Chinese cities are rushing to construct their own surveillance systems. Chongqing, in Sichuan Province, is spending $4.2 billion on a network of 500,000 cameras, according to the state news media. Guangdong Province, the manufacturing powerhouse adjacent to Hong Kong, is mounting one million cameras. In Beijing, the municipal government is seeking to place cameras in all entertainment venues, adding to the skein of 300,000 cameras that were installed here for the 2008 Olympics.
By marrying Internet, cellphone and video surveillance, the government is seeking to create an omniscient monitoring system, said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “When it comes to surveillance, China is pretty upfront about its totalitarian ambitions,” he said.
For the legion of Chinese intellectuals, democracy advocates and religious figures who have tangled with the government, surveillance cameras have become inescapable.
Yang Weidong, a politically active filmmaker, said a phalanx of 13 cameras were installed in and around his apartment building last year after he submitted an interview request to President Hu Jintao, drawing the ire of domestic security agents. In January, Ai Weiwei, the artist and public critic, was questioned by the police after he threw stones at cameras trained on his front gate.
Li Tiantian, 45, a human rights lawyer in Shanghai, said the police used footage recorded outside a hotel in an effort to manipulate her during the three months she was illegally detained last year. The video, she said, showed her entering the hotel in the company of men other than her boyfriend.
During interrogations, Ms. Li said, the police taunted her about her sex life and threatened to show the video to her boyfriend. The boyfriend, however, refused to watch, she said.
“The scale of intrusion into people’s private lives is unprecedented,” she said in a phone interview. “Now when I walk on the street, I feel so vulnerable, like the police are watching me all the time.”