Beijing, China, Surveillance in

The city of Beijing, China, with a population of nearly 20 million people, has approximately 800,000 surveillance cameras, half of which are for government use. Private businesses, Internet cafes, shops, and other public venues are ordered by the government to install surveillance cameras at their own cost and are fined if they fail to comply. In addition to surveillance cameras, China’s capital city also has an extensive web-monitoring and web-blocking system, physical surveillance, and listening (wiretapping) surveillance. Face recognition technology is being adopted for camera surveillance. Camera systems allow for real-time observation as well as video recording.

This entry explains why Beijing is so heavily surveilled and examines the various monitoring and surveillance methods used.

The Chinese Communist Party and Government’s Concern for Public Security

Before continuing with a fuller description of the various surveillance systems in Beijing, it is necessary to explain why the capital is one of the most completely surveilled city in the world. The explanation begins with a recounting of the heightened security in Tiananmen Square, the large public gathering place fronting the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), on June 4 each year. June 4 is the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, wherein hundreds of university students and citizens from all walks of life were killed or injured by the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police forces for not vacating Tiananmen Square and the nearby streets on June 4, 1989. The attack took place after the CCP and its government declared martial law to put an end to the months-long protests, demonstrations, and hunger strikes carried out in Tiananmen Square to call for government reform, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and other social reforms. Fearing a revival of trouble on the yearly anniversary, city officials fill the square with plainclothes agents, increase video surveillance, and also block foreign journalists from entering the square. The main impetus for government precaution is that accounts for the killings on June 4, 1989, have yet to be settled. Many Chinese citizens at home and abroad demand a full disclosure of the government’s actions and role. The CCP and its government (run by the Party) fear the emergence of wider agitation about the massacre. The Tiananmen massacre is just one of the many threats to the continued legitimacy and rule of the CCP and its government.

The CCP’s legitimacy is brought into ever extensive question by the growth and diversity of China’s society and economy. As the standard of living rises for a growing middle class, there is increased questioning of the CCP’s power and control over the world’s most populous nation of 1.3 billion and the world’s second largest economy. More and more people are asking why the CCP should have dictatorial power over their nation. These views are fueled by widespread graft, corruption, nepotism, and favoritism throughout the country, all perpetrated, aided, and abetted by the CCP and its government. There is increasing dissatisfaction with misgoverning by the CCP and its government, and that dissatisfaction is manifested in the growing numbers of incidents of civil unrest, disorder, and strife. Large numbers of people (officially designated at 19 or more) gather to protest or demonstrate against national, provincial, or local government actions such as corruption, seizures of land, hazardous environmental incidents, police brutality, or other causes of discontent. Groups and crowds turn violent, throw objects and Molotov cocktails, burn vehicles, and beat and stab police and security forces, who in turn use tear gas, rubber bullets, police nightsticks, and even live fire against the violent crowds. Hundreds of thousands of civil unrest and civil strife events take place throughout China each year.

To preserve its hold on power and retain its position of rulership over China, the CCP uses surveillance, censorship, intimidation, and physical violence to quell dissidence and suppress information. The CCP claims the need for increased public scrutiny to guard against crime and terrorism, which in fact allows for dealing with any sort of criticism of the Party, its members, or its government. CCP members hold all top government and security apparatus positions. The government ministries responsible for state security (14 have varying degrees of responsibility and authority to ensure local, regional, and national public security) use their resources to crack down on dissent and public advocacy in Beijing and other cities throughout China.

Parameters of Surveillance in Beijing

The authorities in Beijing and other cities monitor telephone conversations, fax transmissions, email, text messaging, and Internet communications. They also open and censor domestic and international mail. Beijing security services routinely monitor and enter residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines. According to foreign media reports, the Ministry of Public Security uses tens of millions of surveillance cameras in the country, with about 400,000 in Beijing alone. The authorities justify the presence of security cameras as a way to improve public safety, fight crime, manage traffic, and maintain “social stability.” Human rights groups state that the authorities increasingly rely on security cameras to monitor and intimidate political dissidents. The government frequently monitors gatherings of intellectuals, scholars, and dissidents where political or sensitive issues are discussed. After and The New York Times published articles detailing the outsized family wealth garnered through kinship connections with the two top national leaders Xi Jinping and Wen Jiabao, the websites of both media outlets were, and remain, blocked.

