During this digital era, the currencies of power have expanded beyond traditional realms to include data and information. The advent of technology has given rise to new systems of socio-economic operation, one of which is surveillance capitalism. State surveillance capitalism with Chinese characteristics signifies a distinctive fusion of commercial and state surveillance activities, tailored to the political, economic, and societal context of China.

This system revolves around the vast collection, analysis, and utilization of data by both private corporations and the state. In the broadest sense, surveillance capitalism denotes a market-driven process where the commodity for sale is personal data, and the capture and production of this data rely on mass surveillance. The significance of this topic cannot be overstated. As data becomes an increasingly valuable resource, understanding the mechanisms behind its collection, analysis, and utilization becomes paramount.

However, when surveillance capitalism intertwines with state surveillance – the monitoring of individuals or groups by government agencies – we enter a new dimension of this concept. State surveillance, often justified in the name of national security and social order, can coexist and even synergize with surveillance capitalism, creating a formidable alliance of data gathering and processing powers.

A remarkable exemplar of this alliance is seen in the case of China, where state surveillance and surveillance capitalism fuse to form a system with distinct “Chinese characteristics.” This phrase refers to the specific socio-political and economic conditions within which this system has been developed and implemented, taking into account China’s unique blend of a commanding state and a vibrant market economy.

This essay will delve into the conceptual foundations of surveillance capitalism and state surveillance, discussing their definitions, evolution, and impact. By evaluating the concepts of surveillance capitalism, state surveillance, and their unique implementation within China, we can glean a nuanced understanding of this emerging phenomenon.

We will then explore their unique intersection in the Chinese context, elucidating the characteristics that set the Chinese model apart. Furthermore, we will examine the implications and concerns arising from this model, such as the impact on privacy and human rights, the role of technology, and its influence beyond China’s borders. The focus will then shift to the phenomenon of censorship, both state-imposed and self-initiated, as an integral part of this surveillance system.

The essay will conclude with a contemplation on the need for a global dialogue on data ethics, privacy rights, and the boundaries of state and commercial surveillance. As we navigate this uncharted territory, the balance between security, economic interests, and personal freedoms remains a complex, yet essential, challenge to resolve. This essay aims to contribute to that ongoing conversation.

Symbolic representation of surveillance capitalism and state surveillance

Concepts

Technology, data, and surveillance are intertwine in our contemporary era, creating phenomena that are reshaping society, economy, and governance. Among these, surveillance capitalism and state surveillance stand as two of the most influential and transformative. But what exactly do these terms mean? This chapter aims to define and explain these concepts to establish a clear understanding as we delve further into their applications and implications.

Surveillance capitalism

Surveillance capitalism, a term popularized by Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff, represents a novel market form where the commodity for sale is personal data.1Joanna Kavenna, Shoshana Zuboff: ‘Surveillance capitalism is an assault on human autonomy’, for: The Guardian, 4 October 2019. It denotes a process wherein personal information, acquired through digital surveillance, is commodified and monetized. In essence, it revolves around the concept that user data has tremendous value and can be exploited for economic gain.

Surveillance capitalism begins when businesses, particularly technology firms, collect vast amounts of data about people’s behaviors, preferences, routines, and even thoughts. This data collection is often performed without explicit consent or even knowledge of the individuals being surveilled. The collected data is then analyzed, packaged, and sold to advertisers or used to influence consumer behavior.

State surveillance

State surveillance, on the other hand, involves monitoring and gathering data by government agencies, typically with the objective of maintaining national security, enforcing laws, and preventing potential threats. This surveillance can manifest in various forms, from physical surveillance methods like CCTV cameras in public spaces to digital ones like tracking internet activity and mobile communication.

While state surveillance has always been a part of governance, the advent of the digital age has significantly expanded its potential scope and depth. Nowadays, states can engage in extensive, real-time surveillance on both domestic and global scales. Unlike surveillance capitalism, which is largely driven by economic incentives, state surveillance is often justified on grounds of public safety, law enforcement, and national security.

Understanding the essence of surveillance capitalism and state surveillance is crucial because these systems’ workings and implications are increasingly shaping our world. The interplay between these two forces, especially in regions where they converge, such as China, sets the stage for a complex, multi-dimensional debate about privacy, security, freedom, and power in the digital age. Our examination of these issues, particularly in the Chinese context, will continue in the following chapters.

Historical and contemporary images of surveillance

Historical precendents

Before we delve into the specific case of China, it’s instructive to take a step back and examine the historical roots and the broader context of surveillance and surveillance capitalism. By doing so, we can better appreciate the international backdrop against which China’s unique system is set and understand how earlier precedents have influenced modern practices.

