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Asia Pacific / China

China’s tech future depends on children and surveillance

A bountiful tech industry means the children of China can look forward to a prosperous future. The same tech is watching them, however, and constantly evolving.

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A woman activates an automatic toilet paper dispenser that uses facial recognition technology, such is the level of surveillance in China. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

If the children of China can look forward to a prosperous future, it is 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 of tech in China reports, the country 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. However, 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.

The 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 that are equally outlawed in the West – tackling racism, murder and terror.

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Late 2020 saw the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) begin to confront an issue that is 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 2021, demand that internet product and service providers “shall not offer minors products and services that induce addiction” and protect them from cyberbullying, according to the state-backed news outlet Xinhua.

China’s video games concerns

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 past few years. Laura Petrone, GlobalData

“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 past few years,” says senior GlobalData analyst Laura Petrone.

Authorities have been suspicious of video gaming going back as far as the 1980s, when products 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 China’s 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 are over 18.

However, 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 has always been nearly impossible to reliably verify the age of internet users,” says Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate at security, privacy and networking services company Comparitech. “It is 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 are just following the law.”

The pressure of China’s boundaries

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 targeted 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 such as Tencent feel the pressure of aligning to Beijing’s new laws because the backlash against them in case of-non compliance can be devastating. Laura Petrone

“Big tech companies such as Tencent feel the pressure of aligning to Beijing’s new laws because the backlash against them in case of-non compliance can be devastating,” says Petrone.

“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, in mid-2021 the company 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 number of credits by requesting 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.

These laws 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. Paul Bischoff, Comparitech

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 that 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 children 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, but these laws also give Beijing the power to surveil children and, to some degree, their parents,” says Bischoff. “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.

How does this affect the Uighur population 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 fibres, 5G networking, AI-enabled cameras, voice recognition, smart sensors, big data, drones (and) satellites”, as GlobalData notes.

Children who spend the majority of their childhoods under surveillance will grow up thinking it is normal. Paul Bischoff

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 north-west of the country.

According to Human Rights Watch, Beijing uses advanced technology to collect and analyse information 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.

“Children who spend the majority of their childhoods under surveillance will grow up thinking it is 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.”

He isn’t just talking about the Xinjiang region. As Freedom House notes, surveillance cameras have appeared in elementary and secondary schools in China “ostensibly for the purpose of tracking students’ focus and study habits” but 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 found approximately 74% of respondents wanted 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.

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? Paul Bischoff

However, the roll-out of facial recognition reflects the implementation of GFC in how it is happening without hindrance, with the added and more potent bonus of convenience. After all, why would you 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?”

Parallels can be found around the world in the shape of 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 such as 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 processes; 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.”

Find the GlobalData China Tech – Thematic Research report here.

Giacomo Lee is themes editor for Verdict.