This entry examines security and privacy-invasive surveillance operations in China. Following Edward Snowden’s leak of classified information about invasive U.S. intelligence agency practices in 2013, Snowden’s request to the Chinese government for asylum remained unanswered. It seems as though Chinese government officials did not want to attract attention to their own privacy-invasive surveillance programs. Prior to the leaks, top Chinese leaders avoided discussion of surveillance and denied claims of utilizing intrusive techniques; however, global and domestic activist groups have claimed that the Chinese government has breached legal rights guaranteed to citizens by the Chinese constitution and by international agreements signed by the Chinese government.

China’s surveillance penetration of the public is regarded as comprehensive, with the authorities maintaining jurisdiction over numerous channels of surveillance, including social media, cell phone data, and emails. In late 2014, the agency accountable for Internet affairs in China, the China Internet Network Information Center, a nonprofit organization employed by China to provide Internet statistics, reported 649 million Internet and 557 million mobile Internet users nationally. The Chinese government exploits this extensive medium for various surveillance operations, including to arrest corrupt officials, Tibetan and Uyghur dissidents, and “leftist” bloggers. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds that invasive surveillance programs are imperative to maintaining social stability and to extending the party’s authority.

The CCP understands the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a unique way, notably on the issue of surveillance. The monitoring practices in China frequently lead to arbitrary arrests and interference with privacy. While the use of these techniques assists the government in maintaining control over the country’s massive population, there are numerous negative effects, including restriction of creativity and social instability.

Since Chairman Xi Jinping assumed leadership in 2013, the government has made an effort toward creating a society under the rule of law. However, China still faces one major contradiction—the CCP and its members are shielded from the legal system’s adjudication. Former chairman Hu Jintao created the “Three Supremes” slogan in 2007, declaring that the CCP’s interests take priority over the interests of the people, the government, and the constitution. Therefore, the CCP can freely conduct intrusive surveillance despite drafting legislation designed to prevent privacy-invasive intelligence gathering. For example, laws drafted in late 2015 concerning online security and surveillance to protect the public are markedly vague in their definition. These laws are largely dual purpose, providing heightened security for citizens against cybercrime while also increasing the government’s right to interfere with private space. Furthermore, activist groups have expressed concern that the CCP is overly protected from the legal system, permitting officials to define legality on a case-by-case basis. Such political maneuvering is considered to be emblematic of the CCP, to avoid subjecting itself to a judicial system that holds the party accountable.

Public Security Budget

Transparency Issues

When determining China’s public security budget apparatus, there is difficulty analyzing the full depth of the financial plan due to lack of transparency. Every year, the Chinese government releases official defense white papers that detail the budget and the military strategy. Examination of the various uniformed police, paramilitary, and military units listed in the report revealed that many of the personnel included in the “national defense” section of the white papers were spotted participating in domestic security operations, such as riot control and clearing protesters. By 2013, China reported a domestic security budget of US$120.8 billion (769.1 billion renminbi), which surpassed the US$119 billion (740.6 billion renminbi) allocated for the PLA for the same year.

Although there are no exact figures to identify how much is spent on surveillance, there is evidence showing that China is using this large budget to actively employ personnel and equipment to monitor its citizens. In 2014 and 2015, China did not transparently report the details of its domestic security spending. Labeling the budget for these personnel as “national defense” makes it difficult to determine whether the public security budget surpassed the national defense allocation, as the trend shows. This indication that the main bulk of the government’s security measures, including surveillance, is focused on the citizens may explain why the government has reshuffled its defense apparatus starting in 2013, defining national defense differently and marking a requirement for a budgetary reshuffling focused on social stability.


One of the linchpins of China’s surveillance objectives is domination in information technology warfare strategy. In 2004, Chinese officials gave the public a glimpse of their goal to informatize the armed forces. Encompassed in this arrangement is the ability to use surveillance measures on both domestic and overseas targets. These procedures include hacking into electronic devices, video surveillance, and cell phone intrusion.

Since the implementation of the informatization policy, Chinese officials have found new ways to make use of information technology to monitor their citizens. Popular bloggers, rights activists, and protest leaders are examples of individuals who have been alienated by the informatization program. Foreign workers and students residing within China are also subjected to intrusion of their personal virtual space due to the implementation of this policy. The government continues to fund this program and considers it one of its top priorities in its rise to power and influence.

The Surveillance Authorities and Organizations

Stability Maintenance Apparatus

China’s internal security structure includes four main internal security forces: (1) the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), (2) the Ministry of State Security (MSS), (3) the People’s Armed Police (PAP), and (4) the PLA. The remainder of the network is made up of the state judicial, procuratorial, and penal systems. These institutions collaborate to maintain the 200,000 or more annual social disturbances. Various surveillance techniques are used by these organizations to extract information on targets. For certain stability operations, blog or chat accounts are accessed. Cell phone data may also be extracted through backdoor access points. Information such as text messages, call histories, and current locations are among the data of interest to the authorities. This private information can be used as evidence to incarcerate suspects.