Early examples of mass surveillance

The history of surveillance is as old as civilization itself, with early forms of state surveillance dating back to ancient empires. One notable historical figure in this realm is John Dee, who served as an intelligence gatherer for Queen Elizabeth I of England in the 16th century. Dee, often hailed as one of the first British spymasters, exemplifies the long-standing use of surveillance in maintaining state power.

Fast forward to the 21st century, the United Kingdom now holds the record for the highest number of CCTV cameras per capita, symbolising the massive expansion and evolution of surveillance technology. These modern systems, far more advanced and invasive than their historical counterparts, reflect a society increasingly accustomed to, and perhaps even reliant on, surveillance for a sense of security and order.

The roots of surveillance capitalism can also be traced back to the pre-digital era. A notable example is Project Cybersyn, an ambitious initiative by the Chilean government under Salvador Allende in the 1970s to use early computing technology to manage the economy. The project aimed to gather real-time data from factories to aid in decision-making, foreshadowing the data-driven decision-making systems that now characterize surveillance capitalism.

These historical antecedents and global trends provide context for the discussion that follows. By acknowledging them, we recognize that surveillance capitalism and state surveillance are not isolated phenomena, but rather part of a broader tapestry of technological advancement, economic evolution, and political control. This backdrop sets the stage for our subsequent examination of these dynamics within the unique contours of the Chinese state and society.

Global reach in the Digital Age

The dawn of the digital age has led to even more pervasive and sophisticated surveillance systems. The PRISM program by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is a prime example. This clandestine surveillance program collects internet communications from various U.S. internet companies, as revealed by Edward Snowden, raising significant privacy concerns.

Another notable system is the Five Eyes alliance – an intelligence alliance comprising the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This arrangement allows for extensive collaboration and sharing of intelligence information, further highlighting the global interconnectedness of state surveillance in the digital age.

In various regions worldwide, state surveillance takes different forms, influenced by the local socio-political context. For example, countries like Russia, Syria, and Iran have been known to disconnect the internet during political unrest, demonstrating an extreme form of state control over information flow.

On another front, cybercrime is a growing international concern, with hackers in regions like North Korea, Nigeria, India, Transnistria, and Belarus often implicated in large-scale cyberattacks. These developments, coupled with global intelligence sharing networks, underscore the increasingly complex and transnational nature of digital surveillance and cyber governance.

A symbolic representation of technology and surveillance in China

Chinese characteristics

With a historical and global backdrop established, we now turn our attention to China – a distinct exemplar of a system where surveillance capitalism intertwines intimately with state surveillance. Here, we observe the emergence of a model with its own set of ‘Chinese characteristics’ – a result of the unique socio-political context and China’s overarching state objectives.

Data collection

Chinese tech giants, like Alibaba and Tencent, are at the forefront of the country’s surveillance capitalism. Through their diverse range of services, including e-commerce, social media, entertainment, and financial services, these companies have access to massive troves of data. Every transaction, interaction, and digital movement of their millions of users are tracked, collected, and stored. This data is then analyzed and used to personalize offerings, optimize services, and, importantly, sold to advertisers for targeted marketing.

While this practice mirrors global tech giants’ activities, there’s a crucial difference – the relationship between these corporations and the state. Chinese tech companies operate within a tightly controlled digital ecosystem, overseen by a government deeply interested in the data they collect.

Role of the State

The Chinese state plays an active role in shaping and leveraging the country’s digital landscape. An emblematic manifestation of this is the Social Credit System (SCS), a government initiative aimed at collecting comprehensive data on citizens and corporations to assess their ‘trustworthiness.’ Drawing on data from various sources, including financial records, legal infractions, and social behaviours, the SCS awards or deducts points that can impact various aspects of people’s lives, from credit approvals to travel permissions.

While presented as a mechanism to enhance social trust and order, the SCS has raised significant concerns regarding privacy, consent, and the potential for state control and manipulation. Coupled with the extensive digital surveillance infrastructure, the system demonstrates how the Chinese state leverages the mechanisms of surveillance capitalism for its objectives.

In China, surveillance capitalism and state surveillance thus form a synergistic model where private tech giants’ data collection capabilities are harnessed for the state’s governance objectives. This amalgamation of market-based data collection and state-level surveillance creates a unique landscape – state surveillance capitalism with Chinese characteristics.


In the following chapters, we will delve deeper into the implications of this model, the concerns it raises, and the broader influence it exerts within and beyond China’s borders.

