want to build or renovate. Building a new house has become a major status symbol (and subject of gossip) for the villagers. Owning an imposing stone house with a surveillance camera is like having your own castle, equipped with private guards.
Right across the street from us, another house is under construction. Only the first floor has been completed, but already it blocks our view. The construction workers are from another town, and they drive in early every day, hoping to get some work done before it gets too hot. At noon, they take a break, lounging under the eaves of our roof. Sometimes they walk straight into our house, grab a few stools, and take them outside, where they sit and play poker. My grandpa said it was a good thing we installed a surveillance camera—who knows what the workers might get up to otherwise! In summertime, the moon appears at about 7:00 p.m. At this hour, grandma has finished her shower and is chatting with one of the village women in the courtyard, and the workers are just finishing their day. Bare-chested and wearing motorcycle helmets, the workers walk past the camera, hop on their motorcycles, and roar off.
In the summer, there is scorching sun and heavy rain. Last New Year’s Eve, debris from our neighbors’ fireworks came raining down like hail on our fragile roof tiles. Standing in the main room of our house and looking up at the ceiling, I can still see all the little holes they made. When it’s sunny, sunlight shines through the holes like track lighting in a fancy living room. My grandma calls them “sky lanterns.” Now it’s the rainy season. When a bad storm hit on July 17 and 18, we filled our main room with buckets and basins: plastic basins, steel basins, wooden buckets, whatever we could find to catch the rain. The surveillance camera doesn’t work well on rainy days. Maybe the rain interferes with the internet connection or something. The video looks choppy, and all I can hear is the sound of the rain.
Shortly after dawn, grandma and mom go up the mountain to pick tea leaves. At their busiest, they’ll bring some bread or buns with them for a quick snack, instead of coming down for lunch. Nothing can make them come home, except maybe a heavy rainstorm. Once, I went back to Shanghai for a few days, and every day I’d check the camera to see what the weather in the village was like. If it was rainy, I’d give them a call, reminding them to head home soon. They’d try to trick me, saying that they would be back home any minute, or that they had already returned. I would look at the screen and try to estimate their arrival time, and if they didn’t show up on time, I’d pester them with phone calls. If they said they were home, I’d ask them to stand under the camera where I could see them. That always did the trick.
At the end of August, my uncle’s family was planning to host a banquet to celebrate my cousin getting into college. She had studied computer science at a vocational high school in town. Normally her grades would have been good enough to get her into a four-year university, but she didn’t do well during the vocational test, lost her chance at bonus points, then failed to make the cut in the general test, so she ended up at a two-year college in the provincial capital. My uncle said they had to throw a banquet anyway, for the cash gifts; otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition. They’d been giving graduation cash to others for years without getting anything in return. My cousin said she felt a bit ashamed at only getting into a two-year degree program, but money outweighs pride. They decided to host a drinking party in their courtyard, because it was the most economical option, and wouldn’t require more than a few cooks.
On the day of the party, our courtyard is crowded with people, so I hide in my room. I check the app to see which relatives stop by, because some of them are very annoying and will pester me about how much money I make and whether or not I’ve found a girlfriend yet. If they show up, I’ll keep my distance. In the end, hundreds of people come. There are six tables in the courtyard, and each can seat ten, so people have to take turns eating. It’s a real feast: an enormous boar’s head on every table, plus ham hocks and roast duck. Everyone who brings cash gifts gets packets of tissues in return, as thank-you presents.
At around 2:00 p.m. the weather takes a turn for the worse. The clouds begin to gather and the wind picks up. The banquet manager quickly sets up a tarp to shield the guests from the rain, and then gets everyone seated again. As the wind grows stronger, I can see through the surveillance feed that the tarp is fluttering back and forth. People start eating faster. Five minutes later, a gust of wind hits the southeast corner of the tarp and it snaps, collapsing on the people underneath it. The men scramble to put the tarp back up. One man even gets a ladder, leans it against the utility pole where the internet cable is installed, and tries to secure the tarp to the pole, but this plan is soon declared a failure. By now it is pouring rain, and the guests have no choice but to roll up the tarp and retreat indoors. The cooks rush out into the rain to try to salvage the food, and the ground is littered with plastic tableware swept away by the storm.