The MPS oversees all domestic police activity in China, including the PAP. The responsibilities of the ministry include police operations, prisons, internal political and economic protection, and communications security. Its lowest organizational units are public security stations, which maintain day-to-day contact with the public.

The MSS is one of China’s leading civilian intelligence entities, responsible for both foreign and domestic intelligence work. It is subordinate to the State Council, the chief administrative authority, comprising the premier and the heads of each of the governmental agencies and departments. Among other responsibilities, the MSS compiles intelligence on dissenters in China and reportedly targets dissidents and prodemocracy groups at home and abroad. The MSS was authorized in 1983 to guarantee the security of the nation through preventive actions against enemy spies, operatives, and counterrevolutionary activities designed to disrupt or overthrow the Chinese socialist system.

At an estimated strength of 1.5 million personnel in 2015, the PAP is organized into 45 divisions, designated with the responsibilities of internal security policing, border defense, government buildings and embassies protection, and safeguarding communications. The PAP is the organization most responsible for maintaining social balance and conducting stabilizing surveillance operations. Some of the most documented PAP surveillance missions were those conducted in Xinjiang and Tibet, when the police force managed procedures for tracking down proliberation activist cells that were responsible for protests and spreading violence. At 2.3 million members, the PLA serves in a supporting role in domestic surveillance operations. In a few recorded instances, the PLA has played a direct role in domestic observation operations. The PLA may deploy soldiers in the thousands only in direct support of domestic surveillance annually, but these soldiers are some of the best trained in all of China for the function of monitoring.

While the role of PLA soldiers in domestic affairs is mostly in support of the Armed Police Force missions, a U.S. cybersecurity firm called Mandiant discovered a PLA cyberwarfare group, Unit 61398, conducting malicious surveillance operations on Westinghouse Electric Co. and other U.S. companies. Mandiant brought forth evidence in early 2013 exposing the operation. The unit, also known as Advanced Persistent Threat 1 (APT 1), was charged by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 19, 2014, for stealing confidential business data and intellectual property from U.S. companies and planting malware on electronic devices. Despite the indictment against the Chinese military hackers, China’s military chiefs announced in late 2015 their plans to unify all cyberunits under one command and to train specialized cyber spy forces to strengthen operation capabilities.

Internet Security Apparatus

There are multiple departments in charge of managing Internet surveillance and security under the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization. The Internet Affairs Bureau and the Centre for the Study of Public Opinion of the State Council Information Office, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s Internet Illegal Information Reporting Centre, the Internet Bureau and the Information and Public Opinion Bureau of the Publicity Department, the Internet Information Security Supervision of the Ministry of Public Security, and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology are all involved in the process of monitoring Internet activity. There are reportedly 2 million Internet police employed by these organizations to carry out the various technical surveillance measures.

On August 4, 2015, Chinese authorities publicly released the Internet law draft that outlined the government’s cyberspace plans for the near future. The document received widespread criticism from many organizations, including Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch. Rather than merely requiring website firms to report illegal activity, the law requires companies to actively participate in censorship and surveillance. Various activist groups are concerned that the law will limit healthy debate and exchange of information, which are paramount for scientific, technological, and social advancement. Furthermore, foreign and domestic companies will be required to censor and restrict online anonymity, store user data in China, and report to the government ambiguous network security incidents. Internet firms in China have already been required to censor messages, assist the police in finding Internet users who post content critical of the government, and ask users to register their real names, citizen identification numbers, or phone numbers on all websites, including chat forums, blogs, and video games.

The Golden Shield Project

As revealed by Snowden’s intelligence leak, intrusive surveillance techniques can be implemented by an organized and well-funded intelligence agency. Perhaps the most capable and unrestrained agency in history, the U.S. National Security Agency was capable of accessing all call history, tracking phone and Internet traffic, utilizing the Global Positioning System to pinpoint a person’s location, reading personal emails, conducting sweeping online searches of individuals, and viewing a person’s webcam, among other invasive surveillance techniques. Not all of the same capabilities of the National Security Agency may be utilized by the Chinese government; however, the Chinese intelligence community is capable of using similar techniques to monitor Chinese citizens.

The first effort of the authorities to construct a sophisticated mass surveillance and security system was in 1993 with the establishment of the Golden Shield Project, or Great Firewall. The National People’s Congress (NPC) first passed the law CL97 in 1997, which defined cybercrime. The project was completed in 2006 and has been improved on in the subsequent years. The main purpose of the project has been to utilize mass surveillance and censoring techniques to prevent acts of cybercrime as defined by CL97 and to arrest those who transgress against the party’s administration.

As a result of the Golden Shield Project, the majority of all global netizen arrests have taken place in China. From 2012 to 2015, thousands have been detained and fined, including online Internet firms that failed to prevent users from committing these ambiguous crimes. A number of these individuals were civil activists, freedom fighters of Xinjiang and Tibet, or prodemocracy organization leaders. These persons have been charged with crimes such as insulting officials, subversion, inciting a disturbance, and spreading rumors. Many of these offenses were committed via blog or microblog platforms.

