Will Beijing push the boundaries of social control?

Executive Summary

The Chinese government is moving beyond its well-developed system of internet censorship – the so-called Great Firewall – to harness technology and data for the purpose of tracking the behavior of individuals and of companies that operate in China. The government is creating a nationwide “social credit” system designed to rate every citizen, based on actions at work and in public as well as on personal financial transactions. The system has generated intense debate among China-watchers, with some calling it an ominous experiment in social control and others saying it is primarily an effort to thwart corruption and regulate corporations. Some experts doubt that the government currently has the capacity to create a mass-surveillance state, given the extensive technological integration needed. Despite such doubts, it seems clear that Chinese authorities are laying the groundwork for a sweeping system of data collection and monitoring.

Some key takeaways:

  • China is the world’s most restrictive country in limiting online activities, according to the human rights watchdog Freedom House.

  • The techniques that the government employs to monitor its citizens include widespread use of surveillance cameras in public places, installation of iris scanners in restive regions and a rapidly expanding DNA database.

  • China has made it clear that it expects all companies operating in the country, including foreign corporations, to aid the government by storing data locally and allowing authorities to access that information.

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Resources for Further Study



Roberts, Margaret E., “Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall,” Princeton University Press, 2018. A scholar uses digital data and propaganda leaks to examine how censorship influences public life in China.

Walton, Greg, “China’s Golden Shield: Corporations and the Development of Surveillance Technology in the People’s Republic of China,” Rights & Democracy, 2001. A cybersecurity expert explains China’s massive online surveillance project.


Chin, Josh, “About to Break the Law? Chinese Police Are Already On To You,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 27, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ya5gbh35. A journalist explains how China is amassing data to tamp down ethnic opposition in the Xinjiang region.

Dou, Eva, “Jailed for a Text: China’s Censors Are Spying on Mobile Chat Groups,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 8, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8td4enc. Authorities in China today use the internet and other technology to identify behavior and opinions that once were revealed by informants.

Sacks, Samm, Paul Triolo and Graham Webster, “Beyond the Worst Case Assumptions on China’s Cybersecurity Law,” New America, Oct. 13, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8lhtf8y. Technology experts at two Washington think tanks analyze China’s latest attempt to regulate online data.

Sacks, Samm, “New China Data Privacy Standard Looks More Far-Reaching than GDPR,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, Jan. 29, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yawzo384. A scholar explains China’s new guidelines on information and data protection.

Reports and Studies

“China: Big Data Fuels Crackdown in Minority Region,” Human Rights Watch, Feb. 26, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9expjdj. An international human rights group details how Chinese authorities are using big data to monitor a largely Muslim population in northwestern China.

“China: Police ‘Big Data” Systems Violate Privacy, Target Dissent,” Human Rights Watch, Nov. 19, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8fkbj6o. The human rights organization examines China’s Police Cloud surveillance system.

“Forbidden Feeds: Government Controls on Social Media in China,” PEN America, March 13, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8ehnypb. The New York-based free speech advocacy group documents instances of social media censorship in China.

“Giving Credit 3: Inputs and Outputs,” China Law Translate, Jan. 15, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yd8e8zgm. Yale scholar Jeremy Daum translates and explains laws and rules governing a social credit system.

Triolo, Paul, et al., “China’s Cybersecurity Law One Year On: An Evolving and Interlocking Framework,” New America, Nov. 30, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y7b9nujw. A group of security scholars explain and monitor China’s 2017 cybersecurity law.

The Next Step

Facial Recognition

Schmitz, Rob, “Facial Recognition In China Is Big Business As Local Governments Boost Surveillance,” NPR, April 3, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y77pkcws. Increasing demand from local governments for facial recognition technology is rapidly expanding the artificial intelligence industry in China.

Wang, Amy B., “A suspect tried to blend in with 60,000 concertgoers. China’s facial-recognition cameras caught him,” The Washington Post, April 13, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yag7yk67. A man wanted by Chinese law enforcement was snapped up in the middle of a massive outdoor concert due to the quickly advancing facial recognition technology used in police surveillance.

Zuo, Mandy, “Chinese public toilets go hi-tech with Wi-fi and facial recognition,” South China Morning Post, April 13, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yava4ybw. Cities in China have started installing new technologies in public bathrooms, including facial recognition, which will dispense a set amount of toilet paper when an individual’s face is scanned.

Public Backlash

Liao, Shannon, “China’s microblogging platform Weibo reverses its decision to ban all gay content after online protests,” The Verge, April 16, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8uzcvyv. China’s version of Twitter reversed a ban on homosexual content on its platform in response to a vigorous outcry online from users.

Shih, Gerry, “Ethnic Uighurs Protest Chinese Security Crackdown,” The Associated Press/U.S. News & World Report, March 15, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7dh2v5o. Members of a Chinese ethnic minority gathered worldwide to protest what they called the aggressive surveillance and security policing methods used by the government in China against their people.

Zhao, Christina, “On China’s Weibo, It’s Forbidden to Disagree With President Xi Jinping’s Plan To Rule Forever,” Newsweek, Feb. 27, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ych5efv5. The words and phrases selected for censorship by the Chinese blogging platform Weibo serve as indicators of negative public opinion on the ruling Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, says the founder of an anti-censorship organization.


American Chamber of Commerce in China
Floor 3, Gate 4, Pacific Century Place, 2A Workers’ Stadium North Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 100027
+(8610) 8519-0800
Trade association representing 900 American businesses operating in China.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute
Level 2, 40 Macquarie St., Barton ACT 2600, Australia
+61 2 6270 5100
A think tank that provides research and advice to policymakers in Australia, especially on issues related to the Asia-Pacific region.

Center for Strategic and International Studies
1616 Rhode Island Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20036
A think tank focusing on economic and international security issues, including cybersecurity and human rights.

Electronic Frontier Foundation
815 Eddy St., San Francisco, CA 94109
An advocacy group that seeks to preserve privacy, free expression and innovation on the internet through litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism and technology development.

Human Rights Watch
350 Fifth Ave., 34th Floor, New York, NY 10118-3299
A group including lawyers, journalists and academics that researches human rights conditions and advocates for freedom of online expression and against censorship.

New America
740 15th St., N.W., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
A think tank focused primarily on technology and public policy; its Cybersecurity Initiative explores issues of security, data and digital information through partnerships with scholars and practitioners.

Yale Law School Information Society Project
127 Wall St., New Haven, CT 06511
A program that hosts interdisciplinary scholars from around the world exploring issues related to law, technology and society.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680414.n1