That night, we watch the surveillance footage over and over, laughing hysterically. My cousin says she doesn’t feel embarrassed at all. The house is already a shambles, so what’s a bit of wind and rain? If anyone should be embarrassed, it should be the older generation. After all, they’re the ones who couldn’t manage to build a new house.
After summer has passed, I watch the surveillance footage again and see the leaves of the ginkgo tree changing colors from green to greenish yellow to orange, and the ginkgo nuts falling to the ground. Sometimes passersby eye the nuts, pick up a few, and pop them in their pockets, or in the rattan baskets they carry on their backs.
The house across the street from ours is almost finished. The family bought the land for 30,000 yuan back in 2019. The owner is a lady named Yang Ping. After she and husband divorced, he went to work in Wenzhou and died of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving behind a teenage son. Yang Ping thought there was something wrong with the original house, that it had bad feng shui and ought to be rebuilt. The villagers talk about Yang Ping like she’s some kind of badass: she’s in the garment business and never gives in to anyone. She built that two-story stone house right alongside the construction workers, carrying loads of bricks and hauling bags of sand. She’s also known for being pushy, and she’ll fight for every scrap of land around her house, moving the yard out one centimeter over here, or the corner of a wall out two centimeters to the left over there.
The finished house stands at two stories. Yang Ping was hoping to throw a banquet to celebrate its completion, but by then, the village had a new policy: no banquets allowed, except for weddings and funerals. The villagers pushed back, figuring OK, so banquets aren’t allowed, but we’re still going to give the customary gift money, and get red envelopes in return. And that’s exactly what Yang Ping did.
Through the video feed, I watch a steady stream of villagers arrive at her house at around 10:00 a.m. They leave munching melon seeds and clutching red envelopes, each containing 50 yuan, that Yang Ping distributed to her guests.
One day, Yang Ping appears in the surveillance video feed wearing a red cotton coat. She quickly disappears offscreen to the left and starts arguing with her neighbor, Chen Wenxiang. The video doesn’t capture their quarrel, so I rush to the window to peek outside. By now I’ve been back in the countryside for six months, and have become familiar with the rules: people gossip in secret and peep through door cracks and window panes to learn everything they can about their neighbors’ business. Chen Wenxiang’s three-story house, located right next door to Yang Ping’s, was built four years ago. That was a matter of great significance, because it elevated Chen’s family from one of the poorest in the village to one of the upper crust. The two houses stand only a meter or so apart, and are separated by a shallow ditch. Technically, the ditch doesn’t belong to anyone, but Yang Ping has been trying to claim it for herself.
Chen Wenxiang discovered what Yang Ping was up to. This morning, she has thrown on a camouflage shell over her cotton jacket, taken delivery of a dump truck full of loess soil, and is using a wheelbarrow to dump all of the soil into the ditch.
Yang Ping towers over Chen Wenxiang. She stands on her side of the property and starts cursing at Chen Wenxiang, which escalates into mutual cursing. After a few minutes of this, Chen Wenxiang picks up a rock and throws it at Yang Ping, who is luckily able to dodge it. The rock hits the windshield of a three-wheeled cart, shattering its glass windshield. Yang Ping rushes over, grabs one of Chen Wenxiang’s fingers, and bites down on it hard, then calls the police.
As I saw later on the surveillance footage, the village mediators were the first to arrive on the scene. This was a headache for them, because in rural areas these kinds of disputes are unavoidable, and often difficult to mediate. No matter how much you try to talk them around, some people just won’t budge. Another awkward thing is that if the police get called out, it might affect the village’s image, and that’s not exactly in line with the current emphasis on a “secure countryside” and “rural harmony,” is it?
The police arrive anyway. A police car drives into view from the right-hand side. The police take pictures and have the two women fetch their IDs before taking them to the police station in town. The footage shows the police car driving away at 1:38 p.m.
The surveillance camera also records uplifting moments. For example, just a week before that farce, an excavator showed up in the village.
