Violence of all kind is a contagion. Media attention for those who commit school shootings can beget more school shootings. One act of terrorism can inspire another. The question is how to stop the disease from spreading, and whereas the United States seems to have settled into endless debates about various restrictions on gun ownership, China has opted for something different: mass domestic surveillance.
According to a new report in the Wall Street Journal, the Xi Jinping government has just massively increased sending for domestic security, the budget for which now surpasses that for national defense by 20 percent. Much of the spending goes to Xinjiang and Tibet, where Beijing fears uprisings from local minority populations. In Xinjiang, the Journal reports, domestic-security spending in 2017 was over $9 billion, an increase of more than 90 percent over the previous year. That money went to weaving “a web of surveillance, with checkpoints, high-definition cameras, facial scanners and street patrols” and technology used to “identify ‘unsafe’ members of the region’s Uighur population.” Across China, meanwhile, the government is “experimenting with cutting-edge tracking tools, tapping social-media accounts to punish politically incorrect speech and, in some places, trying to get residents to inform on each other using smartphone apps.”
Has China’s expanding surveillance state proven effective at reducing violence? Although China says that the threat of terrorism is still serious, it claims that the number of violent attacks involving terrorists fell in 2016. Such attacks are rarely covered in the Chinese media, and when they do happen, they tend to involve knives rather than guns and so cause less damage. Yet there are signs that Chinese civilians are growing resentful of mass surveillance, which might force the government to take a different tack.
Freedom isn’t free. But neither is repression and state control.