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Making civilised citizens: At home, China’s own clean-up continues

A few weekends back, after a work meeting at a portfolio company, I was driving on the flyover, making my way home to downtown Shanghai. It was a route I was all too familiar with, and my mind eased into autopilot mode.

That day, however, I got distracted and nearly missed my exit. I pulled a last-minute save by turning the steering wheel sharply to change lanes, with my car crossing the part of the road where the dotted line became a solid line.

I did it, I thought to myself. I even gave myself an imaginary pat on the back for scanning the area quickly for cameras just seconds before switching lanes to make sure my illegal manoeuvre went unnoticed. Not doing so would have meant staying on the road for at least 15 more minutes. No thanks.

But 400 metres down the exit, a large electronic board loomed into sight, and made my stomach drop. It flashed a list of car license plate numbers that have been caught by surveillance cameras making illegal lane changes on the roads.

There it was, a car plate number that I recognised immediately – my own.

Eyes in the sky

After berating myself and spewing too many curse words for the rest of the journey, I finally came to terms with my fresh driving penalty, and a much bigger reality: China’s drive to teach its people civility does cut close to the bone.

Home to one of the world’s biggest and most powerful surveillance networks, China in 2018 had some 350 million cameras looking over its streets, buildings and public spaces, according to data provider IHS Markit. That’s about one camera for every 4.1 people.

This number is expected to rise to 560 million by 2021, making up slightly more than half the global tally.

The cameras, many of which are powered by Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition technology, are part of China’s national surveillance system known as the Skynet Project. The term translates from a Chinese idiom that means no one escapes from the long and wide net of justice (天网恢恢, 疏而不漏).

Authorities have said that the goal of the Skynet Project is to fight crime and make life in China safer.

Put another way, China is deploying what it is best at – technology – to correct bad, rule-breaking behaviour, eradicate crime, and build a law-abiding society. Unsurprisingly, such efforts also incorporate the use of the stick (punishment and penalty).

At the West Bund, where I usually walk my dog, another big LED screen has been put up at one of the road intersections to publicly shame jaywalkers.

I’d once seen a man cross knowingly against the traffic light to get to the other side of the street. Within seconds, a picture of his face was flashed across the big screen. It took the man some time to realise what the commotion among onlookers was about. There was nowhere he could hide.

So if people don’t behave themselves, the Chinese government will make them.

Orwell’s 1984? Not quite

This whole push has its brickbats. China’s surveillance system operates in tandem with its social credit system, which has been labelled by foreign politicians and media as an Orwellian nightmare or a Black Mirror-esque dystopia come to life.

The social credit system is due to come into effect across all of China this year, where citizens will be assigned a social credit score based on his or her behaviour.

A rule of thumb is that socially desirable behaviour will be rewarded with good credit, while undesirable behaviour will result in sanctions and inconveniences imposed by the authorities.

Paying your bills on time or donating to charities regularly could boost your rating as a trustworthy citizen, and allow you to enjoy perks like renting cars without having to put down a deposit or even higher visibility on dating apps.

But drink-drive or carry out fraudulent activity, and you could find yourself on the blacklist. This means you won’t be able to buy plane or train tickets, or land a job in a state-owned company.

Indeed, China’s moves have understandably raised concerns about the infringement of privacy. But every country treads a fine line when it comes to executing law and order and giving citizens freedom. In a country as massive as China, where trust is a perennial issue and its people have earned themselves a reputation for bad social behaviour – including as the world’s worst tourists – can we fault the government for taking extreme measures to clean up society?

In 2018, police sniffed out three fugitives using the facial recognition technology when they were caught attending the concerts of Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung on separate occasions.

The social credit system has also spurred some villages to develop better standards of cleanliness and hygiene.

Time will tell whether China’s social monitoring system will succeed in engineering civilised and moral behaviour in its people. But for now, it seems many Chinese are not quite bothered by the intrusion as long as it means a safer and nicer place to live in.

And I, for one, will no longer be pulling any illegal stunts on the road.


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