Visual representation of the impact of surveillance

Implications and concerns

Amalgamation of surveillance capitalism and state surveillance in China presents a complex web of implications and raises manifold concerns. The widespread and systemic collection and use of data affect individuals, society, and international relations in profound ways. This chapter explores some of the critical concerns associated with this system, from privacy and human rights to the implications of technology and its impact beyond China’s borders.

Privacy and human rights

At the heart of the concerns surrounding state surveillance capitalism with Chinese characteristics is the impact on privacy and human rights. The massive data collection, when tied with state objectives, has serious implications for individual freedoms and privacy.

  • A striking illustration of the extensive surveillance practices is seen in the treatment of the Uygur population in Xinjiang. Extensive use of high-tech surveillance systems, such as predictive policing programs and ubiquitous CCTV surveillance, has allowed for an unprecedented level of control and monitoring in the region.
  • Predictive policing programs in Xinjiang have been reported to use data from various sources, including security checkpoints and health records, to predict and prevent perceived threats. This use of data analytics has raised concerns about its potential misuse for racial profiling and unjustified detainments.
  • Another concerning example is the pervasive use of CCTV surveillance, equipped with facial recognition technology, in Xinjiang. These cameras are omnipresent in public spaces, from markets to mosques, resulting in an environment where Uygurs are constantly monitored. This has led to international outcry over potential human rights abuses, particularly regarding the right to privacy and freedom of movement.

Both examples underline the profound implications of the intertwined model of state surveillance and surveillance capitalism, and the significant concerns it raises about racial profiling, discrimination, and human rights abuses.

Similarly, the implementation of the Social Credit System has shown instances of government overreach and potential abuse. The system’s power to enforce punitive measures such as travel restrictions and gaming limitations based on ‘social behavior’ clearly demonstrates the extent of state control over individuals’ lives.

  • For instance, the system has been used to restrict the ability of individuals with low social credit scores to purchase train or plane tickets. One example is the reported case of a Chinese journalist, Liu Hu, who found himself unable to book a flight because he was on a list of ‘untrustworthy people’ due to a legal dispute. 2Nicole Kobie, The complicated truth about China’s social credit system, for: Wired UK, 7 June 2019.
  • Another example involves the gaming industry where the government has imposed strict time limits on online gaming for minors to curb gaming addiction. Under these rules, individuals under 18 can only play games for an hour a day on Fridays, weekends, and public holidays. This showcases how the Social Credit System can intrude into personal leisure activities based on state-defined ‘social norms’.

Both examples highlight the extent to which mechanisms like the Social Credit System can control various aspects of citizens’ lives. This potential for state overreach may lead to a society where citizens constantly self-monitor their behavior due to fear of surveillance and penalties, thereby fostering a culture of self-censorship and pressure to conform.

Implications of technological advancements

The rapid advancements in technology have introduced new tools that both aid in and complicate the surveillance landscape. Facial recognition, a technology that is widely used in China for a variety of applications, serves as a potent tool for both state surveillance and surveillance capitalism.

  • For instance, in the city of Shenzhen, facial recognition technology has been employed in jaywalking deterrent systems. 3Li Tao, Jaywalkers under surveillance in Shenzhen soon to be punished via text messages, 27 March 2018. Cameras at intersections capture the faces of jaywalkers, and facial recognition technology is used to identify the individuals. Their faces are then displayed on large screens above the intersection, and their social credit scores are potentially affected. While this serves as a deterrent and potentially improves safety, it also raises significant privacy concerns.
  • In the retail sector, companies like Alibaba have implemented ‘Smile to Pay’ systems in stores. 4The Guardian, Smile-to-pay: Chinese shoppers turn to facial payment technology , 4 September 2019. Customers can simply smile at a camera to pay for their goods, thanks to facial recognition technology. While this offers a seamless and futuristic user experience, it also implies that these companies have access to biometric data, further deepening the implications for privacy.
  • Moreover, the potential for digital forgeries, as depicted in films like Minority Report (2002), introduces another layer of concern. Real-world examples of this issue can be found in the rising prevalence of deepfakes. These are AI-generated videos that can convincingly depict individuals saying or doing things they never did. This phenomenon could further blur the line between reality and fabrication, complicating the discourse around trust, authenticity, and privacy.

As such technologies become more accessible, the potential for misuse in the hands of malicious actors increases, adding another dimension to the ongoing privacy debate.

Impact beyond Chinese borders

The implications of China’s surveillance model also reach far beyond its borders. For example, Hollywood studios have been known to alter content to ensure their films are suitable for the Chinese market.

