If the children of China face a prosperous future, it’s probably down to their country’s bountiful tech industry. One side of the story sees the benefits of consumer wares from Tencent, Alibaba and other technology giants. The other side is about cutting-edge surveillance that keeps the adults of tomorrow under constant supervision. Big Beijing is watching you.
As a GlobalData analysis on tech in China reports, the republic is finding it “easier than before” to extend its so-called Great Firewall of China (GFC) model to developing and emerging nations wanting to consolidate political and social stability. But with its tight grip on what audiences can see over the internet, the GFC is not just a literal firewall but more a bundle of laws, regulations and technologies.
GFC’s aim is invariably seen as a political and authoritarian tool, but among its blacklisting of discussions relating to Tibet and Tiananmen Square, there are bans on areas which are equally outlawed in the West, tackling racism, murder and terror.
Late 2020 saw the Chinese Community Party (CCP) begin to confront an issue also concerning the Western world through revamped laws to bolster the protection of under-18s online. The revised laws, voted for adoption by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and rolled out in June this year, demand that internet product and service providers “shall not offer minors products and services that induce addiction” and protect them from cyberbullying, according to state-backed news outlet Xinhua.
In China, video game addiction has long been considered a problem. Before the advent of mobile gaming and China’s video game market becoming the biggest in the world, a report cited in 2007 claimed 6% of China’s teenaged population were playing online games more than 40 hours a week.
“Online gaming inducing violence and addiction, as well as the growing number of eye problems in China’s youth population, have been a serious concern of the Chinese authorities over the last few years,” senior GlobalData analyst Laura Petrone tells Verdict.
Authorities have been suspicious of video gaming as far back as the 1980s, when games from neighbouring Japan entered Chinese markets. Considered “a moral deterioration of the youth”, gaming was seen as another form of entertainment needing restriction so as to avoid ideological corruption on a countrywide basis.
Since 2007, solutions to curb gaming addiction among younger people have involved culling game credits once a maximum of three hours’ play is breached and asking online gamers to sign in using government ID numbers to prove they’re over 18.
But not all games publishers felt the pressure to implement changes and young game players were willing to sacrifice their credits by continuing to play long into the night. Logging in with somebody else’s ID number, meanwhile, was hardly a challenge for those determined enough.
“It’s always been nearly impossible to reliably verify the age of internet users,” Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate at Comparitech, tells Verdict. “It’s a look-the-other-way subject for a lot of social networks and games, even in the West.
“But if Beijing enforces it, it takes a lot of the PR and privacy burdens off of the tech companies, who can now argue they’re just following the law.”
However, tech evolves in tandem with the controls and expectations put on providers. Tencent Games first towed the line in 2017 by restricting children to a few hours of game play, adding payment caps and parental locks alongside a digital 9pm sign-in curfew. The move was made onto one particularly popular mobile game called Kings of Glory, a title so beloved that once Tencent’s restrictions were announced the company saw a 4.13% trading slump the same day.
“Big tech companies like Tencent feel the pressure of aligning to Beijing’s new laws because the backlash against them in case of-non compliance can be devastating,” Petrone argues.
“As in other sectors of the economy, the authorities are keen to set the boundaries for these companies to operate under the CCP’s oversight. They can thrive and become national champions but provided that they show loyalty and serve the national interest first.”
The tighter the screws from Beijing, the stricter Tencent sets its restrictions on players. In a bold move to meet the revamped privacy laws, the company this summer began deploying Midnight Patrol facial recognition to stop minors breaking curfew. The technology, introduced on 5 July, checks on players bingeing after the cut-off or spending a certain amount of credits by request a facial scan of the sort popularised by Apple ID.
If the face matches the right government ID, then the player can continue. If not, or if the player doesn’t consent to the scan, then they are kicked off the game.
China tech and credits
To see facial recognition used this way isn’t so unusual in China. Facial recognition systems have been growing in number across stations, schools, shopping centres and apartments. The tech aims to make what Chinese authorities call a “safe city” model, which also conveniently reinforces China’s infamous social credit system under which citizens are given scores based on their digital data profiles.
Fall below with your scores and you may find certain privileges taken away to be replaced by restraints. For instance, you may find yourself caught in the spotlight. One report notes when blacklisted individuals cross certain intersections in Beijing, facial recognition tech projects their face and ID number onto electronic billboards for all to see.
When blacklisted individuals cross certain intersections in Beijing, facial recognition tech projects their face and ID number onto electronic billboards for all to see.
