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By Lisa Navarrette, ICC Fellow

Part I of this series discussed how China’s history shaped social conformity. This article will discuss how China uses surveillance, controls information, and punishes those who report the truth. 

China has changed in significant ways since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Xi began an intensive anti-corruption campaign. To Western eyes, this was heralded as a step toward a more democratic society and accountability within the Chinese Communist Party.  

More than 600,000 officials were investigated each year from 2019 to 2021, with nearly half receiving some form of punishment. [i] Many believe this was a way to find those who would question the party and remove them from office- thereby increasing Xi’s power.  

Massive crackdowns on borderlands including Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong have brought them under the control of Beijing. Xi created a national security law in 2019 to respond to anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Millions of people have been imprisoned in Xinjiang, while millions of dollars have been added to the security budget in Tibet.  

Taiwan has become a contentious issue as China said it plans to reunify it with Beijing. They have been conducting military training in the region and now have the largest navy fleet in the world. Xi has taken over many sectors of the economy, making them state-owned and controlled. To centralize power at this level, the government must maintain control over its population.  

China has become the world leader in population control. The government uses surveillance, controls information, suppresses any opposition, creates a network of informants, makes examples of those who question you, and feeds the international community false news and statistics. Silicon Valley-level artificial intelligence and a lack of government accountability have allowed it to infiltrate all aspects of daily life. The effectiveness of pre-emptive control largely depends on surveillance capacities, either from the governmental apparatus or grassroots informants. These combined efforts have paid off for the Chinese Communist Party.  

The Digital Silk Road Initiative includes the building of global data infrastructure and surveillance technology. This is used domestically to assert authority over citizens, censor the media, quell protests, and oppress minorities.[ii] Much discretion is given to local authorities whose careers depend on how well they can exert control over their local population.  

While voice and audio surveillance work well, nothing beats local informants who are willing to turn over their family members and neighbors for minor infractions such as littering or drinking too much alcohol. More than 180,000 protests take place in China each year. Protesters are often objecting to specific issues and not issues of human rights.[iii] Surveillance technology alerts the government of upcoming protests, which they combat swiftly. Local governments are afforded too much discretion and little oversight leading to human rights abuses and no accountability. 

The government compiles data on individuals, government officials, and companies by using a nationwide tracking and biometric system known as the Social Credit System. Individuals can be flagged for minor offenses such as “spreading rumors” online. People with low social credit scores may be barred from travel, lose access to educational and job opportunities, and be denied other social services. This credit system is a means of exerting even tighter social control. This makes it dangerous for a person, and their family, to question the government. 

Though the Chinese constitution allows freedom of speech and press, Chinese media regulations allow authorities to infiltrate any news stories by claiming they “expose state secrets and endanger the country.” Officials know they must retain control over the news to keep power. In 2010, the government issued directives requiring all Internet users in China, including foreign organizations and individuals, to abide by Chinese laws and regulations about Internet information. The goals of these directives are not free speech and the free flow of information but “must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity.”  

President Xi emphasized that the nation’s media outlets are essential to political stability, but the international community knows information control is essential for political power. China relies on censorship to control information in the news online and on social media. Chinese journalists and media organizations are forced to censor themselves and if they do not, they are subject to libel lawsuits, arrests, and other means of force.  

The group Reporters Without Borders ranked China 179 out of 180 countries in the 2023 worldwide index of press control. [iv] Because so many foreign and domestic journalists have been imprisoned in China, it has been dubbed the “world’s largest prison for journalists.” Many U.S. websites and social media outlets including Facebook, Instagram, and Google are blocked from the Chinese public. This extreme censorship is called the Great Firewall, and it is increasing in its censorship. [v]  

China also publishes daily news articles highlighting various homicides in the U.S. to show its citizens that the U.S. is a violent, tumultuous country where no one is safe and where no Chinese should venture. [vi] It is important to note that the news industry is very profitable. It is entirely controlled by the government and the Chinese Communist Party. The Party is seeking to pass a law banning all private investment in the media, which would further its control. With the news censored, it is difficult to know just how bad the situation is in China. 

Because China censors the news, it is no wonder that they tamper with crime statistics as well. Access to reliable crime statistics makes it difficult to gauge the criminal justice system’s fairness or effectiveness. Crime and death penalty statistics often go underreported by Chinese officials to legitimize the authoritarian regime. The published statistics show that Chinese crime rates stay low when compared to other countries, though recent leaked information shows a growing rate of violent crime, drug use, and gang-related delinquency. [vii] 

Interestingly, a recent study found that 53% of Chinese citizens support various forms of state surveillance.[viii] It is uncertain whether respondents were under duress. Like all Chinese statistics, there is a good probability this statistic has been altered by the government. If, however, the collective citizenry favors such heavy surveillance and punishment tactics, the theory of social conformity is proven. Prioritizing public interest over individual rights allows the government to use such tactics to keep social control. This level of control has led to persecution, human rights abuses, and punishment in recent years.  

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[i] Baptista, E., & Katakam, A. (2022, October 27). Ten ways China has changed under Xi Jinping. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/china/ten-ways-china-has-changed-under-xi-jinping-2022-10-27/ 

[ii] Wright, C. (2021). China’s Digital Colonialism: Espionage and Repression Along the Digital Silk Road. The SAIS Review of International Affairs, 41(2), 89–113. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/852329 

[iii] Lagerkvist, J. (2015). The Unknown Terrain of Social Protests in China: “Exit”, “Voice”, “Loyalty”, and “Shadow.” Journal of Civil Society, 11(2), 137–153. https://doi.org/10.1080/17448689.2015.1052229 

[iv] Reporters Without Borders. (2022). China | RSF. Rsf.org. https://rsf.org/en/country/china 

[v] Xu, B., & Albert, E. (2017, February 17). Media Censorship in China. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/media-censorship-china 

[vi] China Daily News. (2022, January 24). US gun violence in 2021. Global.chinadaily.com.cn.  https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202201/24/WS61ee66b3a310cdd39bc82e99.html 

[vii] Terrill, R. J. (2016). World criminal justice systems: a comparative survey. New York, London Routledge. 

[viii] Su, Z., Xu, X., & Cao, X. (2021). What explains popular support for government monitoring in China? Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 19(4), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/19331681.2021.1997868