He who controls the cameras, controls the future. Or at least the future of Taiwan.
US policymakers are focused on a wide range of scenarios in which China would conduct an invasion of Taiwan. One of these, and one of the most likely, is a fait accompli in which China invades and isolates the island before US forces are able to respond. Given that, vital to enabling any US response would be the ability of Taiwanese leaders to conduct an insurgency that provides space for maneuverability and prevents the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from solidifying control. Yet there is a wildcard in this scenario: Taiwan’s extensive surveillance state. More specifically, there is a risk that the CCP could reappropriate surveillance infrastructure to prevent such an insurgency from occurring.
At first glance, it may seem like Taiwan is ripe for an insurgency campaign against any CCP invasion. For one, as numerous scholars have pointed out, mountainous terrain facilitates insurgent movements. Three of Taiwan’s largest metropolitan centers, Taipei, New Taipei City, and Taichung, are located in mountainous basins, and over half of the island’s terrain is mountainous—a natural geography that would make it difficult to establish control over the island. Meanwhile, cities on the eastern side such as Taitung and Hualien are effectively isolated from the rest of the island, with few roads connecting them to the west. Likewise, Taiwan’s population density, one of the highest in the world, would allow for insurgencies to disperse among the country’s urban centers, where 80 percent of residents live.
However, there is one key factor that would frustrate any nascent insurgencies—the surveillance apparatus constructed by Taiwan’s government and already in place on the island. The level of surveillance on Taiwan is extensive and penetrates deeply into Taiwanese society, and many of these systems would be difficult to undo should the CCP invade. The most obvious example of this is the level of CCTV surveillance in cities. In response to a series of high-profile robberies in 2010, the Taipei police department implemented the installation of over 11,000 cameras in Taipei. As of 2015, police across the island nation managed over 155,000 security cameras from control centers throughout the country. Taipei alone now has over 30,000 CCTV cameras, and by some accounts, the island is the third most surveilled society on earth, with one camera for every five and a half people. This high level of surveillance coverage would undoubtedly be used by the CCP to monitor population movements, track insurgents, and monitor the Taiwanese public for any indicators of resistance.
In fact, many of these cameras are in part manufactured by Chinese companies, despite an apparent blacklisting by the Taiwanese government. One report from Taiwan’s CommonWealth Magazine found that products from Hikvision, a Chinese technology company, were routinely found in CCTV cameras, including outside the Hsinchu Industrial Park, where Taiwan constructs the world’s most advanced semiconductors, and at National Taipei University. Another report found that over seven hundred private cameras in Taipei had Huawei chips and were unknowingly live streaming online.
Yet the level of surveillance extends beyond simply CCTV cameras. Taiwan received global recognition for its COVID-19 response, and rightfully so. Yet part of this response was due to government cooperation with telecommunications companies to create an “electronic fence,” which used telecommunications companies to track the movements of citizens in quarantine. It notified police when users left their quarantine areas or even for turned off their phones. While Taiwan’s digital fencing has been suspended, the mechanics for this system remain in place and could be easily reinstated by the CCP. For example, the CCP could reinstitute an electronic fence that monitors citizens who violate a curfew, as well as monitor the number of people in a specific area to identify potential protests, sending People’s Liberation Army soldiers to suppress them before they even begin.
Even before COVID-19, privacy advocates in Taiwan had already raised concern that the level of surveillance is a violation of Taiwan’s constitution. From 2015 to 2016, the Taiwanese government made nearly seventy thousand requests for digital information, including location tracking, communication records, and personal information. In some ways, this is of course beneficial to the Taiwanese government, as this system has helped the Taiwanese police investigate espionage that occurs on the island. Yet having this infrastructure in place means that it can be reappropriated in an invasion scenario, allowing for the CCP to monitor digital conversations and target attempts to organize a resistance.
Should an invasion occur, the CCP has both the means and the experience to reappropriate this surveillance apparatus to brutally repress any internal rebellion that may occur in Taiwan. Companies such as Hikvision have been essential in constructing the same type of tools that the CCP uses in the mass of surveillance of Hong Kong and Xinjiang. For example, in Hong Kong, the CCP requires users to link SIM cards to their identities, mirroring policies in China, which are then used to track movement. In Xinjiang, security cameras developed by Hikvision use facial recognition to track citizens who may pose a what Beijing’s determines to be a security threat, monitoring their behavior, including linking them to private vehicles. Infrastructure with similar capabilities is in place in Taiwan. The Taiwan Railways Administration has installed cameras using facial recognition Taiwan, and while the feature is not currently activated, the capability remains.
Some analysts argue that in the event of an invasion, the United States should take proactive measures to dismantle and destroy infrastructure that would enable CCP surveillance. However, the significant downside to this approach is a lack of discrimination which could effectively leave Taiwan digitally isolated from the rest of the world, ceding “discourse power” to the CCP. While discourse power is often discussed in the context of global discourse, it would be vital in the case of a Taiwan conflict, and for obvious reasons. Maintaining the ability to shape global opinion can influence the extent to which third-party actors are willing to provide Taiwan aid, as well as the extent to which countries would economically sanction China. Losing the ability to communicate with the rest of the world would result in an inability to articulate Taiwan’s position to a global audience. The experience of Ukraine since Russia’s February 2022 invasion is a case in point. Kyiv’s ability to broadcast Russian war crimes in Bakhmut and the abduction of Ukrainian children by Russian soldiers put Russia on a propaganda defensive, and reinforced negative public opinion of Russia’s aggression. In any Taiwan invasion, the Taiwan government must maintain the ability to present its narrative to the world.
Others might contend that even without the existing surveillance infrastructure, Chinese technological expertise and hardware would enable the CCP to independently manufacture a surveillance apparatus by bringing thousands of cameras and supporting equipment along with invading forces. However, the key to preventing an insurgency from forming would be the rapidity with which the CCP could establish this system. Taiwan’s surveillance infrastructure has been built up over years in a permissive environment. Creating a surveillance system of similar scale to Taiwan’s preexisting infrastructure would require costly manpower, manpower which might not be available or used for other purposes, and one that might be stymied by protests, rebellion, or a nascent insurgency. Far easier would be to use the existing system in place that has already been established in Taiwan.
Despite the government’s best efforts to convince people of the benefits of the system—by highlighting the impact on crime, for instance—the potential negatives severely outweigh the benefits should an invasion occur. These steps don’t necessarily have to result in the dismantling of cameras. Even simply removing cameras that have facial recognition technology or dispersing centralized camera nodes would make it more difficult for the CCP to reappropriate this technology, without markedly decreasing Taiwan’s current ability to combat crime. However, the greatest obstacle to this change may be the Taiwanese people themselves. Taiwan’s digital surveillance is largely accepted by the public and therefore remains a relatively low political priority in comparison to Taiwan’s policy toward China. For now, the Taiwanese people control their own cameras—but they should prepare for a day they may not.
Reed Bauer is a second lieutenant in the United States Army infantry. He is currently a Fulbright scholar and master’s student at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, the Fulbright Program or the United States Department of State. Thank you to the Foundation of Scholarly Exchange for their academic and financial support.
Image credit: Solomon203