Surveillance and Facial Recognition Tricks Monitor, Threaten People in China

October 24, 2020 Updated: October 24, 2020

How would it feel being forced to scan your face at restrooms before getting some toilet paper, pass a “facial recognition test” to apply for internet services, or being critically shamed online for your “uncivilized behavior” of wearing pajamas in public? And what if trackers were put on your kids to monitor their activities in school and beyond?

This may sound too bizarre and farfetched to some; however, it is what people encounter in China as a routine part of their lives. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been expanding surveillance and the use of facial recognition technology, and there’s no doubt why more people, especially the Chinese people, are becoming greatly concerned about security issues.

In a recent analysis, many cities in China were found to have the heaviest number of CCTV cameras in the world, according to a report by cybersecurity firm Comparitech. Per the report’s key find, “18 out of the top 20 most surveilled cities are in China.”

But more worrisome is how exactly the facial recognition technology is being used in China and to what extent.

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A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard before security cameras at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on April 8, 2019. Three decades after the crackdown on Tiananmen protesters, the tanks that lined Beijing’s central avenue have been replaced by countless surveillance cameras perched like hawks on lampposts to keep the population in check. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The Nandu Personal Information Protection Research Centre in China conducted an online survey in 2019 to get people’s views on the use of facial recognition cameras, The Financial Times reported. Though 60 to 70 percent of the respondents felt that the cameras made their life safer and easier, 80 percent of the 6,154 people surveyed were worried about the data leak, while 57 percent cited concern over the technology tracking their movements, the report said.

Surveillance in Public Places

The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has made it mandatory to present a valid ID and personal information to register for a cell phone or a landline number since 2015. However, from December 2019 onward, a new rule was added to upgrade the restriction: one has to pass a “facial recognition test” in order to apply for new internet or mobile services, and there must be no transfer of cell phone or landline numbers to another person privately.

The MIIT said the new rule was to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of citizens in the cyberspace,” Quartz reported.

However, U.S.-based commentator Tang Jingyuan begs to differ. Tang told The Epoch Times that “the reason why the Chinese regime asks people to register their real identities to surf the internet is because it wants to control people’s speech.”

“MIIT’s new rule on using facial recognition to identify an internet user means the government can easily track their online activities, including their social media posts and websites they visit,” Tang said. “Then these people become scared of sharing their real opinions online because their comments could anger the authorities and they could get arrested for it.”

Before facial recognition was used when registering at telecom carriers, the Chinese regime has already implemented the technology in public places, such as on the streets and inside public restrooms.

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A man uses an automatic toilet paper dispenser that uses facial recognition technology at a public toilet at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on March 21, 2017. (WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images)

In public restrooms, tourists and residents have to scan their faces to get toilet paper. For instance, the machines installed in the restrooms at the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing would dispense about 24 to 27.5 inches of toilet paper to each person at one time, the BBC reported.

To get more paper, one would have to wait for nine minutes before scanning their face again. However, if one urgently needs more toilet paper due to diarrhea, he or she can ask the staff directly, a spokesman for the park told Beijing Wanbao. According to the BBC report, Chinese media had reported that visitors were seen “stuffing their bags” with excessive amounts of toilet paper, which lead to this drastic measure employed by the officials.

The facial recognition systems were also used to shame those who wear their pajamas on the streets. In January 2020, The New York Times reported that the authorities in Suzhou City, Anhui Province, published surveillance photos of local residents who wore their pajamas in public. Their names, ID numbers, and the location where their “uncivilized behavior” took place were also published.

After the authorities wrote a post on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, to criticize the residents for their behavior, some internet users were upset with the officials for sharing people’s personal information online while others questioned why wearing pajamas is considered “fashionable” for celebrities yet “uncivilized” for ordinary people. The authorities later apologized and deleted the post.

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A woman and a girl in pink pajamas walk down a street in Shanghai on Jan. 31, 2017. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Facial recognition systems were also installed at crosswalks to catch those who attempt to jaywalk. In Shandong Province, those who were caught jaywalking would have their ID number and home address shown on a crosswalk display within 20 minutes and be punished. They were, however, given three options to choose for their punishment: a fine of 20 yuan (US$3), take a half-hour course on traffic rules, or spend 20 minutes helping a traffic officer, The Atlantic reported.

Putting Trackers on Students

While it’s easy to understand why facial recognition is used more widely in public places, it could be more difficult to comprehend how such technology is used in schools.

According to a March 2019 report, Guangya High School—a prestigious school in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province—purchased 3,500 wristbands for students to wear. The wristbands were supposed to track the students’ information, including their location, attendance, how many times they raised their hands in class, as well as their heart rate and walking and sleeping data.

