China’s all-seeing social control network brings an end to fugitives’ festive fun

Visit to a Lunar New Year flower market ends with a trip to the police station for two wanted men in southern China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 7:01pm

With most of China getting into the swing of the Lunar New Year holiday, two crime suspects in the southern city of Guangzhou could have been forgiven for thinking the local police force was taking a break too.

Unfortunately for them, the city’s network of surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology is now so extensive that a trip to a festive flower fair in Haizhu district ended with them both in custody, Southern Metropolis Daily reported.

As in Hong Kong, buying bouquets, potted plants and other decorations for the Lunar New Year is a time-honoured tradition in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province.

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Traditionally, festive markets and fairs have attracted a heavy police presence to maintain order and help keep the peace. In recent years, however, the introduction of new technology has meant that the authorities’ surveillance capabilities have never been more comprehensive.

At the market in Haizhu, not only were there high-definition cameras positioned at every entrance and exit, and at key points around the venue, but also drones circling above, casting their beady eyes on the milling crowds below.

And as each visitor came and went from the fair, the assorted pieces of kit transmitted what they saw back to the police’s mobile command vehicles.

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When suspect No 1 – a man identified only by his surname Zhong – arrived at the market on Tuesday afternoon he never had a chance.

As his face was already on a police database, as soon as a surveillance camera “spotted” him entering the market, an alert was issued and officers leapt into action, the report said.

Despite the huge crowds, it took police just half an hour to locate Zhong, and although he initially lied about his identity and gave officers a false name, the evidence from the facial recognition software was damning and he was arrested.

A few hours later, a second, unnamed suspect wandered into the police’s “trap” and he too had his holiday cut short, the report said.

With more than 170 million cameras watching from street corners, inside buildings and on public transport, China is home to one of the world’s largest surveillance networks. By 2020, the government plans to extend the number of cameras to 600 million.

Many of the all-seeing eyes are already equipped with artificial intelligence, like the facial recognition software, and their capabilities are only going to improve.

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Chinese scientists are currently developing the world’s most powerful facial recognition system, which Beijing claims will be able to identify any one of the country’s 1.4 billion citizens within three seconds. While no date has been given for the project’s completion, similar small-scale systems, such as municipal or provincial police databases, have already been put into use.

In several mainland cities, including Jinan in eastern Shandong province, traffic police are now using facial recognition technology to identify and shame jaywalkers and anyone else who breaks the traffic rules.

But the most aggressive and sweeping application of surveillance technology is in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, which is home to the minority Uygur people. Critics of Beijing have described the restive region as a surveillance state.