Watchful Force

There are security checks in every metro station, utilising x-ray scanners and metal detectors. It’s easy to feel aware of the police presence in much of the city. At times it feels like a glimpse into an Orwellian high-tech future, with the overbearing lights illuminating one’s darkest dystopian fears.

The feeling this presence creates is visceral. Our very experience of space intersecting with an understanding about its relationship to the forces of surveillance, and control.

Part of this comes from preconceptions. China has been historically notorious for its role in surveillance, censorship and control of its population.

We might question the legitimacy of these reporting’s though, given the Chinese government clearly being seen as a rival to the West. But beyond being seen as an exaggeration, perhaps this is a case of hypocrisy? London is reportedly among the most surveilled cities on the planet [1].

Through the past two decades there has been a lot of reporting on China’s state censorship of the news. This is a process that has evolved from once simple methods. When an unfavourable report would come on the BBC World Service, for example, the screen would temporarily switch off [2].

Since those days, in 2010, both Google and YouTube Since those days, in 2010, both Google and YouTube were blocked, marking a key stage in the state’s censorship transition into the Internet age [3]. Since then, a far more complex system of online censorship has evolved, with the systematic burying, flagging and hiding of dissenting texts taking place – with more moderate dissent being allowed, effectively constructing an image of free speech [4].

In recent years, reports on the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang have emerged, with thousands disappearing into re-education centres, supposedly in order to “learn Chinese values” [5].

The reality of the situation is incredibly obscured, though evidence of thousands being put to unpaid labour has been reported [6], accusations of rape, torture and forced sterilisation have also emerged, alongside innumerable other rights abuses [7].

Any Uyghur whose behaviour is seen as having anything to do with religious belief – books, beards [8], even dresses deemed too long [9] – have been targeted, with thousands of families split apart in the process. Amounting to both cultural, and human genocide.

Xingjiang laid the groundwork for a system of rigorous surveillance that could be rolled out across the nation. CCTV cameras are ever present, lining every street.

Accompanied by police checkpoints on almost every corner, at which citizens are required to show ID and provide justification for their presence [10].

An understanding of this context colours one’s navigation of other Chinese cities such as Shenzhen; the feeling that our actions and identity could be under constant surveillance.

The reality of course, is that perpetual manned surveillance is near impossible, and that such cities are not direct parallels to Xinjiang.

Despite this, state rollout of surveillance across other major Chinese cities, demonstrates that the intention may remain on the horizon. Across the centre of the city of Shenzhen there is a heavy police presence, and police booths are ubiquitous.

Meanwhile metro stations each have their own officer, one’s bags must be scanned on entry to any and every metro station.

But this is only a small part of the larger picture. In contrast to the overt heavy-handed authoritarianism of a fascist state, surveillance, and thus control, are far more subtle here.

Still, we only need to look around, to observe the high presence of CCTV, symbolising the fact that our actions may be monitored.

You might ask why surveillance matters? It matters because the standard for acceptable behaviour placed on citizens by an unjust state, can easily veer into that which confines the individual. Facilitating oppressive punishment for the breaking of the rules.

Tresspass, drug use and dissent, stand out as examples of where pervasive surveillance allows the force the state to easily come down on rule breakers. This cements the political order and punishes those marginalised by it: those living by a morality beyond that of the state, or committing petty crimes in order to survive under a system that threatens it. 

The feeling this surveillance creates is strangely unsettling, especially when contrasted against the high-tech beauty of parts of the city. Creating a dual feeling of comfort and discomfort at one’s environment in the knowledge that they may be being watched.

A position perhaps only afforded to those able to navigate these spaces with the detachment of a tourist, where real consequences for misbehaviour are a fraction of that for citizens.

As an observer, I felt almost above the surveillance present, yet simultaneously fearful of it, in a country where punishment is beyond disproportionate. Ultimately, Shenzhen, and many other cities across China (and even London), construct a model of the world in which our locations, actions, conversations may be constantly surveilled.

And yet, we are free to navigate the expanses of the city, demonstrating the failure for models of surveillance to fall into strict binary established between Orwell and Huxley.

Orwell’s imagining was of total surveillance, and immeasurable consequence for stepping out of the clear paths established by authority; Huxley’s was of a society dominated by coercion and misinformation. This is a space that begins to embody facets of both.

For one to step out of the defined routes, to trespass for example, could result in severe punishment. Yet most citizens live their lives in relative freedom, privy to the spoils of middle-class luxuries, drink and food. All the while ones life is underlined by strict state control of information.

The notion that surveillance is a Chinese thing alone is no longer true, as tech becomes more ubiquitous, and as power and wealth concentrates. The same patterns may be observed globally, with high tech surveillance providing an easy means for states to control their citizens.

Shenzhen, and at the extreme, the experience of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, act as case studies for this intersection of modernity and control.

Article written for James Farrant’s book fragments, which you can find out more about here. One of Five articles to be published to SUMweekly.