In China, Beware: A Camera May Be Watching You There are an estimated 20 million to 30 million surveillance cameras in China — or about one for every 43 people. Officials say the cameras help fight crime and maintain "social stability." But critics say the government uses them to monitor and intimidate dissidents.

In China, Beware: A Camera May Be Watching You

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China has long been a police state and in recent years technology has greatly boosted its ability to keep an eye on its citizens.


The government has installed more than 20 million cameras across a country where a decade ago there were only a few. Officials say these cameras help to combat crime and maintain, as they put it, social stability.

MONTAGNE: That's one way of saying shutting up critics, using cameras and other technology to monitor and intimidate dissidents. And looking ahead, human rights activists worry that even more surveillance will erode the freedom of ordinary people. NPR's Frank Langfitt has the first of two stories from Shanghai in today's Business Bottom Line.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: If you want to visit Li Tiantian, the human rights lawyer in Shanghai, go at night and use a grove of trees behind her apartment building as cover. After a bowl of steamed dumplings, Li will tell you to turn off your cell and put it in another room.

LI TIANTIAN: (Through translator) People with technological know-how all said that cops can use cell phones to monitor people, track your location, even use cell phones as a listening device. So people have reached a consensus that when we chat together, we put cell phones away.

LANGFITT: Sound paranoid? It isn't. Chinese state security agents have privately confirmed they can turn cell phones into listening devices. Li says they also eavesdrop on her conversations to track her movements and arrest her.

TIANTIAN: (Through translator) One morning, when I was going to a court hearing, I called a gypsy cab. Police found out through the telephone that the car was coming into my compound. Then they waited there to catch me.

LANGFITT: But what really made Li angry was when agents invaded her private life. In 2011 they showed her boyfriend photos of other men she'd been involved with. They wanted him to watch videotapes of her entering hotels with them. The goal: force her to leave Shanghai and return to Western China.

TIANTIAN: (Through translator) They think I'm a politically sensitive character, speaking out, meeting journalists and netizens, criticizing the government. They hope I go back home to Xinjiang. What they can do is destroy my life. So they asked my boyfriend to break up with me.

LANGFITT: He hasn't yet, but he's feeling the heat. The government has already stripped Li of her lawyer's license. When I asked to interview her boyfriend on tape, he refused, fearing he could lose his job too. The couple argues.


LANGFITT: Li says this is the true face of the Communist Party - a regime that uses surveillance to crush its critics.

TIANTIAN: (Through translator) Many people have been deceived by the government. They think this government is OK and it wouldn't do such dirty, disgusting and shameless things. I feel they are all like poisonous snakes. I fear them and hate them.

LANGFITT: In 2005, China began building a massive surveillance system called Skynet. The government put cameras along streets, on public buses and outside the homes of dissidents. After uprisings in the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, officials also put cameras in mosques and temples.

In recent years the city of Chongqing set a goal of installing half a million cameras. Police there boasted that during Chinese New Year 2010 their surveillance apparatus identified 4,000 undesirables who'd entered town. According to the Chinese magazine SWeekly, the police department confronted most of them within six hours and forced them to leave.

NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: I'm Nicholas Bequelin. I'm a researcher in Beijing, Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch.

LANGFITT: Bequelin says the implications are ominous.

BEQUELIN: The greatest fear is that the state uses its surveillance and monitoring technology to curtail the modest freedoms that Chinese citizens enjoy today.

LANGFITT: He says the Communist Party's ultimate goal is highly accurate facial-recognition technology.

BEQUELIN: And that would be a complete game changer.

LANGFITT: Because the government could visually track critics in real time.

BEQUELIN: And of course prevent the emergence of any challenge to the party in the short and long term.

LANGFITT: China already uses facial recognition in places like immigration checkpoints. Bo Zhang, who follows China's surveillance camera market for IMS Research, says facial recognition is much less effective on the street.

BO ZHANG: Frankly, the technology is not as good as described in the movies. It's not that easy to find the people in crowds because the facial recognition technology highly relies on the backgrounds and the, you know, the light.

LANGFITT: And, Zhang says, the government still has to knit together the country's disparate surveillance networks into one all-seeing eye.

ZHANG: They want to see everywhere, definitely. But so far it's still taking time to do.

LANGFITT: As elsewhere, surveillance has many positive uses in China. Shanghai police say video cameras helped them catch more than 6,000 suspects in 2010, but they refuse to discuss those successes with NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: This news report shows how police in Chongqing used a series of surveillance cameras to identify a serial killer, analyze his habits, track his movements, and ultimately kill him. The volume of surveillance cameras on a Shanghai street can be overwhelming at times. Right now I'm on Nanjing Road. It's a big shopping street in Shanghai about half a block from the NPR office, and I'm going to count the cameras.

Looking at a bank right here and there's one, two, three cameras here. Next to it is a driveway with one, two, three, four cameras. Another driveway across the street has a couple of cameras, and then I can see another two cameras on top of lampposts. Despite the density, many ordinary Chinese are unfazed by all the surveillance.

Liao Guosheng sells shoes and hats from a three-wheel bicycle. He says the cameras deter shoplifters.

LIAO GUOSHENG: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: Before, when I parked my tricycle in neighborhoods, thieves always stole things, he said. Now they rarely steal. I feel a sense of safety. Others, though, feel a sense of dread. Last year, Beijing's China University of Politics and Law installed cameras in classrooms. Officials said it was to prevent cheating. Professors didn't believe them.

Liu Xin teaches administrative law. She thinks the school plans to target teachers who might criticize China's current system in front of students.

LIU XIN: (Through translator) Because things are recorded, once they suspect certain teachers are problematic or their words and behavior are inappropriate, they can find the recordings and that means they've found evidence.

LANGFITT: She says cameras will intimidate professors and undermine learning.

XIN: (Through translator) Who dares to speak freely and who dares to speak their minds? Then people would think their classes don't need to have outside ideas in them. They can just read off textbooks. I think teachers will lose interest and students will lose interest as well.

LANGFITT: The Ministry of Education refused NPR's request for an interview and insisted the cameras are just to deter cheating. Bo Zhang, the analyst, estimates there are now about 30 million cameras operating in China, one for every 43 citizens. He expects camera sales to grow 20 percent annually over the next five years. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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