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Story Publication logo October 1, 2019

How China’s High-Tech ‘Eyes’ Monitor Behavior and Dissent


Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image courtesy PBS NewsHour. China, 2019.

PBS NewsHour has produced one of the most robust efforts about China by any American television...

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Technology is transforming China, helping improve life in some ways, but also collecting big data. The government is beginning to convert that data and surveillance footage into social credit scores, which critics say can be used to penalize those who criticize the Communist Party.
Technology is transforming China, helping improve life in some ways, but also collecting big data. The government is beginning to convert that data and surveillance footage into social credit scores, which critics say can be used to penalize those who criticize the Communist Party.

Judy Woodruff:

Chinese technology has helped that country achieve extraordinary growth.

But critics say it is facilitating a surveillance state.

Tonight, we begin two stories focusing on Chinese technology.

It's part of our series "China: Power & Prosperity."

With the support of the Pulitzer Center, Nick Schifrin begins in a remote area that is becoming more connected.

Nick Schifrin:

In China's Lipu Mountains, past rolling hillside farms, the remote city of Guilin is nestled into a valley and built along a riverbank that's been inhabited for 10,000 years.

Today, this old town is getting older. The population is older, and often needs medical care. The closest hospital is far. So, on this day, they line up for a mobile clinic on a bus. Visiting specialists have a small room in the back for X-rays and a nearby room for eye specialists to check for cataracts.

In this clinic, everything is electronic. And all the patient records and data feed into a single phone application. It's made by the company Ping An, and the app is called Good Doctor.

Local doctor Luo Jiangshan says the technology changes everything.

Luo Jiangshan (through translator):

Before we had this platform, patients had to go so far away. It was a big burden. Now, with this platform, it saves both money and time.

Nick Schifrin:

For decades, a country that suffered from widespread rural poverty relied on so-called barefoot doctors to provide remote areas medical care.

Today, technology, from medicine, to telecommunications, to artificial intelligence, is helping transform the country.

Jessica Tan:

China is quite unique because it's been a rapidly developing country. So we have very, very uneven distribution. Technology helps to bridge those gaps and deliver service, particularly in an environment like this.

Nick Schifrin:

Jessica Tan is the co-CEO of Ping An, whose building towers over Shenzhen, China's Silicon Valley.

Ping An boomed financially into the world's second largest insurance company. But now it's celebrating by turning old insurance into new tech. Last month, Ping An unveiled new facial recognition software for drivers. Those markings judge whether she's a good driver and feeds all her data into Ping An's database.

A separate application uses facial recognition to determine whether Ping An loan applicants are lying about their identity by examining more than 90 distinct expressions.

Jessica Tan:

When you are nervous, there are these microexpressions that people would do. Verifying the person who they are supposed to be in most cases is quite accurate, so I think already better than the human eye.

Nick Schifrin:

And those human eyes, China's 1.4 billion citizens, are now entering more and more data on their phones. And, in China, it's big data. Ping An's health care app has 250 million users.

Ping An's car accident app that can automatically assess and cost damage has 200 million users. And China has developed so recently, the majority all of those users have never owned cars, or borrowed money, or earned a credit score. So to choose loan applicants, Ping An's developed a social credit score, based on all the data users enter into their phones.

Jessica Tan:

Having the expertise to change that series of raw information to actually a credit report, a score that people trust. So we're able to do that based on your mobile phone bills, your shopping records, right? Do you splurge on your spending? If you have a good credit record, you get the loans faster at a cheaper rate.

So I think the idea is then there's incentive for people who have nothing to hide to want to share.

Nick Schifrin:

But in communist China, who decides who has nothing to hide? Like Ping An, the government is now converting data on its citizens into social credit scores.

It's called Sharp Eyes. And those eyes are electronic, thanks to the world's most advanced surveillance. The five most surveilled cities in the world are Chinese. China now has more than 200 million cameras, including at the entrance of an international conference.

And cameras use software that recognize not only faces, but also how people walk, and then can then track their location as they move. That allows cameras to judge behavior. In Shenzhen, cameras watch this intersection. If people jaywalk, they're publicly shamed when their faces are displayed on the screen.

Do you think, because that camera is there, more people cross legally?

Chen Haobing (through translator):

Of course. They are afraid to be seen doing something inappropriate, so they will change their behavior.

Feng Xue (through translator):

If you jaywalk, it reduces your credit score. For example, if you cross the red light, your score would be reduced by two to three.

