While the thinking behind China’s surveillance state comes from the top, the actual implementation has taken place so far on only a region-by-region or city-specific basis.
Nowhere is it more visible than Xinjiang, home of China’s Uighur minority. The territory has made headlines for its detention and “re-education” camps that hold an estimated 1.5 million Muslims, many of them for violating what Amnesty International describes as a “highly restrictive and discriminatory” law that China says is designed to combat extremism.
In a recent report, Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, claims that Xinjiang has become one of the country’s “major centers for using innovative technologies for social control.”
The Human Rights Watch report describes a mobile app that police and government officials use to communicate with a central database that tracks personal information as detailed as the color of people’s cars.
Other information is monitored including individuals’ movement and their gas and electricity usage. Authorities are alerted when there’s deviation from what’s considered normal.
Wang said the Chinese government is taking a “trial and error” approach to building its nationwide surveillance system, but successful use of surveillance technology in one region could provide a blueprint for others.
“The ones that work become the example of one to follow in that race to the bottom of privacy in China,” Wang said. “The story in Xinjiang is important because it is an inspiration for other police bureaus in the race toward greater social control in China.”
—CNBC’s Huileng Tan and contributor Amanda Lentino contributed to this report.