Reportage. ‘Thus, a vigorous surveillance system was born.’ China’s Sharp Eyes project combines millions of cameras, facial recognition software, and artificial intelligence to control its people. We visited the tech company that makes it possible.

What’s behind China’s ‘Sharp Eyes’

The lobby of the Terminus offices in Beijing is all gleaming white. The doors through which one enters the open office spaces are designed to interlock in a zig-zag pattern, familiar from countless science fiction movies and the Star Wars films.

The architecture is trying to convey the idea of “the future” as we have imagined it—or, indeed, as we are already experiencing it. Terminus, founded in 2015, one of the many Chinese startups that have quickly attained “unicorn” status (i.e. valued at over $1 billion), is working to make “the future” very much a part of the present. Its object of activity is the “smart management” of facilities and whole city blocks on behalf of the government, integrating all the newest and most eye-catching developments in terms of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

The neighborhoods managed by Terminus collect all kinds of information on both residents and passers-by: all the data that comes from smart cameras, facial recognition systems, geo-location and individual “voiceprints.” This information, in synthesized form, flows across screens that are monitored by security personnel. Everything is analyzed, every move recorded.

“If we don’t see one of the residents of the building for a few days, we go and check if everything is fine,” the company’s communications personnel tell us as we walk down a corridor.

The company also checks the level of pollution and the energy usage of the buildings and streets, but, for now, this is a less profitable line of business than its contracts with the government. “Practically all of our work is in making cities safer from the risk of criminal activity.”

As in all such premises, which try to project a vision of the futurism we know from movies and literature, a large part of the office space is dedicated to showcasing the possibilities of the technology: there is a small cinema where we see a short film in which they introduce their partners (which include the most famous names in the field of artificial intelligence in China nowadays), and a room with a large table featuring a scale model of a city and a wall covered with screens showing data being processed. They warn me beforehand that it’s not allowed to take photos of the screens, “because they involve sensitive data,” namely about the behavior of millions of Chinese citizens at the very moment that my gaze runs across the strings of numbers and Chinese characters.

Such concerns for privacy may seem strange for a company that monitors the inhabitants of the areas it “manages” 24 hours a day, providing the information to the Chinese government. Terminus’s main client is the nationwide security apparatus. As Xie Chao, vice president of Terminus, explained in an interview with the China Money Network, “China is ahead in this type of new technology applications, especially in civilian use cases.” The country is a powerful player in the market, because it has allocated funding to buy complete solutions for local government bodies, which usually have neither the expertise nor the resources to manage the full range of companies and services involved in China’s “smart city” projects.

According to Xie Chao, these authorities need a “trusted partner” who can help them find, integrate and manage all the different hardware and software components. As noted by Forbes Asia, “Terminus helps local governments to improve public security using AI-powered solutions. The area where Terminus focuses the most is population control, allowing China’s smallest social management units—neighborhood committees—to better monitor residents, visitors and vehicles within designated areas.”

Thus, we see that this is about much more than just the latest technology. On this topic, we should be careful to consider the proper historical context. What can be seen at the headquarters of Terminus, and more generally in the stated intentions of the Chinese leadership, appears to us Westerners as the specter of a powerful contemporary version of Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon,” a “control society” achieved through a particular combination of tradition and modernity. If we look at just the recent past, the race toward using technology as a tool of social control and surveillance started a few years ago.

As the Financial Times recalled in an article last July, the Chinese government has a comprehensive roadmap: “By 2020, a national video surveillance network will be ‘omnipresent, fully networked, always working and fully controllable,’ according to an official paper released in 2015.” According to the Chinese public safety authorities, the police should soon be ready to fully deploy the technology of facial recognition in combination with video cameras to catch criminals.

The same authorities are saying that “100%” of Beijing is now covered by security cameras—a fact that is rather obvious even to a passing tourist. In the hutong, the narrow historical streets of the capital, the system also includes the presence of many baoan, a kind of municipal guards, who operate small gates and block anyone they deem unauthorized or undesirable from passing.

“The penalties for small crimes seem unreasonable,” The Atlantic wrote last year. “Authorities in Fuzhou are publishing the names of jaywalkers in local media and even sending them to their employers. More ominous, though, are the likely punishments that will be inflicted on people who associate with dissidents or critics, who circulate a petition or hold up a protest sign, or who simply wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The name of the government project that wants to ensure that there will be one camera for every three people in China in the near future is called xueliang, “sharp eyes,” an expression that explicitly recalls the Maoist slogan “the people have sharp eyes.” It is important to keep in mind the historical context in which all of this is happening.

Many observers have noted that the surveillance of the population is an element that can be found during many periods of China’s history. Some of the characteristics of the organization of the danwei, the production and workers’ units, are among the contemporary forms of Chinese social control which, according to some analysts, date back to the period of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and the so-called baojia system, which involved family units in forms of organization with a military and defensive character.

A similar system existed at other times as well. In Kai Vogelsang’s account in his Cina, una storia millenaria (“China: A History Spanning Millennia,” originally published in German as “Geschichte Chinas”), during the brief Qin period (221-206 BC), “even in daily life, the Qin society was organized in a fully military manner. All the inhabitants were divided into groups of five or 10 families, who were working together and controlled each other. Thus, a vigorous surveillance system was born, in which all were subject to the obligation of denouncing others and to collective responsibility.” Perhaps due to these parallels that have recurred at various points in their history, the Chinese seem to be generally willing to accept this development at the city level, in the name of “public safety” and deterrence against criminals (which is something also achieved through predictive profiling models adopted by local police).

However, from a Western point of view, this development of “smart cities” recalls the third installment of Discipline and Punish, in which Michel Foucault wrote that “in this space of domination, disciplinary power manifests its potency, essentially by arranging objects.” Whoever is subjected to such control “is seen, but … does not see,” is “the object of information, never a subject in communication.”

A lot of money is going into the field of control and surveillance. Terminus, like other Chinese companies, is competing for a share of a constantly expanding market. According to the estimates of the China Security and Protection Industry Association, the public security market, including video surveillance systems, access control systems, police alarms, security inspection systems and more, was worth around $90 billion by the end of 2017, and it is expected to grow to $162 billion by 2023.

Equally flourishing is the market offered by the ever-increasing number of smart cities. According to data from Alltech Asia, Terminus has implemented 6,891 smart city projects in China.

Terminus’s solutions now cover a total area of ​​554 million square meters, with a population of over eight million. At the Terminus offices, the company’s representatives explained that they are focusing their efforts towards being able to implement “smart” concepts for residential buildings, although this market is not yet in full expansion.

The most well-financed sector remains that of smart cities, which the Chinese government believes to be an optimal path forward for urbanization and the optimization of services. The origins of the Chinese smart city development project date back to the mid-‘90s, when a large-scale urban plan was proposed. Then, in 2011, smart city initiatives were included in the 12th Five Year Plan. In 2018 alone, China has worked on developing nearly 500 smart city experiments—which, unsurprisingly, is a number greater than in all other countries combined.

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