The village committee has reportedly secured financing to build a public square. The village secretary, Lu Chenghai, paints a wonderful picture: we can showcase local ethnic culture, attract tourists, turn the old wooden houses into bed & breakfasts, and the money will come rolling in! The square will be the center of the village, a symbol of affluence and community cohesion, a place for people to stroll and exercise, and can even double as a parking lot during the tourist season. It’s easy to imagine how this could change the face of the entire village.
What makes the villagers hesitant is the location of the proposed square: a large swath of cultivated land where, decades ago, the village’s communal storehouse used to be located. After the household responsibility system [allowing individual, rather than collective, farming] was adopted in the 1980s, the storehouse was demolished and the land divided into plots and parceled out to the villagers. My grandparents own two small plots, where they’ve planted peppers, tomatoes, and cowpeas. Around the periphery, they’ve also planted a pear tree (which is dying now), several rows of leeks, an osmanthus tree, and six peony bushes.
The moment of change is recorded in the surveillance footage. Starting at 11:20 a.m., several hundred square meters of farmland in front of our house are transformed into a village square. The excavator rolls over a thriving vegetable patch planted with cabbage and spinach. My grandmother rushes forward to snatch up some of the vegetables. A crowd of people gathers to watch the excavator at work.
Lu Chenghai says he wants to make the village rich. He seems impressive, and the villagers say he’s the very model of a government official. Word has it that he’s well-connected with the town leaders, which means he might be able to secure precious resources for our village. He can often be seen in his black sedan, driving back and forth between the various village administrative units. The village has changed for the better during his tenure. If you could look back at a year’s worth of surveillance footage from Li Sheng’s house, where the village committee often holds its public meetings, you could see these changes taking place. After the old dirt road was resurfaced, Lu Chenghai organized the villagers to plant flowers alongside the road. And before the pandemic hit, the village installed a public broadcasting system. Every day, starting at 7:00 a.m., the loudspeaker would broadcast the news and announce the time, every hour on the hour. At 6:00 p.m. it would broadcast the local county news. Li Sheng’s mother complained that the loudspeaker, which was installed right near their house, was too noisy. Then one day the loudspeaker simply stopped working, and no one knew what had happened to it.
A classical-style pavilion was built right in the middle of the village’s tea plantation, and the village spent a lot of money laying a circular wooden walkway all around it. After that, pavilions, garbage receptacles, and street lights sprouted up like mushrooms all over the village.
A surveillance camera was also installed at the main road leading into the village. Slogans were painted on the houses located 50 meters in front of the camera. The house on the left has a slogan about environmental protection: “Clear waters and green mountains are worth their weight in silver and gold.” The house on the right has a slogan that reads: “Listen to the Party, be grateful to the Party, and always follow the Party’s lead.”
During a trip back to Shanghai that winter, I found myself frequently opening my surveillance camera app and clicking on “My Home” to check on my family’s safety. We burn coal for heat during the winter, and I always worry about carbon monoxide poisoning. Whenever I felt especially anxious, I’d check the video feed to make sure they were still alive.
An old classmate of mine, Lin Jing, works at China Telecom in the county seat. She says they’re launching a program in cooperation with the government called Secure Countryside. It’s a well-known model: “The government sets the stage, private enterprises sing and dance, and the public plays along.” Or as the folk saying goes: “The government subsidizes, private enterprise assists, and individual citizens pay the price.” In addition to security cameras, China Telecom is also rolling out a kind of set-top box that comes with a free home camera. There’s an introductory video that shows how the service works. You just turn on your TV, and you’re presented with a startup page that displays the following sections: “Online Party Education,” “Rural Culture,” “Employment Information,” and “Sharp Eyes.” If you select Sharp Eyes, you’re able to view video feeds from cameras at multiple intersections throughout the area.
