Despite extensive media coverage of the technological capabilities of China’s surveillance state, we know relatively little about its organization and operational tactics. By combing through official documents, this talk presents a picture of China’s surveillance state that sharply contrasts its portrayal in the media. The most important factor that makes China’s surveillance state so fearsome is not its technological capabilities, but the Communist Party’s unrivalled organizational capacity. China’s ‘distributed surveillance’ relies on both formal coercive security agencies and non-coercive organizations in a Leninist party-state. This model of surveillance not only addresses the ‘coercive dilemma’ but also performs ‘preventive repression’ far more effectively than approaches to surveillance in other dictatorships.
Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College. He is also a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. In 2019 he was the inaugural Library of Congress Chair on US–China Relations.