In times of “growing uncertainty,” a top Chinese law enforcement official has urged police and local governments to increase their use of big data, artificial intelligence, and networked security cameras to quell potential social unrest.
Chen Yixin, secretary general of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political and legal affairs commission, which oversees domestic security, urged law enforcement to “lay a solid foundation for social governance and security right now.”
On September 19, he told a meeting on grassroots governance in the southern province of Guangdong that the move would carry out CCP leader Xi Jinping’s directive to “study new measures to improve grassroots social governance capabilities.”
Chen was quoted by state media as saying that the security situation at home and abroad was becoming more complex, with a growing risk of instability.
“Grassroots social governance has encountered some new situations and problems, which require us to conduct in-depth research [and] continue to innovate with ideas and new measures,” he said, citing sexual assault of “left-behind children” and human trafficking as top priorities.
“It is necessary to overcome the problem of insufficient police force in grassroots police stations for serious criminal crimes in rural areas,” Chen said.
According to the state-backed social media news channel WePolitics, the conference was held in Shenzhen, where authorities in Guangming district are part of a pilot program of measures giving administrative officials law enforcement powers, and officials from across China are learning how to implement it.
The growing emphasis on “grid-based” law enforcement and monitoring coincides with increased coverage of the need to prevent espionage in state-run media, according to Chinese political commentator Willy Lam.
However, he stated that rising unemployment rates have increased concerns about social instability, and that different branches of government are increasingly working together to prevent “mass incidents” from occurring.
“For example, in Dongguan, Guangdong, many factories have closed, and no new orders are coming in,” Lam explained. “If the local security point learns of something, such as someone announcing plans to organize a demonstration, they are required to notify the local police station.”
“The authorities are hoping that these disagreements can be resolved before they reach the municipal government offices, preferably at the neighborhood committee level,” he said.
Under an amended administrative punishment law that went into effect in July 2021, local officials at the township, village, and neighborhood level were given the authority to enforce the law, as well as operate a vastly expanded “grid management” system of social control in both rural and urban areas.
According to an opinion document issued jointly by the CCP central committee and the country’s State Council, the system will be based on a “grid” management system, a system of social control dating back to imperial times that will allow the authorities even greater control over citizens’ lives.
According to directives issued in 2018, the grid system divides neighborhoods into grid patterns with 15-20 households per square, with each grid assigned a dedicated monitor who reports back to local committees on residents’ affairs.
Neighborhood committees in China have long been tasked with monitoring the activities of ordinary people in urban areas, but the grid management system boosts officials’ ability to monitor what local people are doing, saying, and thinking even in rural areas.
According to an online job posting from 2018, the task of a grid monitor for a neighborhood committee is to fully understand the residents of their grid, including who lives where, which organizations they belong to, and the type of lives they lead.
According to the advertisement, they will be asked to mediate family conflicts and other disputes, as well as provide “psychological intervention” when necessary, as well as report back on “hidden dangers” in their grid, as well as all aspects of residents’ lives, political opinions, and complaints.
According to a July 11 opinion document from the central leadership, that system is now being “modernized,” with the goal of full data sharing between organizations and widespread automation.
Chen Yixin told the Shenzhen conference that there are still “blind spots” in some smart surveillance systems and that more cameras should be added to the Golden Shield nationwide network-security system to eliminate them, as well as the use of big data to monitor potential risks.
According to Beijing-based dissident Ji Feng, the CCP’s goal is total population surveillance.
“Nothing is secret once you walk out your front door,” Ji told RFA. “There’s a camera right next to [my door], so they know when I leave and when I return.”
“They can monitor us using existing equipment and search for our data, including facial recognition,” he explained. “Facial scans are now required for a variety of purposes.”
“They are attempting to improve on existing systems; this is known as optimization.”
Zhang Jianping, a Jiangsu-based current affairs commentator, stated that a society with no independent judiciary and massive inequality is forced to rely on such methods.
“So-called social stability can only be maintained in the absence of that by informing, monitoring, and exposing [people],” Zhang told RFA.