A few blocks from the Yellow River that runs through Shanghai, is a huge stone building located in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. A sign, bearing the words “Public Security”, extends across the entrance.
It is one of the thousands of stations in China that are falling under the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) – some housed in gigantic buildings and others in mobile vans – responsible for law and order.
On a daily basis, the MPS fights against crime in all its forms – homicide, theft, drugs, economic crime, counter-terrorism. It also operates at the local level – carrying out neighborhood patrols, chasing illegal street vendors, drafting traffic tickets and ensuring social distancing is observed in restaurants.
But in China, the MPS – with two million officers and a vast network of agencies – does much more than regular police.
“The MPS – it’s not just about the police,” said Samantha Hoffman, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank.
“They are also there to protect the party-state, and Xi Jinping made it clear … Ultimately, the MPS is loyal to the [Chinese Communist] Party, and must be loyal to the Party, like any other part of the Party-State.
Above all, the MPS “is the coercive arm of the Communist Party,” said Edward Schwark, an academic who studies China’s security policy and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford. “He is essentially responsible for enforcing the dictatorship on the enemies of the Party. This is how the MPS sees its main mission. “
In recent years, public security bureaus across China, like the one in Shanghai, have improved their technological capabilities to serve a multitude of purposes, collecting millions of data points on Chinese citizens, foreign residents, and visitors. , such as businessmen, tourists and visitors. student exchange.
Everyone entering China is tracked to some extent – upon landing, biometric data is collected and their movements recorded as people pass through checkpoints while on the move.
Further data arrives via high-tech surveillance, implemented using multiple cameras, facial recognition technology and GPS systems.
To some extent, data entered in this way is routine and can help authorities, for example, by improving traffic management and identifying potholes for repair. But experts say the same technology is also used to track and suppress individuals considered a threat or a target to watch, such as human rights dissidents and diplomats.
“This is how the party approaches social management – it doesn’t have to be coercive all the time, because it is also problem solving,” Ms. Hoffman said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s one or the other; it’s always both.
“The ultimate goal of the Party is really its own security,” she said. “Social management is part of this framework… [in terms of] prevent the emergence of a crisis. “
Chinese security agencies, including the MPS, also have access to user data and activities through social media platforms operated by private third-party companies, such as Tencent’s ubiquitous WeChat platforms.
This allows Chinese authorities to find and reprimand people like the late whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang, who warned his colleagues of a new coronavirus at the end of 2019 using WeChat.
It’s unclear how long this data is kept by an agency like MPS and its network of offices – perhaps indefinitely, experts said.
What is clear is that China is working on how to make better sense of all the data collected with artificial intelligence, and to organize it in a more coherent way by integrating the different platforms used.
In the long run, experts like Hoffman say China is on track to create a digital authoritarian state with hardware and software that can be easily exported to other countries.
Part of the reason Chinese police have been drawn to using technology has to do with the way the ministry has organized and funded local offices, Schwarck said.
The central government will pay part of the budgets of local public security offices, but much of the funding comes from lower levels of government, which often do not have enough resources to share.
The technology “allows them to solve or circumvent some of the long-standing problems they face with budgetary resources and labor shortages,” Schwarck said. “These networks – surveillance platforms, CCTV cameras – provide a kind of coverage that a police force, just in terms of manpower, wouldn’t be able to provide otherwise.”
“It’s like a force multiplier,” he says. If there are not “enough police officers at the time, you do not have enough resources to launch investigations, it is convenient to have this kind of network surveillance system that gives you a ubiquitous view of this. that is happening”.