Nick Schifrin:

Behavior change is exactly what the government wants. And the credit score system is so important, there's even a Communist Party-produced "National Credit Magazine."

Wu Xiaoyan is the editor in chief.

Wu Xiaoyan (through translator):

The Chinese system's main purpose is to build a credible society of trust. This system has become an effective measure in our social governance.

For example, on the bus, people with regular scores will pay regular price, and people with good scores only pay 80 percent of that.

Nick Schifrin:

Rewarding good behavior all across society, and punishing bad behavior, is enshrined in her magazine.

When I look in this magazine I see an honor list in red, and then, in black, a black list.

Wu Xiaoyan (through translator):

Those on the red list are people who have trustworthy behavior. Those on the black list are people whose behaviors are not trustworthy.

Nick Schifrin:

Does it work? Does rewarding people who act well and punishing people who act badly make more people act well?

Wu Xiaoyan (through translator):

Of course it works.

Nick Schifrin:

And something about that question made her uncomfortable. She and her staff walked out of the interview and the newsroom. But the microphones were still rolling and recorded their conversation about my questions.

Woman (through translator):

What kind of question was that?

Woman (through translator):

Don't talk about the government. Talk about companies, businesses.

Man (through translator):

We need to be calm. We cannot refuse to be interviewed, not too rigid or serious.

Nick Schifrin:

Ten minutes later, she did come back to finish the interview.

Everything OK?

She said everything was OK. But the government's critics say everything is not OK, because they say China's big data is becoming Big Brother.

Companies that use the social credit system and the government say the social credit system improves people's behavior. But critics say that the government can use the social credit system to target and penalize anyone who opposes or criticizes the Communist Party.

In Hong Kong, protesters say mainland China is exporting a system of surveillance. So, when they demonstrate, they climb up ladders and try and cover up the cameras. And protesters also cover up their faces.

This 21-year-old and her friends declined to give their names, for fear China would punish them.

Woman (through translator):

Although I'm wearing a mask, they're, like, A.I. tracking, tracking down our faces. And maybe they will just use computers and recognize us in maybe just one second, and having all our identifications and our informations. We are scared about it.

Nick Schifrin:

And protesters fear surveillance goes from cameras to inside their phones. They organize these rallies offline because they believe police hacked into their messaging apps.

Woman (through translator):

We are super scared that our personal information will leak out and we will get caught based on these informations.

Nick Schifrin:

Protesters' fears are accurate, says Zhang Lifan, a longstanding critic of the government. He was willing to sit for an interview, but refused to be seen with us in public.

So he met us in our hotel room.

Are you, as a constant critic of the government, under surveillance?

Zhang Lifan (through translator):

Of course. We can feel this surveillance all the time. The Chinese authorities use a network of cameras throughout cities, facial recognition systems, as well as various mobile phone apps, to monitor individuals. Surveillance is indeed omnipresent.

Nick Schifrin:

And that surveillance happens automatically and instantaneously. Every day, Chinese citizens send more than 45 billion messages on WeChat, the country's most popular messaging service.

If you type in something sensitive, like a reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Mandarin, the recipient never receives it.

Zhang Lifan (through translator):

Sometimes, my wife and I suddenly can't contact each other. I noticed that, whenever foreign media reporters were trying to set up interviews with me, the police would always show up downstairs. And I have noticed that the police who follow me use the same mobile phones from Huawei.

Nick Schifrin:

Huawei is a $100 billion phone and technology giant that's the world's largest provider of telecom equipment.

U.S. officials describe it as the symbol of high-tech Chinese government suppression and beholden to the Communist Party, alongside fellow telecommunications giant ZTE.

Mike Pompeo:

As a matter of Chinese law, the Chinese government can rightfully demand access to data flowing through Huawei and ZTE systems. Why would anyone grant such power to a regime that has already grossly violated cyberspace?

Nick Schifrin:

The Trump administration has mostly blocked U.S. companies from selling technology to Huawei.

But the company is expanding its 5G, or fifth-generation phone technology, and Vice President Vincent Peng says business is booming.

Vincent Peng:

All our major customers chose still stay with Huawei. We sign 50 contracts with our major customers for 5G already. And this year, we will deliver 150,000 base stations outside of China. I think that is the fact.

Nick Schifrin:

And that expansion of Chinese technology around the world has enormous implications for China and the U.S.

That story tomorrow night.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Shenzhen, China.





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