  • The film Doctor Strange (2016) serves as a stark example of this self-censorship. In the original comic book, a key character known as the ‘Ancient One’ was Tibetan. However, in the film adaptation, the character was portrayed by Tilda Swinton, a white actress. Furthermore, her character’s backstory was rewritten to avoid any reference to Tibet, replacing it with Nepal, seemingly to avoid political sensitivities in China.
  • Another instance is in the film World War Z (2013). The original source material pointed to China as the origin of the zombie outbreak, but the film adaptation did not specify any country. This change is widely believed to have been made to secure a release in the lucrative Chinese market.

These practices mirror those during the Hays Code era in the U.S., where film content was strictly regulated. However, in the current context, it’s economic incentive, rather than regulatory mandate, that drives such self-censorship. These examples serve to demonstrate how market dynamics and state objectives can shape global cultural content, creating a ripple effect that extends the reach of China’s surveillance model.

Widespread consumer tracking

The widespread usage of contactless payments in China illustrates the far-reaching impacts of surveillance capitalism. With every transaction creating a data point that feeds into consumer profiles, these payment methods enable constant tracking of consumer behavior. This level of insight into consumer habits presents lucrative opportunities for businesses but also significant privacy concerns for individuals.

While the model of state surveillance capitalism with Chinese characteristics offers unique advantages for the state and businesses, it also presents profound challenges and concerns. Navigating these challenges requires a deep understanding of the interplay between technology, economy, and politics and a commitment to uphold the principles of privacy, human rights, and democratic discourse in the face of rapid digital transformation.

Great Firewall of China, symbolizing censorship

Censorship in the Chinese context

Censorship stands as a significant feature within the Chinese digital landscape, deeply entwined with the themes of surveillance capitalism and state surveillance. It extends the state’s control over information flow, helping it shape public discourse and opinion. This chapter explores the nuances of state censorship and self-censorship within the Chinese context.

State censorship

State censorship in China encompasses the control and suppression of information deemed sensitive or inappropriate by the government. This ranges from political dissent and critical commentary to content that deviates from the state-approved social norms. The government maintains strict regulations over domestic media and exerts control over international media through the Great Firewall, which blocks access to many foreign websites.

  • A tangible example of this type of censorship is the “Winnie the Pooh” meme incident. In this case, images of Winnie the Pooh were widely used online as a form of satirical protest, with users drawing comparisons between Pooh and Chinese President Xi Jinping. However, Chinese authorities responded by censoring images of the beloved children’s character on social media platforms, illustrating the state’s readiness to suppress even seemingly innocuous content if perceived to be politically sensitive or critical.

Moreover, the censorship regime employs advanced technological tools and algorithms. Social media platforms use automated filters to detect and remove ‘sensitive’ content, while search engines filter out ‘inappropriate’ search results. An instance of this is how “Winnie the Pooh” related searches would yield no results or lead to error messages on Chinese internet platforms. This extensive censorship apparatus allows the state to maintain a significant level of control over the digital public sphere, shaping the narratives that reach its citizens.

Self-censorship

Amid this environment of extensive state censorship, self-censorship emerges as a pervasive response by both individuals and institutions. Aware of the repercussions of crossing the government’s red lines, individuals often choose to avoid discussing or sharing ‘sensitive’ topics. This self-censorship extends to more private digital spaces, such as chats and emails, reflecting the deep-seated awareness of the state’s surveillance capabilities.

At the institutional level, businesses, universities, and media outlets often preemptively censor their outputs to avoid potential penalties. For instance, tech companies employ teams of content moderators to ensure that user-generated content aligns with government regulations. Meanwhile, academic and cultural institutions may steer clear from topics deemed politically sensitive.

This culture of self-censorship has profound implications. On the one hand, it can lead to a chilling effect on free speech and a homogenized public discourse. On the other, it reveals a form of societal adaptation to the reality of living within a surveillance state, demonstrating the deeply entrenched nature of these mechanisms within the societal fabric.

Through this lens, the dynamics of censorship shed light on the intricate interplay between state control and societal response within China’s digital landscape. These nuances underscore the complexities inherent in navigating this space, both for those within China’s borders and those seeking to understand it from the outside.

Forked road or path, indicating different possible futures

Future trajectories

In considering the landscape of surveillance capitalism with Chinese characteristics, it is crucial to contemplate possible future scenarios. The interplay between state surveillance and capitalism, combined with China’s unique societal, political, and cultural context, could evolve in a multitude of ways. In this chapter, we explore three potential scenarios:

  1. The Good: “Enlightened Reform and Responsible Technology”
  2. The Bad: “Deepening Control and Technological Intrusion”
  3. The Ugly: “Societal Pushback and Chaos”

The Good

In this optimistic scenario, internal demand for reform and international pressure lead to China adopting a more transparent and accountable model of state surveillance and surveillance capitalism. Technology companies work with human rights organizations to create robust privacy standards, with regulations to protect data and restrict unwarranted surveillance. This results in a ‘Privacy Revolution’, akin to the ‘Green Revolution’ in environmental consciousness.

