Residents are deprived of privacy and freedom, as the state watches their every move using big data, facial recognition, and invasive surveillance.
by Wang Yong
“Smart Security Residential Communities” is a nationwide project, implemented to upgrade access control systems into apartment buildings. However, it is also a comprehensive digital surveillance system that helps collect information about people who live there. It can also perform analyses of residents’ data, their social relations, and behavioral tendencies to form an intelligence information system. Under the watchful eyes of property management personnel, public security officers, and grid administrators, the “smart communities” ensure that residents are monitored 24/7.
“The smart access control system enables the real-time collection of facial images and information about when and how many times residents enter and leave the residential complex. The focus is on deploying facial recognition, vehicle image capturing, and Wi-Fi probes at the entrance to and on main paths in the residential complex, in order to acquire the travel trajectory of people and vehicles entering and leaving the complex, as well as various types of dynamic data.” This is how Wang Rujun, a Party committee member at the Public Security Sub-Bureau of Lianxi district, described the security upgrades at the Taowa Residential Community in the district, which is within Jiujiang city in the southeastern province of Jiangxi.
According to online media reports in mainland China, through the use of various high-tech facilities, 76,000 pieces of data on housing and over two million on residents’ entering and leaving the complex have been collected in Taowa Residential Community since it was upgraded in May 2018 and became the pilot “smart security residential community” in the area. The data is sent to the Public Security departments’ big data platform.
Coincidentally, earlier the same month, four members of The Church of Almighty God (CAG), who live in the community, were arrested, and 100,000 RMB (about $ 14,000) in cash was seized from them. According to a local CAG church, the four believers have been unable to participate in gatherings due to tight surveillance since they were released.
As of August, 143 “smart communities” – both newly built and renovated – are in the process of being established in Jiujiang city alone. Like “Sharp Eyes Project” and other mass surveillance programs, the pretext the government gives for their existence is to “maintain social security.”
In fact, back in 2013, the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the Ministry of Public Security, and other government departments jointly issued the Guiding Opinions on Promoting the Establishment of an Integrated Information Platform of the Public Service in Communities. The document called for the construction of “smart communities,” which started appearing in large numbers throughout China.
In the eastern province of Zhejiang, 109 “smart security residential communities” have been established in Wenzhou city and 453 in Huzhou city from May 2017 to August 2018. Wuhan, the capital of the central province of Hubei, plans to create 400 “smart security residential communities” in 2019.
Live footage from surveillance cameras is displayed on a large screen in the surveillance room of a residential community in Tongren city in the southwestern province of Guizhou. When residents who have been blacklisted by the state are captured on screen, a warning sign pops up to notify security personnel.
Some residents say that they feel safer with the surveillance program introduced in the community, but others have a different opinion – they feel like living in a giant prison.
“There are surveillance cameras both outside and inside. How many times you come and go, your travel habits, whom you’re in contact with – the government knows all of these things,” a resident from a “smart residential community” told Bitter Winter. He feels that such intense surveillance violates his privacy.
Most house churches choose to set up their meeting venues in rental properties or the homes of congregants. Facing multiple layers of high-tech surveillance, it has become more difficult and dangerous for believers to hold gatherings and other faith-related activities.
“Ever since surveillance cameras were deployed throughout the residential compound, my fellow church members find it difficult to come to visit me,” said a CAG member who has been previously arrested for his faith.
A young CAG believer, who has been living on the run because of persecution she faces from authorities, recounted her experience living in a smart residential community in Zhejiang Province’s Hangzhou city, where a fellow church member let the woman stay with her for a while.
“Not only an access control system with facial recognition equipment was installed there, but also an infrared camera at the entrance to the building. The comings and goings of residents are monitored 24 hours a day,” the woman explained.
The believer would leave and enter the community with the apartment owner, thus evading facial recognition. Since she wore wigs and disguised herself in other ways, she was not identified by the security system for quite some time, until she was forced to leave the community alone one day.
The CAG believer developed a severe toothache. “I didn’t dare to take even one step outside the door. I had no choice but to rely on my sister from the church to buy painkillers for me,” the woman remembered. The pain was increasing, and the medicine she had didn’t help to subdue it. On a day when her host was not at home, the believer, unable to bear the pain, decided to see a doctor. The facial recognition cameras spotted her, notifying the security personnel, and the apartment owner soon had plainclothes officers at her home. They visited her repeatedly, searching the apartment and making inquiries about the CAG and the woman who stayed with her, who managed to escape and now lives elsewhere.