The media have claimed that Sharp Eyes (which derives its name from the popular Chinese saying, “The People have sharp eyes”) shows the power of the people. Unlike Skynet, which emphasizes urban governance, Sharp Eyes focuses on suburban and rural areas and places an emphasis on public participation. The program began in 2015 and has been promoted throughout the country. A report titled “Recommendations for Strengthening and Building Public Video Surveillance Networks and their Applications,” jointly issued by nine government commissions and agencies including the National Development and Reform Commission and the Central Public Security Comprehensive Management Commission, names public safety as the primary goal of Sharp Eyes. In the decades since reform and opening”was introduced, the rural population has migrated en masse to work in the cities, leaving the countryside without sufficient human resources to ensure public safety. The installation of video monitors in rural areas is being promoted as part of the solution to this problem.
According to mainstream media narratives, Sharp Eyes is also seen as a communication channel between rural residents and local government. Rural residents can submit requests through the system, such as reports on infrastructure failures or environmental issues, and the system will relay the information to the relevant government agency. And should you find yourself in a dangerous situation, you can use the “one-touch police contact” button to summon help.
“Every household can become a surveillance terminal, and every villager can be a monitor. This is in line with the CCP’s ‘mass line’ tradition, mobilizing people’s enthusiasm to boost rural security,” said Wang Qiang, a specialist in non-combat military operations at the PLA National Defense University, who was quoted in an article published in the English-language version of the Global Times.
One year after the launch of Sharp Eyes, Xinhua News Agency reported on its effects. The report cited an example from Jiantai Village in Yuanshi Township, Shifang City, Sichuan Province, where a resident spotted a brawl occurring nearby via a video surveillance feed. He reported the incident to local police, who rushed onto the scene just in time to prevent one of the brawlers from pulling a knife.
The media often report on the benefits of public surveillance. There was an article in the new media outlet “Ping’an Yichang” [“Safe Yichang,” the official Weibo account of the Yichang city police department, in Hubei Province] that read: “A blockbuster saga played out recently in Langping Village, Changyang. With the help of the ‘eye in the sky,’ Langping police spent four hours late at night tracking a vehicle suspected of carrying illicit goods. The vehicle was intercepted and seized, and nearly 20 rural residents [who had been tricked into buying the shoddy goods] had their hard-earned money returned!”
In 2018, Sharp Eyes was written into China’s “No. 1 Central Document,” which claimed that the program would accelerate the development of rural security. However, the rollout of Sharp Eyes has been slowed by the pandemic. A report by one security firm concluded that during the first half of 2020, the majority of local governments were focusing all of their energy on fighting the pandemic, so Sharp Eyes was put on the back-burner. The report also predicted that once the pandemic ends, the government will place an even greater emphasis on surveillance, given the fact that “tens of thousands of Wuhan residents were able to escape lockdown by leaving the city in private cars. This huge security breach demonstrates the importance of surveillance systems in rural areas.”
In early 2020, a partnership between the government and China Telecom was established to begin a comprehensive rollout of the Secure Countryside surveillance network. Secure Countryside was seen as a supplement, covering the blind spots of Sharp Eyes. Whereas Sharp Eyes consists mostly of cameras in public places, Secure Countryside is mostly cameras installed in the yards of private citizens—for example, in our family home.
As Lin Jing told me, many telecom employees are being sent to work in rural areas. China Telecom is currently focusing on developing the rural market, which is both a political task and a chance to enter an untapped market ripe for the picking. China Mobile and China Unicom have been rushing into the rural market as well.
In its promotional material, China Mobile connects surveillance with love for one’s family. A China Mobile employee recently put up this promotional banner outside a sales tent: “Keep an eye on your home, your kids, and your parents: install a home surveillance monitor.”
China Unicom emphasizes left-behind children and elderly relatives as objects of surveillance. How to care for left-behind children and the elderly is a huge problem in rural communities, and in its promotions, China Unicom presents at-home surveillance as an effective solution to this problem.
China Telecom, on the other hand, expounds on the practical applications of home surveillance. For example, when parents return to work after the pandemic, they can use their cameras to supervise children studying at home and make sure they aren’t slacking off. And working adults can use the cameras to keep their elderly parents company back home, allowing both parents and children to enjoy peace of mind.