The CCP and its government are continually increasing their capability to monitor Internet use, control content, restrict information, block access to foreign and domestic websites, promote self-censorship, and identify and seize users who are seen to be in violation. As mentioned previously, altogether 14 government ministries participate in monitoring the Internet, in Beijing and other cities, resulting in the censorship of thousands of domestic and foreign websites, blogs, cell phone text messages, social networking services, online chat rooms, online games, and email. Also, the government imposes responsibilities on Internet companies to put into place online censorship and surveillance regimes, as well as to prohibit anonymous expression online.

The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau (PSB) is the agency directly responsible for monitoring the Internet for the capital city and for blocking web traffic deemed to endanger state security, subvert state power, damage state honor and interests, jeopardize state religious policy, propagate heretical or superstitious ideas, spread rumors, contain content forbidden by laws and administrative regulations, and so on. The Information Office of the State Council’s 2010 official white paper puts forth the details of all of these categories. The Beijing Municipal PSB also handles municipal police requirements, public security, social order, and internal and external matters such as the registration of temporary residents (including both foreign and domestic visitors). The Beijing Municipal PSB is controlled by the Ministry of Public Security of the PRC, which is headed by the Minister of Public Security and is the nation’s principal police and security authority as well as the agency that exercises oversight over, and is ultimately responsible for, day-to-day law enforcement. The other main government agency responsible for China’s public security is the Ministry of State Security (MSS), which handles counterintelligence, foreign intelligence, and political security. While those missions are more related to overseas security operations rather than activities within Beijing and other cities, the MSS has the same authority as the city police to arrest and detain people. The PBS and the MSS are located next to each other in Beijing and work together in ways designed to provide complete coverage of perceived threats to public security in Beijing and across China. Their presence in the capital, which is the center of China’s social, political, economic, diplomatic, and military governing authority and activities, has brought about tighter control in Beijing than is normally seen in other cities—with the exception of cities with temporary domestic crises for whatever reasons—and Beijing is ruled directly by the national government through the municipal government.

The PRC’s constitution provides the basic authority to the government to carry out surveillance activities, in Beijing and beyond, for the purpose of protecting the security of China. The National Criminal Procedure law allows for physical surveillance of a suspect for up to 6 months if approved by the next higher authority, which is a frequently ignored formality. The legal system of China is controlled and directed by the CCP, and any effective oversight of violations wrought by surveillance activities is only selectively dealt with, by the CCP’s choice. Judges rule on cases as directed by the CCP and its government whenever a legal case is deemed politically sensitive. Over the past decades, with the blossoming of advances in surveillance technologies, greater monitoring of public and private activities in Beijing has taken place, and the future seems to portend ever greater surveillance to come.

James Ross Corcoran Sr.

See also China ; Computer Surveillance ; Electronic Harassment ; Email ; Global Surveillance ; Gramsci, Antonio ; Municipal Surveillance ; Network Security ; Policing and Society ; Privacy, Internet ; Privacy, Types of ; Wrist and Ankle Monitoring Devices

Further Readings

“The Chinese Government Employs More Than Two Million People to Monitor Internet Activity, According to the State-Controlled Beijing News.” Spectator, v.322/9659 (2013).

Foreign Affairs. Tiananmen and After. Washington DC: Council on Foreign Relations, 2014.

McLeod, Callum. “China Surveillance Targets Crime and Dissent.” USA Today (January 3, 2013). (Accessed July 2014).

Public China. “China Installed More Than 10,000,000 Surveillance Cameras in 2010.” (Accessed June 2014)

Silver, Vernon. “Cracking China’s Skype Surveillance Software” (March 8, 2013). (Accessed October 2017). (Accessed June 2014).


The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China: