China Is Finding Ever Creepier Ways To Monitor Its Citizens

If the reports are correct, China’s “Grid Management” system could be the closest thing to real-life Big Brother so far.

China Is Finding Ever Creepier Ways To Monitor Its Citizens
The program has been called a model for the contemporary police state. Photo: Flickr user Terrell Neuage

In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother oversees the Proles using tele-screens, secret microphones and an army of Thought Police. In China, the equivalent is Grid Management–an expanding system of social control that’s been dubbed “a model for a contemporary police state.”


According to various reports, the Communist Party has been stepping up efforts to monitor the Chinese population. “Grid Management” refers to both on-the-ground citizen committees and hi-tech surveillance that incorporates “high-speed Internet, high-capacity computers, large databases, sensors and remote equipment.”

Wu Qiang, a political science professor at Tsinghua University, describes a grid matrix where urban centers are split into 100 by 100 meter cells, where all infrastructure is meticulously catalogued and coded, and where the area is patrolled by “seven forces”: managers, assistants, police officers, supervisors, a party secretary, judiciary workers, and firefighters.

Flickr user Grey World

The Financial Times says the Chinese government is expanding Grid Management beyond hotbeds of dissent, like Lhasa, Tibet, to traditionally more liberal cities in the South. Guangzhou “plans to hire 12,000 grid administrators so each can be responsible for 200 families,” it says.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, says the government is concerned about “the slowing economy and what it perceives as threats to its grip on power.”

“It’s taking a very surveillance-poised state and making it even more so by extending government all the way down to the most local levels,” she said in an interview. “The government has described it as more equitably distributing public services, but it does bring with it this element of surveillance that’s extremely problematic.”

Grid Management harkens back to neighborhood committees formed in the 1950s and 1960s, Richardson says. But the system took on new life in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. “There is a long history of obliging people to report on their neighbors and family members,” she says. “They sound like anodyne community watch programs. But in fact they’re actually giving untrained civilians policing power and authority.”


Wu says the Dongcheng District of Beijing was a testbed, with urban enforcers given a “Chengguan Tong”–a mobile device that can “make phone calls, send group text messages, take photos, fill out forms, position, record audio and video, and browse map and data, making each Chengguan an on-site end collector of information.” Following the Arab Spring in 2011, the government expanded Grid Management across the country, gradually making it “more refined, more precise, more high-tech, and more systematic,” he says.

As with China’s plans for a “social credit system”, it’s hard to know exactly what the government is up to. Initiatives are announced, but their origins and delivery are bathed in secrecy, Richardson says. But, if the reports are correct, the Grid Management could be the closest thing to real-life Big Brother that we’ve seen so far.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.