Before Li Dongsheng (former head of the central 610 Office) was investigated in December 2013, he went to Hebei Province to help ratchet up the persecution of Falun Gong. “It must be a comprehensive plan with grid management so that none [of the practitioners] will be missed,” he said.
Li was indicted in August 2015 for bribery. But the persecution of Falun Gong continues; grid management, along with other modern technologies, has also been broadly adopted since then.
For most of the past 20 years, the persecution has been implemented by 610 Offices through the local justice system (police, procuratorate, and courts). With the increased mobility of residence and the advancement of technology, however, grid management has become a state-of-the-art system for monitoring residents.
One report from Minghui in August 2012 described how the system was implemented in Changchun City, Jilin Province, to suppress Falun Gong practitioners: “Communities in Nanguang Districts are divided into grids, which are supervised by grid administrators. Each administrator is equipped with a cell phone with GPS tracking functions. Paid for by the government, the phone is on 24 hours a day, and it is connected to computers in the community as well as the control center. QQ groups were also set up for communication. Several days ago, communities were instructed to report information of “non-transformed” Falun Gong practitioners (that is, practitioners who refused to renounce their belief) to the control center through cell phones. Nanguan District is a pilot for grid management, which would [later] be implemented throughout Changchun City.”
This system was quickly implemented in other regions in conjunction with the “knocking on doors” campaigns. In May 2017, about 340 Falun Gong practitioners were harassed by police in Sichuan Province, and it was supervised by the provincial Political and Legal Affairs Committee (PLAC). The order aimed to implement “complete coverage of grid management” in which “80% of the families need to be visited. For Falun Gong practitioners, the expectation for home visits is 100%.”
The Grid, Knocking on Doors, and Big Data
“Knocking on doors” initiatives started in early 2017. In Fushun City, Liaoning Province, officials visited practitioners with forms for the practitioners to fill out and sign with fingerprints. “Pictures and videos were also taken. When practitioners could not be located, their relatives were harassed and threatened,” according to a report.
In an order issued in February 2017 for officials in Anshan City of Liaoning Province specific to the “knocking on doors” initiative, police officers were required to bring recording devices and take at least five pictures, which would be uploaded to the central database. Officers were expected to schedule these around “sensitive” dates, such as April 25, May 13, and July 22.
An order from the Henan Provincial Party Office dated April 5, 2017, required all levels of 610 Offices to share their databases with police departments by the end of June 2017. Together with grid management, project Dazzling Snow (xueliang, a video surveillance system) would generate videos to be integrated into the big data platform. The document from the Henan Provincial Party Office also called to strengthen its “internet army” of online commentators to further control public opinion in cyberspace.
Video Surveillance and Facial Recognition
Project Dazzling Snow mentioned in the order of Henan Province is a video surveillance system in rural areas. Its urban counterpart is called Skynet (tianwang).
When Ms. Wang Xinrong, a Falun Gong practitioner in Heilongjiang Province, took care of her sister-in-law in a hospital, a facial recognition system detected her presence and alerted police on June 4, 2019. She was arrested, and her sister-in-law died the following day. Ms. Wang has been detained since then for over 100 days despite her high blood pressure.
An article published by the Financial Times on April 3, 2016, described the video surveillance and grid management system under the title “China reverts to ‘grid management’ to monitor citizens’ lives.” The article stated, “From smog-blanketed towns on the North China Plain to the politically sensitive Tibetan capital of Lhasa, small police booths and networks of citizens have been set up block by block to … keep an eye on anyone deemed a troublemaker.” The city of Guangzhou, for example, planned to hire 12,000 grid administrators, each of whom would be responsible for 200 families.
Dazzling Snow was introduced by a nationwide policy in September 2015. Its target for 2020 is to achieve “global coverage, complete network sharing, around-the-clock availability, and monitoring of the entire process.” The Dazzling Snow and Skynet projects operate in conjunction with the Golden Shield (jindun), an online censorship project that maintains a database of all internet users. Golden Shield has cost at least 6 billion yuan and employs hundreds of thousands of people to monitor the internet.
Facial recognition is a critical component of video surveillance, and many Chinese companies are involved. During the 2018 Face Recognition Vendor Test (FRVT) conducted by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the top five recognition algorithms came from China.
An Orwellian State
Within one month after Li Dongsheng visited Hebei Province for grid management, this initiative was included in the central CCP policy. The annual policy issued by the CCP Central Committee on November 15, 2013, listed grid management as one of the action items. The 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) highlighted video surveillance and the same goals as for Dazzling Snow described earlier.
Some have estimated that the number of video cameras in China could reach over 600 million by 2020–about one camera for every two citizens on average. Furthermore, Dazzling Snow goes beyond data collection by officials, as it mobilizes local residents to monitor the surveillance video from TV sets at home. According to reports from Radio Free Asia, IT firms in China have claimed to develop products that allow real-time monitoring through cell phones, smart TVs, and other electronics. Although nominally intended for home security, it also transmits all activities to the big data platform shared with grid management and other video surveillance systems, resulting in a state-of-art Orwellian nation.
When novelist George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, he depicted how destructive a totalitarian country could be. Yet, he had not thought of internet censorship, Golden Shield, Skynet, Dazzling Snow, and grid management. Beyond that, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also been monitoring citizens through various social media platforms such as QQ and WeChat, both inside China and abroad. There have been numerous reports in which Falun Gong practitioners were arrested after police monitored them through Skynet and WeChat.
Articles in the Financial Times relate the grid management to baojia, a neighborhood administrative system in ancient China. It started with Shang Yang during the Warring States period, who promoted mutual spying and collective punishment. After he became a victim of spying, he fled. However, the stern laws he implemented were kept alive and led to his own demise.
We do not know how long these technologies will continue to be used to persecute Falun Gong practitioners or how long the tyrannical CCP will last. But these deliberate systems that aim to suppress ordinary citizens could one day backfire and lead to the demise of the perpetrators themselves, just as it did to Shang Yang.