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A CCTV surveillance camera looks over the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu, China, on July 25, 2020.

THOMAS PETER/Reuters

Clive Hamilton is the author, with Mareike Ohlberg, of Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World.

The Trudeau government’s selection of a Chinese state-owned company to install X-ray scanners in its embassies and high commissions around the world beggars belief.

In July, the National Post reported that the tender for these scanners in our missions was awarded to Nuctech, a firm founded by the son of former Chinese president Hu Jintao and which has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party’s “red aristocracy.”

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If that standing offer proceeds, there would be a serious risk that all comings and goings would be recorded and logged in Beijing. Chinese dissidents, asylum seekers and defectors would steer clear of Canada’s embassies.

While the decision is now under review, that we’re even here is, on its own, a disappointing move on Ottawa’s part. That’s because a savvier approach to Beijing was expected from François-Philippe Champagne, who has been in the role of Foreign Affairs Minister for nine months – but also because it reflects how little the federal government appears to have learned from the crisis involving Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

Huawei’s potential subservience to the Chinese government, of course, is at the heart of the pitched international battle over the building of 5G infrastructure. Despite its chief executive officer’s insistence that it is a private company, the autocratic nature of the Chinese state makes that impossible to believe; it is part of national law that if Beijing requests companies to provide data, the companies must comply.

The Huawei debate is effectively over among Western countries; their fears were borne out last month, when an expert report commissioned by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs found that Huawei deliberately installed encryption software in a new data centre for the government of Papua New Guinea, allowing Beijing to hoover up secret government files at its leisure. But Canada is a notable exception to this thinking. Indeed, even after four of its fellow Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance countries came out strongly against the potential risk of companies such as Huawei or Hikvision, which produces CCTV cameras, the federal government still has not publicly announced a decision on its 5G infrastructure.

Meanwhile, as Beijing works to surveil other parts of the world, President Xi Jinping is turning the country into a panopticon where every Chinese citizen’s every move is being watched.

The Australian newspaper reported in August that China has deployed real-time facial-recognition technology to grant access to buildings. Residents returning to their homes must have their faces recognized by a camera linked to computers at the local security office. Only those whose faces match those in the database are allowed in. This means that the government would know every person’s every movement.

This building-access system is already operating in Tongren, a city in central-southern China. There, all residents have their faces recorded by the local security agency, along with personal information such as age, gender, family, registered home address, employment and phone number. They are also classified as normal or abnormal.

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If the state security system, which is networked to a central database in Hangzhou on the other side of the country, flags that you have done something wrong, you can be denied entry to your own home. The system also monitors and records everyone visiting your apartment: friends, lovers or members of a faith group. And Tongren, as it so happens, is also made up of a high proportion of ethnic minorities who are disproportionately Christian.

In the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state, home has been the last refuge for Chinese people seeking privacy. That’s now gone in Tongren, and it’s only a matter of time before the whole country is monitored by a vast “neighbourhood watch” powered by artificial intelligence.

When confronted with such privacy violations, some in the West might shrug; after all, Google and Facebook also collect massive amounts of our personal information, so what’s the difference?

Well, you don’t need to ask Google for permission to get into your own house or to bring your girlfriend or boyfriend home. Facebook cannot stop you from hosting a meditation group in your apartment.

In the West, we have privacy protections and laws; incursions against that right are a bug, not a feature. The Chinese government, on the other hand, does not value or protect the privacy of people in China or anywhere else. Quite the opposite: If Beijing instructs Nuctech to send data on who has entered Canada’s embassies, then Nuctech is legally obliged to obey. That’s the risk that most of the world understands about Chinese companies with state entanglements – with the glaring exception, it seems, of Canada.

There’s not much we can do if Beijing stations Big Brother at every building entrance in China. But we’d be foolish to allow it to happen in the West.

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