However, the school’s decision came under fire after its procurement documents were circulated online, which showed the school spent 4.85 million yuan (US$722,000) on its “smart-campus” project.

“What’s the difference between this and putting trackers on prisoners or putting locators on dogs? Students are not prisoners,” an internet user wrote on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, The Guardian reported.

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A camera records the activities in a classroom at the West Point Training Center in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province of China, on Aug. 1, 2006. (Cancan Chu/Getty Images)

Similarly, the public was angered after learning that students at Xiaoshan Central Primary School in Zhejiang Province were told to wear headbands that scan their brains and tell the teachers if any student is distracted in class, according to South China Morning Post. The school has since stopped the use of the headgears.

In 2017, it was reported that Hangzhou No. 11 High School in Zhejiang Province started using the facial recognition system in its cafeteria where it required students to scan their faces for “one second” to get their food. The system was implemented after more students forgot to bring their lunch coupons, several media reports stated.

A year later, the same school used the system to record students’ facial expressions and monitor their attentiveness in a class by installing three surveillance cameras in front of the classroom. As a result of the increased surveillance, it was reported that some students have started paying attention in class.

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(Illustration – Ivan Marc/Shutterstock)

Monitoring “Suspects” or Religious Believers?

Apart from implementing facial recognition technology in public places and schools, the CCP has also extended the surveillance system to homes and personal items.

Chinese authorities in some areas have told local residents to get their electric transportation devices such as bicycles installed with tracking devices while getting their new license plate, according to a 2018 report by Bitter Winter, a magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China.

A woman from a village in Huanan County in Jiamusi City, Heilongjiang Province, told the magazine that the police threatened to confiscate her vehicle if she refused to comply, adding that residents were made to pay 380 yuan (US$57) for the installation fee.

Though the authorities in some places said the purpose of the surveillance equipment was to prevent theft, the police in Huanan County told villagers that it was to track their movements.

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(China Photos/Getty Images)

A villager in Huanan, who was outraged at being tracked by the authorities, removed the tracking device from his equipment, only to have the police show up two days later threatening to arrest him if he didn’t get the device reinstalled again.

“The police were unable to monitor you and didn’t know where you were or what you were doing,” the police reportedly told the man, according to Bitter Winter.

In homes, the increase in surveillance cameras and access control systems have made some residents feel like they are living “in prison.”

“I spent most of my savings on a new apartment, but now it feels like I live in prison,” a resident in Luoyang City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter. “I have to pass through layers of barbed wire, always monitored by surveillance cameras throughout my residential community, and have to have my face scanned to enter it.”

The use of facial recognition systems has also resulted in some religious believers being arrested.

A member of The Church of Almighty God (CAG) who was on the run to avoid being persecuted was nearly arrested when she stayed at a church member’s house in a “smart security residential community,” which was equipped with facial and vehicle recognition systems. The woman had previously avoided getting recognized by the system by disguising herself and leaving the home with the homeowner.

However, she had a severe toothache one day and went out alone to see a doctor, as the owner was not at home. That’s when the system captured her image and informed the security department. The police soon came to the residential community to question the homeowner. Fortunately, the woman managed to escape.

While the CAG member was able to escape arrest, a Falun Gong practitioner in Heilongjiang Province was not as lucky.

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a meditation practice based on the universal principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance, and consists of five sets of gentle exercises. After its introduction to the public in 1992, the peaceful self-improvement system was practiced by an estimated 70 million to 100 million people in China alone. However, fearing its popularity, the communist regime launched a brutal crackdown on the practice in July 1999. As a result, numerous practitioners in China were arrested, detained, and subjected to brutal torture.

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Falun Gong practitioners exercising in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, in 1998, before the July 1999 persecution campaign was launched against the peaceful meditation system. (Minghui)

Wang Xinrong, who had been on the run for three years to avoid being persecuted, was accompanying her sister-in-law to the hospital when she was arrested, according to Minghui.org, a U.S.-based website that tracks the persecution of Falun Gong in China.

The police reportedly told Wang’s family that the hospital’s facial recognition system automatically contacted the police after spotting Wang, who was on the wanted list.

Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and civil rights activist, was also arrested in February after being recognized by the facial recognition camera. Xu had criticized Chinese leader Xi Jinping to step down for his “inability to handle crises” and the CCP virus outbreak.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), Xu had been staying with friends before moving into Guangzhou lawyer Yang Bin’s home. Yang and her family were also arrested together with Xu.

“According to my information, he was found at Yang Bin’s house because he was recognized by the facial recognition system, using big data analysis,” a source told RFA.