I was recently treated to a small taste of the real China. It was in the incongruous setting of a vast conference centre in east London, directly under the flight path of City airport. On assignment for the BBC, I found myself wandering the stalls of Europe’s largest international security technology exhibition, filming for a new series on criminal justice.
As soon as I arrived in the main exhibition hall with the production team, we were greeted by roving cameras, high-definition displays, drones and every variety of audio and video surveillance kit. All bar a handful of stands were manned by Chinese representatives, smiling politely, if somewhat stiffly, as we approached them.
An enthusiastic Chinese saleswoman proudly demonstrated a surveillance system more sophisticated and frightening than I could have imagined. She talked me through it. High-definition cameras are mounted on buildings, on cars, in buses, on police officers’ jackets, helicopters and, naturally, on drones hovering in the sky, which create a surveillance net the likes of which take us far beyond anything George Orwell ever imagined. Just as tear gas is fired on the streets of Hong Kong, the Chinese have brought a whole new level of surveillance technology right here in Britain.
The cameras on display didn’t just shoot video, a function of childlike simplicity. Facial recognition was not even an optional extra, but very much standard; almost all of the equipment came with the capability to recognise and monitor the behaviour of every person, whether they like it or not.
Thermal imaging was another function on offer, alongside motion tracking, night vision and directional microphones. ‘It could help predict someone having a heart attack,’ I was told. ‘Or predict that they may be up to no good?’ I asked.