Earlier this year, a U.S. congressional committee commissioned a report on China’s development of “smart cities,” with a particular focus on whether they were smarter than their American counterparts.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s (USCC) request for submissions was revealing because it showed that, despite the hype, not much is known about the fruits of China’s efforts to build such cities. Smart cities are highly digitally connected and use the latest technology to manage services.
About 500 of the roughly 1,000 smart cities being built worldwide are in China, according to Chinese state media, government figures and estimates from Deloitte. Under a five-year plan to the end of 2020, the Chinese government expects $74 billion of public and private investment in these cities.
Yet while scattered futuristic pilot examples can be found — from intelligent lighting and power grids to smart traffic management — there is little evidence that this grand vision is dramatically improving the lives of the masses.
Instead, it appears that the bulk of the resources poured into smart city development has gone into improving surveillance of Chinese citizens by the pervasive domestic security services. For nearly a decade, China has spent more on internal security than on its defense budget. Put another way: The Communist Party spends more on monitoring its own people than on guarding against foreign threats.
“It’s very clear that surveillance is a significant element in China’s conception of smart cities,” says Rogier Creemers, an expert in Chinese law and technology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “This involves across-the-board surveillance that is partly political and partly about mechanizing ordinary street-level policing.”
The security apparatus uses a vast network of cameras, facial and even gait recognition along with artificial intelligence and cloud computing to identify and track many of China’s 1.34 billion people.