I’m not sure it gave me any peace of mind, though. That winter, I was only in Shanghai for a few days before I decided to return home. From central Shanghai, I took the subway to Pudong Airport, flew to Hubei, took a coach bus to the county seat, and then caught a regular public bus back to the village. It was a long and exhausting journey, and I’m sure my exhaustion was apparent to anyone watching me on surveillance footage.
If you want to see all the household video feeds in the village, you need to go to the village committee, which is headquartered in a small two-story bungalow. On the first floor to the left, you’ll find an office with some computers inside. Village Party Secretary Lu Chenghai denied that the village committee can access the video feeds. Only the police and members of each respective household have access, he claimed. I was surprised by his denial, and his use of the word “privacy.” “I’m worried that some people will say this is an invasion of privacy,” he told me. Of course, he was making plumbing repairs when he said this, so I suspect that he may have been a bit distracted.
But I can always ask my neighbors if I can use their cell phones to view their surveillance feeds, and they’re happy to oblige.
First, let’s take a look at Li Sheng’s feed. It’s winter, when the sun rises late, so at 6:00 a.m., the video still looks black and white. Only a ping-pong table and some exercise equipment are visible. Everything is silent and still. Then there is some sound: the noise of people talking, and loud music. After that, there is movement. Two people dressed in mourning attire appear, walking at the head of a procession. They are followed by several people carrying a cloth-draped coffin. Because the feed looks black and white, it is impossible to tell the color of the cloth. Another group walks behind the coffin, carrying wreaths of flowers. A group of women playing musical instruments bring up the rear of the procession. The song they play is “A Mother’s Kiss.” An elderly member of the family next door has passed away, and this is the funeral procession.
Li Sheng’s camera seems way more advanced than mine. It can rotate 360 degrees and can even notify the police and emit flashing red and blue lights if it glimpses someone suspicious. He also has the most stylish house in the neighborhood. Nothing luxurious, but it’s so well laid-out and uses space so efficiently that it commands respect. Their home really showcases that “Harmonious New Countryside” aesthetic. It’s a pale-yellow three-story house, pleasingly symmetrical, and not too flashy (this is key). To the left is a small but well-tended vegetable garden. There is a ping-pong table and some exercise equipment in the middle of the cement courtyard, and at the very front of the courtyard, homemade flower beds filled with azaleas and other plants that the family brought back from the mountains and replanted. In the spring, with the pink azaleas in luxuriant bloom, it makes the whole household look lovely and prosperous. As my grandma used to say, “The flowers of the wealthy bloom a little brighter.” Off to the right of the house, there’s a little convenience store that sells daily necessities. That surveillance camera is really well-placed. It keeps an eye on the shop, and also shows who is coming and going. The villagers like to congregate near Li Sheng’s house in the evenings. They come and go, paying no heed to the video camera above them.
“Village” is actually a very broad concept, as a village consists of many smaller groups or divisions: there are seven distinct small groups in our village alone. When I use the word “village,” I’m really only referring to the small group that my family belongs to. Li Sheng is our group leader, and everyone was pleased when he was elected. As one of the few men who hasn’t left the village to find work, he spends his days helping the villagers with construction, repairs, and odd jobs. Who wouldn’t like this guy? He’s honest and hard-working, a man of few words who has a smile for everyone. But to rise to an important position in the countryside, honesty and integrity alone are not enough. Much more important are the wealth and status that come with genuine ability.
According to the village secretary, Li Sheng’s house is considered a “garden home.” The township government even selected it as the venue for our village film screenings.
In the evening, they set up a white curtain and film projector in his courtyard, which fills with people sitting or leaning against the wall, waiting for the movie to start. Most of the movies are classic war films from years gone by, like “Tunnel Warfare”  or “The Bloody Battle of Taierzhuang” . As villagers sit watching the films, the surveillance camera above kicks into high gear, beeping and buzzing and flashing colorful lights. We all just ignore it.
