Chinese law enforcers told use AI, big data to improve security in unstable times

A top Chinese security official has told law enforcement officers to make use of hi-tech tools like big data and artificial intelligence at a time of rising uncertainties at home and abroad.

Chen Yixin, secretary general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which oversees law enforcement and security, made the remarks during a tour of southern Guangdong province last week. He visited seven cities – including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanwei – and held seminars with local cadres during the three-day trip, according to a statement from the commission.

“The security environment at home and abroad has become increasingly complicated, with increasingly unstable and uncertain factors,” Chen was quoted as saying. “It is especially important to lay a solid foundation for social governance and security now.”

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Chen said there was an urgent need to improve public security at the grass-roots level to curb “major social incidents” – which usually refers to violent crimes. He said this could be done by expanding the Xueliang Project, or Sharp Eyes, a surveillance programme using cameras in rural areas, by using the AI systems in place across the country known as “city brains”, and by using smart applications to improve public safety and communication.

China is often described as the world’s most surveilled country – it is home to 18 of the 20 most monitored cities in the world, according to a study published by British technology research firm Comparitech in July last year.

Chen also noted that social incidents can involve people with mental illness, and highlighted the importance of providing adequate health care. He said other cities could learn from Yunfu, in western Guangdong, which offers full medical and support services for mental health issues.

“Depression and other mental illnesses have become acute as the pace of life gets faster, and as we face issues such as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and cultural differences created by the movement of people,” he said, calling for improved public health care and more services such as counselling and mediation.

The security official’s Guangdong tour comes less than two months before a key meeting of Communist Party leaders that is expected to focus on its achievements over the past century, with the security apparatus in overdrive ahead of the gathering.

Chen is widely regarded as a front runner to be appointed chief of the commission during a leadership reshuffle at the twice-a-decade party congress next year. He is in charge of an ongoing “rectification” campaign on the country’s security apparatus that began in July last year and has seen nearly 180,000 law enforcement officials purged so far.

But his security push in Guangdong might be hard to emulate in poorer parts of the country, according to Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“Guangdong is among the most affluent regions in China and the government has more funding to push forward surveillance projects quickly and extensively,” Wu said. “Poorer regions might not have the money to do that unless Beijing provides some generous funding.”

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