When a woman walked to work this month in the bustling Southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen, she, like many millions of other Chinese, jaywalked, cutting across a side street to avoid a detour of hundreds of yards to a crosswalk. What happened next, as documented by the woman, a writer calling herself Mao Yan, was an illustration of a brave new world being born in China.
Two traffic policemen approached the woman and told her that she had violated the traffic regulations of the People’s Republic of China. Eager to get to her job, Mao Yan apologized and pointed out that there was no fencing to block jaywalkers like her. She hoped to get off with a verbal warning. The officers, however, were intent on prosecution. They demanded her identity card, which is issued to all Chinese citizens. When Mao Yan said that she had not brought hers, they asked for her ID number. When she said she had not memorized it, one officer snapped her picture with a camera phone. Seconds later he read out her name, her ID card number and date of birth. Using facial recognition technology, he had identified Mao Yan.
Then Mao Yan heard the clatter of a printer from a nearby police kiosk. One of the officers entered the kiosk and returned with a slip. “It was my first ever traffic citation,” Mao Yan wrote. On the citation was a QR code that she scanned to pay her fine via a messaging app called WeChat that is managed by Tencent, a private Chinese company.
Mao Yan was taken aback by the experience and what she called “the stunning efficiency of the facial recognition technology possessed by our traffic police.” She shared her story with friends, who told her she was lucky that she had not crossed against a light. If she had, police could have put her face, her full name and several digits of her ID card number on a public bulletin board for everyone to see. “Jaywalkers have fewer rights than criminal suspects,” she wrote, pointing out that in Chinese news reports, suspects are often not fully identified and their faces are blotted out.
Mao Yan’s Shenzhen is part of one of the great social experiments of mankind — the use of massive amounts of data, combined with facial recognition technology, shaming and artificial intelligence to control a population via marriage of the state and private companies. Already on the packed highways of Shanghai, honking has decreased. That’s because directional microphones coupled with high-definition cameras can identify and ticket — again, via WeChat — noisy drivers and display their names, photographs and identity card numbers on the city’s many LED boards. On some streets, if drivers stop their cars by the side of the road longer than seven minutes, high-definition cameras identify the driver and, again, issue him or her an instant ticket.
In other parts of China the technology is being used by the state security apparatus to crack down on separatism. In Xinjiang, which has been the site of a separatist movement against Chinese rule, China’s police have established a 21st-century police state through an infrastructure of security technology with high-definition cameras, facial-recognition technology, iris and body scanners at checkpoints, the forced collection of DNA, and the mandatory use of apps that monitor messages on smartphones. The focus of this campaign is the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group that is mostly Muslim.
But as Mao Yan’s story makes clear, this technology is bleeding into the rest of China, where 95 percent of the population is Han Chinese. And China’s authorities won’t be content with traffic stops. Their goal is behavioral modification on a massive scale. Chinese planners have announced their intention to tap the vast AI and surveillance infrastructure currently under construction to generate “social credit” scores for all of China’s 1.5 billion people. With a high score, traveling, securing a loan, buying a car and other benefits will be easy to come by. Run afoul of the authorities, and problems begin.
Some Chinese businessmen who are benefiting from this massive investment in data have argued that the Chinese are less concerned about privacy than people in the United States. Robin Li, the founder of Baidu, China’s version of Google, which routinely shares its data with the Chinese Communist Party, argued over the weekend that Chinese people don’t care that much about privacy. “The Chinese people are more open or less sensitive about the privacy issue,” said Li, speaking at the China Development Forum in Beijing. “If they are able to trade privacy for convenience, safety and efficiency, in a lot of cases, they are willing to do that.” Ironically, Li’s remarks were released by the Chinese magazine Caixin on the same day that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg issued an apology for releasing user data to a political consultancy.
In her article, Mao Yan didn’t seem to agree with Li’s optimistic interpretation of the campaign. “Maybe,” she wrote, “it’s intimidation to make everyone afraid.” I think she’s right. Hours after Mao Yan posted her story on China’s Internet, censors took it down.