One evening in the summer of 2017, local police in China made a surprise inspection of a small private language school, checking the visas of all non-Chinese attendees. Among those present was a foreign doctoral student, who had left his passport at his hotel. “Not to worry,” said the officer. “What’s your name?” The officer took out a handheld device and entered the student’s name. “Is this you?” Displayed on the screen was the researcher’s name, his passport number, and the address of his hotel.
This kind of incident is common in Xinjiang, where China has extensively deployed technology against Muslim minorities. But this episode took place in Yunnan province, near China’s southern border with Myanmar. In fact, public security bureaus—the network of agencies in China that deal with domestic security and intelligence—across the country are using electronic databases coupled with handheld tools to keep track of certain categories of people. These “key individuals,” as they are officially known, range from paroled criminals and users of drugs to foreigners, petitioners, and religious believers.