The government gives Li Sheng a little subsidy every time he screens a movie. I later learned that this is part of a special film-screening program for rural communities. I looked it up online and found out that a lot of the projectionists used to slack off and not even bother to show the films, so their supervisors started using surveillance cameras to monitor them and make sure that the films were actually being shown. I always wonder if I’m being monitored during film screenings at Li Sheng’s place. But according to him, the county projectionists just snap a photo of the screening and send it to their superiors, that’s it. He isn’t worried that any other surveillance might be taking place, and he doesn’t believe that the village committee is able to see citizens’ video feeds, either. “If other people could see your private video feed, how could they still call it a ‘control’ monitor?”
The surveillance camera at the convenience store at the entrance to the village is probably even more useful than the one at Li Sheng’s place. Out here, convenience stores have become de facto delivery distribution centers, just like in the city. After returning to the village, I got roped into several WeChat groups with names like “Li Yangyang Hema Shopping Group,” “Duoduo Produce Group,” and “Streetside e-Commerce Service Center Community Group Purchasing.” Each group has between 150 and 300 members, but nobody ever chats. It’s all links to buy various things—basically a bunch of advertisements.
Compared to city prices, everything’s incredibly cheap: 3.49 yuan for a Guanxi honey pomelo, 0.99 yuan for a red dragon fruit, 1.99 yuan for over a pound of tangerines, and 7.99 yuan for over a pound of pork bones. You place an order, and the next day you get a phone call saying your items are ready to be picked up at the convenience store.
But no worries—the store has its own surveillance camera, to ensure no one’s picking up the wrong items. A woman named You Yan runs the store. Her husband works out of town, and running the store provides her with a little spending money. Her main job is operating the Pinduoduo group shopping community, which includes running the WeChat group, taking delivery of goods, notifying buyers, and providing after-sales service. She earns a commission on each order, and can make between 30 and 50 yuan per day. As long as she puts in the new orders before 10:00 p.m. each night, the items will arrive around noon the following day.
Later, on the door of a local distillery, I saw a poster advertising Hema’s delivery service [Hema is an Alibaba-owned grocery chain and delivery service]. It had a QR code you could scan. As far as I know, there are five households in the village operating three separate brands of grocery ordering services. After submitting your order, you can post your proof of purchase in the WeChat group, with the message: “I’ve submitted my order. Let me know when it arrives.” Based on the proof of purchases that I’ve seen posted, I estimate that about a dozen or so of the villagers shop on these platforms every day. As it turns out, the distillery also acts as a delivery dispatching site, and it too has a camera. The camera isn’t that useful for keeping track of all the packages that are delivered, but whenever someone picks up a package, it gets scanned, and as the scanner beeps, the device takes a picture of the person’s face.
My uncle bought himself a cheap camera, but he later regretted it, saying it was “trash.” You can’t even tell who is on screen, and all you can see are blurry silhouettes. My uncle’s house is situated halfway up the mountain. A year ago, he convinced his then-girlfriend to invest in a pig farm right there on the mountainside. The price of pork was soaring at the time, and my uncle saw it as a good business opportunity.
Uncle built the pigsty, and constructed his own house right uphill from it. He later broke up with his girlfriend and was left to live alone, up there on the mountainside. Toward the end of last year, he bought a few young breeding pigs, and got ready to set his big plans in motion. He put up a sign on the door of the pigsty that read “Jin Po” [“Gold Hill”], in an attempt to rename what had previously been known as “Ben Po” [“Running Hill”]. Worried that people might try to steal his pigs, he got a guard dog and named it “Jin Cai” [“Raking in Wealth”]. The dog died soon after, so he got another dog and named it “Wang Cai” [“Flourishing Wealth”]. He also installed that low-quality security camera. It was too low-resolution to see people’s faces clearly, but when it did detect someone, it sounded an alarm.
On Uncle’s surveillance feed, I can often hear various kinds of animal noises. The pigs get really grunty in the mornings, probably because they’re hungry. Uncle used to feed them cornmeal, but after he ran out of money, he started feeding them hogweed cut from the fields. You can hear honking geese and clucking chickens, too. Uncle kept a few dozen Silkie chickens and three geese. He lost a lot of chickens to weasels, and the geese would honk in alarm whenever a weasel showed up. There were also all sorts of weird animal sounds emanating from the high, uninhabited mountain opposite. One morning, after hearing strange grunts coming from the doghouse, Uncle went in to find that Wang Cai had given birth to eight puppies, four yellow and four black. Wang Cai got loose and ran away not long after that. I found her up the mountain where the tea bushes grow. She had gotten tangled in some vines and had been howling all night.