Chat Services Monitoring

The monitoring structures established in China permit the authorities to block outgoing and incoming communications through observation technology built into social networks, chat services, and Voice Over Internet Protocol, among others. In China, private companies are directly accountable to the government for the surveillance of their networks to ensure that banned messages or contents are not circulated. The QQ application, a popular chat service owned by Tencent, permits the government to conduct surveillance in detail on exchanges between users by searching for certain keywords and phrases. The identity of the writer can be established by his or her user number. By law, all users must register with their real name, identity number, or phone number, linking their personal information to their account. The lack of anonymity on China’s web space, such as when using the QQ application, makes the process easy for the authorities to locate the individuals responsible for writing sensitive messages. Because of the QQ software’s intrusiveness, it has been defined by some U.S. technology firms as a virus.

Social Media Monitoring

By 2015, online community monitoring had become so ubiquitous that the policing actions had brought about the degeneration of what was once a vivacious and influential community centered on a Chinese version of Twitter, the microblog service called Weibo. According to figures given by the China Internet Network Information Center, between 2013 and 2014, the utilization rate of microblogging declined by 11.4% and the utilization rate of mobile microblogging declined by 13%. During these 2 years, the authorities conducted a dramatic crackdown operation on thousands of bloggers, leading to the arrest of many high-profile online stars. One such well-known example is Charles Xue, who once had 12 million Weibo followers and often shared content that was considered disdainful by government officials. On August 23, 2013, Xue was arrested on prostitution charges, and he later appeared on national television to apologize for spreading rumors on the Internet. The common user is also a frequent target of the government’s crackdowns. Netizens face automatic deletion of posts, warnings from the authorities, and fining for posts that become popular. Publications that say anything negative about certain political figures or policies are immediately the subject of expunction. The suppression on these platforms has been so pervasive that netizens have since gone to alternative communication platforms.

Surveillance Revolution

The Chinese state surveillance model reflects a modernist view of surveillance: high technology utilized under the doctrine of rationality and efficiency to maintain social order and harmony in ideology and culture. The process by which China chooses to use surveillance has been described as authoritarian informationalism, an Internet growth and regulatory model combining elements of Confucianism, authoritarianism, and capitalism; private space for creativity and freedom of expression are limited; however, productivity and capital are more easily directed. Surveillance plays a major role in this system to create and maintain a harmonious social system. At the end of 2012, the NPC issued a law, SC-NPC Decision on Internet Information Protection, regulating the collection and use of private data. In the following year, a draft amendment to the nation’s 2-decade-old consumer protection law was announced, and China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued regulations guiding the release of preinstalled applications on smart devices, as well as nonobligatory data privacy guidelines. While the dominance of surveillance practices has been checked by the Snowden leaks in the United States and other nations, the pervasiveness of surveillance in China will likely be projected into the future.

According to Human Rights Watch and Tibetan exile associations, at least 132 self-immolations have occurred between 2009 and 2015. Self-immolation became an extreme measure for protesting against CCP rule after the 2008 ethnic riots in Tibet. In response, the Chinese authorities strengthened surveillance measures through the development of 600 police checkpoints and stations and the expansion of volunteer security groups. In 2013, the government additionally bolstered operations by stationing 60,000 new officials and party officials in Tibet to conduct political reeducation programs, organize security groups for monitoring, and foster economic development. The campaign expense was more than one quarter of the regional budget. In February 2014, the Xinjiang provincial government announced that over the next 2 years the authorities would increase control at the local level by stationing 200,000 high-level party officials to administer outreach, strengthen surveillance, and promote economic growth, as in the campaign in Tibet the previous year. Three months later, Jinping put in motion a yearlong counterterrorism operation that has led to a number of arrests, public mass sentencing, and an increase in surveillance. In September, the authorities in the capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, sought to improve surveillance effectiveness by offering rewards of up to US$163,000 (1 million renminbi) for information on terrorists or religious extremists. Other techniques, such as cell phone tracking, Internet blackouts, website blocking, and chat service monitoring, were also utilized in both regions. In future national or regional crises, the Chinese government can replicate the success of the Xinjiang and Tibet surveillance operations to promote social stability and security at the expense of privacy.

Loren Halfmann

See also Cybersecurity Legislation ; Law ; National Security Agency ; Orwell, George ; Surveillance, Culture of

Further Readings

“2014 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.” Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, November 2014. (Accessed September 2017).

Bartow, Ann. “SYMPOSIUM: The Second Wave of Global Privacy Protection: Privacy Laws and Privacy Levers: Online Surveillance Versus Economic Development in the People’s Republic of China.” Ohio State Law Journal, v.74 (2013).

Jia, Lu and Zeng Fanxu. “Microblogging and Grassroots Surveillance in China.” China: An International Journal, v.12/3 (December 2014).

Jiang, Min. “Authoritarian Informationalism: China’s Approach to Internet Sovereignty.” SAIS Review of International Affairs, v.30/2 (November 2010).

Mandiant. “APT1: Exposing One of China’s Espionage Units” (February 19, 2013). (Accessed September 2017).