Uncle Xi Wants You!

In the 1780s, Samuel Bentham got a job supervising workers on a Russian estate. To keep his eye on all of them, he made them sit in a circle with himself in the center. His brother, Jeremy, stole that idea and called it a panopticon.

a central tower surrounded by cells. In the central tower is the watchman. In the cells are prisoners – or workers, or children, depending on the use of the building. The tower shines bright light so that the watchman is able to see everyone in the cells. The people in the cells, however, aren’t able to see the watchman, and therefore have to assume that they are always under observation.

Thomas McMullen, “What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance?”, The Guardian, 23 Jul 2015. Accessed 11 Feb 2019
panopticon design by Jeremy Bentham
Image source: Wikipedia

Bentham never executed his design but the concept lived on. In his 1975 book, Discipline & Punish, the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, described the primary effect of the panopticon:

to in­duce in the in­mate a state of con­scious and per­ma­nent vis­i­bil­ity that as­sures the au­to­matic func­tion­ing of power. So to arrange things that the sur­veil­lance is per­ma­nent in its ef­fects, even if it is dis­con­tin­u­ous in its ac­tion; that the per­fec­tion of power should tend to ren­der its ac­tual ex­er­cise un­nec­es­sary; that this ar­chi­tec­tural ap­pa­ra­tus should be a ma­chine for cre­at­ing and sus­tain­ing a power re­la­tion in­de­pen­dent of the per­son who ex­er­cises it; in short, that the in­mates should be caught up in a power sit­u­a­tion of which they are them­selves the bear­ers.

Michel Foucault, “Panopticism” in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans­lated by A. Sheridan, 195-228. Vintage Books, 1995.

Today, China has taken the concept of a panopticon and turned it into a living, breathing thing.


To be fair, this is nothing new. In October 1951, Mao announced his program for Thought Reform. Chinese citizens were encouraged – through public shaming sessions and beatings – to report on each other’s political, religious and personal views. It didn’t matter whether this information was the fruit of long-term acquaintance, casual conversation, or outright spying.

One such victim, the newly wed Liu Xiaoyu, was accused of devoting more attention to her husband than the revolution.

There were people who lingered around our home, peeping through the windows and the gap in the front door, trying to find out if we were behaving in an intimate manner. They were supervising us around the clock

Frank Dikotter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (Bloomsbury 2013)

In order to create a panopticon at home and work, the Mao regime instituted lane committees and work units. It was a highly-effective surveillance system based on human fear.

Today we have the double-linked household management system. It operates in areas like Tibet and Xinjiang, where the authorities divide households into groups of ten. Each household is given the task to watch the other members of its group for security and poverty alleviation purposes.


The high-tech version of Chinese state surveillance looks like this:

Surveillance drones disguised as birds. Cameras in classrooms monitoring students for signs of distraction. Sensors embedded in hats transmitting brainwave data from workers on the production line, to scan for depression, anxiety or rage. A network of cameras across rural villages, with the long-term aim to “turn every television set and mobile phone in the countryside into a security monitoring terminal.”

Louisa Lim, “The Han-opticon: China’s dystopian surveillance networks”, Little Red Podcast, 11 Sep 2018. Accessed 11 Feb 2019.

Chinese citizens must register their real name, national identity number, and mobile telephone number in order to access any online forum. That online forum must then create a credit system to monitor user conduct.

There are many such credit systems in China. Payment platforms and lending institutions score their customers using e-commerce transactions and financial history. Cities like Rongcheng experiment with loyalty programs to reward good citizen conduct. Government agencies share data on offenders, some of whom may end up blacklisted on Credit China.

By 2020, the Chinese government promises to implement a national social credit system (shehui xinyong). It’s not clear how or whether this will happen. But if China succeeds in integrating the existing social credit systems, it will have a virtual panopticon.

Big Data

In 2018, the authorities blocked 11 million flights and 4 million train trips due to low social credit ratings. “Discredited people become bankrupt,” applauded one government official. 80% of Chinese, polled in 2014, believe the social credit system will improve trust.

This is not the experience of Uighurs. In the province of Xinjiang, the Chinese government deploys surveillance tactics like

collecting blood and DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans and blood types from all residents between the ages of 12 and 65. Facial recognition technology – and possibly voice recognition technology – are already widespread

Louisa Lim, ibid

China wants to be a global leader in the field of artificial intelligence. 2 of its 5 largest AI companies specialize in facial-recognition technology. SenseTime supports Chinese police stations, prisons and surveillance cameras. Cloudwalk services border-control agents and the banking industry. That’s a lot of data and, as any data scientist knows, AI needs data to learn.

You know the old joke: we Asians all look alike to Westerners? Turns out that facial recognition technology produced in the West is racially biased. Last year, Google Photos was lambasted for identifying the faces of ethnic Africans as gorillas. Its solution was to block its image recognition algorithms from identifying gorillas.

The Chinese solution is to create an even larger data set. SenseTime claims to have access to two billion images. CloudWalk will soon be adding more, thanks to a mass surveillance deal with the government of Zimbabwe. Since the average public training data set consists of a measly ten million images, you can see why Chinese facial-recognition technology is top of class.

Uncle Xi

Xi Jinping panopticon
Image source: Cartoons by Stellina

To many Westerners, the thought of all that data in the hands of the Chinese government sends shivers down our spines. Xi Jinping as Big Brother incarnate. But replace the words “Chinese government” with the tech giant of your choice: Apple, Google, Facebook. Do you feel better now?

The Estonian government collects far more data than even the Chinese government has attempted to date. Names, bank accounts, health records, tax status. All linked into the e-Estonia system to allow citizens and government to interact in a fully digital world. That includes all the normal things governments do and, yes, that means policing, too. The New Yorker called Estonia the way of the future.

Apparently, the degree to which you fear data agglomeration depends on who or what you’re willing to trust. The Chinese choose to trust their Uncle Xi.