Whether children are also being facially tracked is unclear, but it isn’t unusual for children to be kept tabs on in the name of safety. The local government of Guangzhou gave 17,000 elementary school children location-tracking watches for voluntary use in 2019, for example. Nor are kids necessarily safe from the effects of a system ranking the persons around them by virtue or vice; the same year saw an idea kicked around of blocking children from elite schools if their tuition fees were paid by a “discredited” individual.
“The laws might indeed make a positive impact on children’s health and safety,” says Bischoff. “But these laws also give Beijing the power to surveil children and, to some degree, their parents. They inhibit freedom of movement and dictate how parents should be parenting.”
For someone affectionately known to Chinese citizens as Big Daddy Xi, President Xi Jinping has a big helping hand to keep an eye on the family.
Children in Xinjiang
Like the GFC, China’s smart city model makes for an attractive export to other countries, backed by a “highly exportable” package of “enabling technologies no other nation or company can match (including) optical fibers, 5G networking, AI-enabled cameras, voice recognition, smart sensors, big data, drones (and) satellites,” as GlobalData notes.
The research also starkly states this model has been “honed by technologies used to control the Uighurs in Xinjiang.” While Chinese tech is being augmented to protect the adults and children of China, it appears that safety net doesn’t include the Uighurs living in the northwest of the country.
According to Human Rights Watch, Beijing uses advanced technology to collect and analyse information gathered about the minority group, reportedly tracking, monitoring and profiling citizens in the area using facial and number plate recognition through a vast network of surveillance cameras.
Those who “trip the wire”, as it were, are apparently sent to equally-surveilled re-education camps for their own “self-improvement”. The children of those sequestered, Amnesty International claims, are sent to orphan camps for “indoctrination” and holding.
“Kids who spend the majority of their childhoods under surveillance will grow up thinking it’s normal,” says Bischoff. “Implementing surveillance at an early age grooms children to trust the government with the power to control them. This results in surveillance creep, and future generations will be less opposed to it.”
“Kids who spend the majority of their childhoods under surveillance will grow up thinking it’s normal.”
He isn’t just talking about the Xinjiang region. As Freedom House notes, surveillance cameras have appeared in elementary and secondary schools “ostensibly for the purpose of tracking students’ focus and study habits” but which could also be used to “detect ideological transgressions by teachers or students.”
Human Rights Watch adds to the fire by claiming the GFC fosters young nationalists.
“Having grown up never hearing of or using international platforms such as Twitter and Google, they believe the Firewall has protected them from false information and the country from social instability,” writes Yaqiu Wang, a Human Rights Watch China researcher.
“They also think it has created the necessary conditions for the rise of China’s own tech giants, of which they are understandably proud.”
Countering tech creep in China and beyond
To stop this apparent creep on privacy and ideology throughout China would need pushback from citizens. Disgruntlement exists: One 2019 survey by a Beijing research institute for example found around 74% of respondents wanting the option of using traditional ID methods over facial recognition tech to verify their identity.
In November 2019, a Chinese associate law professor filed a claim against one safari park’s decision to make facial recognition registration mandatory for entry, the first lawsuit challenging the use of such tech in the country.
The rollout though of facial recognition reflects that of GFC’s implementation in how it is happening without hindrance, with the added and more potent bonus of convenience. Why would you, after all, carry around cards or keys when you can unlock things with just your face?
The question of safety also fosters development of the surveillance state, especially if it protects children from online threats, says Bischoff.
“I think these laws serve multiple purposes, some of which the CCP promotes more than others,” he argues. “Anti-privacy and censorship laws are often pitched as ways to protect children or thwart terrorists, because who doesn’t want to do those things?”
“Anti-privacy and censorship laws are often pitched as ways to protect children or thwart terrorists, because who doesn’t want to do those things?”
Parallels can be found around the world in increasing pressure on US tech giants to regulate platform content, and the UK’s controversial Online Safety Bill developed ostensibly for the protection of children. For Petrone though, the Chinese situation remains unique with the level of control that the CCP can exercise on private companies or citizens not available to democratic countries like the UK.
“The Online Safety Bill risks giving too much power to tech companies when acting on harmful content,” she says, “but companies are also required to offer fast-track appeals process, for example when removing journalistic content.
“Consensus is emerging worldwide that governments should hold social media companies responsible for the content they publish, as it can encourage anti-social and criminal behaviour.
“In general non-democratic countries are more at risk of using regulation as a form of outright censorship than democratic countries, where a system of checks and balances keeps the government constrained by citizens’ rights and the rule of law.
“Regulating online content is daunting and action to mitigate misinformation must be balanced with the right to freedom of expression.”