Uncle always worried that his pigs would get stolen. He was especially vigilant this summer, when swine flu hit. He worried about anyone who came close to his pigs. Before Grandma or I could get near his pigsty, Uncle would pepper us with questions: “Have you been to any other pigsties recently? Have you eaten any bad pork?” The pigs did eventually get sick, and Uncle was very anxious. He bought medicine and a syringe from the vet. But those pigs were clever. Uncle entered the pigsty with a pail of slop in one hand and a syringe in the other, planning to lure them with the promise of slop and then inject them, but they didn’t take the bait. The pigs managed to slip away after a few mouthfuls of slop, and he didn’t manage to catch a single one. Uncle felt like life was conspiring against him. He couldn’t breed any of the pigs, either. A breeder came to artificially inseminate the pigs, but they never became pregnant. The villagers would always ask him, “Pregnant yet?” and he would answer, “Nope,” and heave a sigh.
The breeder visited time and again, but none of the five pigs ever became pregnant. Then the price of pork went down. After a lot of thought, Uncle decided to sell the pigs and leave the village to find work in town. No one knows how much money he got for the pigs. At any rate, the surveillance camera is still there.
Someone told me that once you install a surveillance camera, you’ll never take it down. Li Sheng became unsatisfied with his first camera, from China Telecom, because it couldn’t rotate, so he bought a new 360-degree rotating camera for 299 yuan. Another neighbor told me how much she regretted taking her camera down. Her grandson was too fond of playing online video games, so she decided to disconnect her home internet, and when she did, her surveillance camera went offline, too. Not long after that, someone poisoned and killed all five of their dogs.
By summer of 2021, I’ve already been back in the village for one year, and I decide it’s time to return to the big city and continue working. One afternoon in September, before leaving, I take a walk through the village to the houses farthest from ours, which only takes about ten minutes. There are two brothers with two houses, both with cameras installed. The younger brother is unmarried, in his fifties, and used to raise ducks. He had installed a camera to prevent people from stealing his ducks. Earlier this year, he left the village to find work elsewhere. Before he left, he had started dating a woman—she’s already a grandmother—and she is now living in his house. It’s a small, one-story house. Her and her granddaughter’s clothes are hanging outside on a line to dry. A bamboo broom hangs from a hook on one of the walls, and a large bed of bright-red celosia bloom in the courtyard. I walk a little bit further to the older brother’s house, where his wife is the only one at home. The women here are usually out all day picking tea leaves, and only return home once evening falls. The older brother’s house has its camera trained on the path leading up to the house.
The people who own the wooden house in the middle of the village don’t come back very often. They grow tobacco on the mountain opposite. Their surveillance camera is mounted above a lantern that hangs from the eaves of their roof. They’re originally from some faraway mountain area. They bought this wooden house a few years back and completely remodeled it, painted the walls, and set up an internet connection. They also have a pet dog.
Some people have two cameras. For example, there’s a family of tea merchants in the village. The frontage of their shop is only about two meters wide, but there’s a camera installed on either side of the doorway. The one on the left is pointed straight at the tea processing workshop opposite, and the one on the right is trained on the tea shop’s payment counter. Folks doing business in the countryside are meticulous, and like to keep track of every penny that goes in or out.
I plan to upgrade my camera’s playback package. I’m looking to sign up for a seven- or even 30-day storage plan, the longer the better. Sometimes I view the surveillance footage at 8x speed, watching time accelerate ever more quickly: shadows race from the roadside into the middle of our yard. Grandpa shifts the clothes-drying pole further and further back. Villagers return home for meals, and then depart again. Birds whoosh past the camera lens, and are gone in a flash. The sky soon grows dark. Another day has passed. [Chinese]
*The names of the individuals in this article have been changed.
Translation by Alex Yu, Little Bluegill, and Cindy Carter.