A pivotal event might be a landmark court case where a Chinese citizen sues a major tech company for privacy violation and wins. This sets a legal precedent for personal data protection and catalyzes a comprehensive review of privacy laws. The outcome is a more balanced society where technology continues to innovate and drive economic growth, but not at the expense of individual privacy or freedom.

The Bad

In this less optimistic scenario, the Chinese government and tech giants deepen their partnership, leveraging technological advancements to exert even more control over the populace. Biometric data becomes a standard requirement for even basic services, and the Social Credit System evolves to encompass more aspects of daily life, influencing everything from job prospects to social interactions.

A key event in this scenario might be the introduction of mandatory neural interface devices, supposedly for health monitoring and communication convenience, but also allowing unprecedented access to individuals’ thoughts and experiences. The outcome is a dystopian society where privacy is virtually nonexistent, and citizens’ lives are dictated by a mix of state surveillance and surveillance capitalism.

The Ugly

In this scenario, the combination of state surveillance and surveillance capitalism leads to severe societal backlash. This could be triggered by a massive data breach revealing extensive personal information, leading to widespread outrage. Coupled with rising inequality and resentment over the lack of privacy, this sparks major protests, akin to the pro-democracy movements seen in Hong Kong.

The government responds with increased censorship and crackdowns, but this only fuels the resistance. The global community imposes economic sanctions on China, leading to an economic slowdown. The outcome is a period of instability and uncertainty, with potential long-term impacts on China’s social fabric and economic prosperity. The world watches nervously as the global power grapples with these internal struggles.


In all these scenarios, the evolving dynamic between the state, corporations, and citizens underpins the narrative. These potential futures highlight the need for robust discussions on privacy, data ethics, and the boundaries of surveillance, shaping the path towards a balanced relationship between technology, economy, and individual freedoms.

The need for global dialogue

Conclusion

This essay has provided an in-depth exploration of state surveillance capitalism with Chinese characteristics, delving into its conceptual foundations, historical antecedents, and its unique manifestation within the Chinese context. It has also examined the various implications and concerns associated with this system, including issues around privacy, human rights, and the impact of technological advancements.

We’ve seen how the combination of surveillance capitalism and state surveillance in China has resulted in a powerful symbiosis that serves both the state’s governance objectives and the commercial interests of tech giants. This model, while offering certain social and economic benefits, also raises profound challenges tied to privacy, human rights, and the broader impact on society and culture.

From the treatment of the Uygur population to the restrictions imposed by the Social Credit System; from the widespread use of facial recognition technology to the implications of Hollywood self-censorship; from the control exerted through state censorship to the pervasive culture of self-censorship, the concerns are far-reaching and complex.

In light of these insights, it is evident that a global dialogue on data ethics, privacy rights, and surveillance boundaries is urgently needed. This dialogue should include diverse stakeholders – governments, businesses, civil society, and individuals – and should strive to balance the benefits and challenges associated with technological advancements and data-driven systems.

Future research should continue to explore the implications of surveillance capitalism and state surveillance, focusing on how these systems evolve over time and how they interact with socio-political changes. Researchers could, for instance, examine the impact of China’s model on other countries, particularly those involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

On the policy-making front, it is crucial to develop robust legal and regulatory frameworks that can protect individual privacy, promote transparency, and limit the potential for abuse. These frameworks should reflect a deep understanding of the interplay between technology, economics, and politics, and should be flexible enough to adapt to rapidly changing technological landscapes.


In conclusion, while state surveillance capitalism with Chinese characteristics presents unique challenges and concerns, it also offers valuable lessons and prompts important questions about the future of our global, data-driven society. By continuing to explore, question, and debate these issues, we can hope to navigate towards a future where technology serves the interests of all, not just a powerful few.

Gepubliceerd door Stijn Vogels

Stijn Vogels, een erkende expert in geopolitieke en technologische trends, analyseert wereldgebeurtenissen sinds 2003. Met een geschiedenisdiploma van de Universiteit van Gent worden zijn inzichten gepubliceerd op zijn blog, Aardling, en sociale media platforms. Stijn heeft ook een wereldwijde schrijversgemeenschap opgezet gericht op internationale betrekkingen. Gekend voor "connecting the dots" tussen technologie en politiek, streeft hij ernaar 'goed te doen' door middel van zijn doordachte analyses en waardevolle perspectieven op onze snel veranderende wereld.