In the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, a police officer wearing facial recognition glasses spotted a heroin smuggler at a train station.
In the city of Qingdao, cameras powered by artificial intelligence helped the police snatch two dozen criminal suspects at a big annual festival.
In Wuhu, a fugitive murder suspect was identified by a camera as he bought food from a street vendor.
With millions of cameras and billions of lines of computer code, China is building a high-tech authoritarian future. The country is embracing technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence to build a vast national surveillance system to track its 1.4 billion people.
“Right now, China is in the midst of building the most far-reaching and sophisticated surveillance state in the world, and it’s all enabled by technology,” says Samm Sacks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C.
For a long time, technology has been considered a powerful force for spreading democracy. The idea was that increased access to technology would bring people—especially those in repressive countries like China—more freedom by connecting them to the broader world. But in China, the reverse has happened: Technology has given the government more control.
In some cities, cameras scan train stations for China’s most wanted. Billboard-size displays show the faces and names of jaywalkers and list the people who don’t pay their debts. Facial recognition scanners guard the entrances to housing complexes. Already, China has an estimated 200 million surveillance cameras—four times as many as the United States (see “The U.S. & High-Tech Surveillance,” below).
Some parts of China are further along than others in their use of the new technologies. But the gaps may not matter: Chinese authorities are talking up their surveillance projects, so even the possibility that the government may be watching is often enough to keep citizens in line.