For the past several years, the Chinese government has been working on a project that marries big data analytics with its existing surveillance practices. What China is calling its new "grid management system," once fully implemented, will give the Chinese Communist Party an unprecedented level of oversight of its population.
China is already gathering massive amounts of data on its people. It has been for years. But with information coming in on so many platforms, even a well-staffed government may struggle to parse the useful from the mundane — unless it has the help of a state-of-the-art program that can run data analytics on a well-ordered database. For five years China's government has been building exactly that kind of system.
The new grid management system aims to help the Chinese government act early to contain social unrest. Under the new program, grid administrators each monitor a number of households (sometimes as many as 200). They then aggregate their reports into one enormous surveillance database, where it is combined with data collected from video cameras and web censoring. Authorities can analyze that data to detect trends in hopes of anticipating protests or disturbances. For instance, if more than three protests occur in one town within a certain period, the new system could alert administrators, who could then send more police to that area or make other policy adjustments to maintain stability.
China's systematic gathering of data gives the central government more power to monitor and respond to local disruptions. That power is all the more important for Chinese leaders at a time when the country's deepening economic challenges will almost certainly stoke unrest. Slow growth and painful industrial consolidation will leave some segments of China's population out of work and without the support of social services. In the face of such uncertainty, China is betting that close monitoring and quick, even pre-emptive action will help prevent protests, maintain stability and bolster the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.