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China’s “Smart Construction Sites”: The Latest Tool of Mass Surveillance in Tibet

There is no end to the CCP’s creation and use of new technologies to make Tibet one of the most surveilled areas of the planet.

By Tenzin Younten

October 19, 20203

A major recent development inside Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has been the development of a smart platform called “Smart Construction Sites” in housing and municipal projects. China has been strongly promoting the establishment of “Smart Construction Sites” in the TAR as a latest tool to further strengthen its intrusive mass surveillance and oppression against Tibetans. On 26 September, the Department of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of the Tibet Autonomous Region organized an on-site observation meeting of TAR’s housing and municipal engineering project “Smart Construction Site” in Lhasa city.

The “Smart Construction Site” is the creation of an intelligent service and supervision platform for housing and municipal projects in the region by using big data, machine control, and advanced technologies such as smart devices and mobile terminals. Moreover, from May 2023, the government has made it a mandatory requirement for all the eligible new housing and municipal projects throughout the region to be in-sync with the “Smart Construction Site” platform. So far, the department of the Housing and Urban-Rural Development of the Autonomous Region has reported that the platform building of the “Smart Construction Site” in seven cities and thirty-four counties in the region has been completed. 231 projects have been already connected with the platform.

Nonetheless, however grand and beneficial this region-wide construction of “Smart Construction Sites” may sound for the modernization of the TAR, there is a likelihood that Beijing will use the technology to further strengthen its Panopticon-like surveillance system in the Region. The Tibet Autonomous Region has been often referred to as one of the most surveilled places on Earth.

One of the crucial parts of the security architecture built in the TAR by Chen Quanguo during his tenure as the Party Secretary of the Region from 2011 to 2016 was an integrated neighborhood grid surveillance system combining human intelligence, real-time face-recognition surveillance footage, and big data analytic. Chen is infamously known as the architect of mass internment camps in Xinjiang. The Chinese surveillance cameras and facial racial technology is the backbone of the grid surveillance system. Strikingly, the traffic surveillance cameras are also part of the grid surveillance system used against the Tibetans.

One of the worrisome features of the “Smart Construction Site” is that with its construction, a massive number of cameras have been installed and maintained at the most populated areas and cities in Tibet Autonomous Region such as Lhasa, Shigatse (Ch. Rigaze), Lhoka (Ch. Shannan), Chamdo (Ch. Qamdo), Nagchu (Ch. Nagqu) and Ngari (Ch. Ali). Beijing is using these vast numbers of cameras installed across populated areas of the TAR through the “Smart Construction Sites” for policing and repressive purpose to further strengthen its establishment of intrusive surveillance in Tibet. Traffic cameras were also used for the same purpose. Moreover, the merging of civilian and military infrastructure for dual purpose use through the implementation of “Military Civilian Fusion” (MCF) in the TAR has rapidly increased in the past decade. The mass cameras installation with the “Smart Construction Site” has been disclosed in a tender published in May 2022 entitled “Tibet Unicom’s Smart Construction Site Camera Installation, Dismantling, and Maintenance Procurement Project 2022–2023.”

From China’s perspective, according to Hao Lidong, the Deputy Director of department of the Housing and Urban-Rural Development of the Autonomous Region, “smart construction sites” as platforms reduce the supervision costs of industry authorities, improve supervision efficiency, strengthen the management of dishonest enterprises, relieve local supervision pressure, and avoid supervisory blind spots and loopholes caused by insufficient construction. The promotion of the “smart construction sites” is part of China’s national strategy of construction of digital government and modernization of national governance system, as comprehensively dictated in the “People’s Government of Tibet Autonomous Region’s Plan for Strengthening Digital Government Construction in the Tibet Autonomous Region (2023-25).”

Beijing’s promotion of the “Smart Construction Sites” needs to be carefully understood in its context. China, since the illegal annexation of Tibet in the 1950s, has continued to employ intrusive and often oppressive surveillance systems and practices to closely monitor Tibetans in both the Tibet Autonomous Region and the other parts of what before the occupation was independent Tibet that are now in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces.

Beijing’s intrusive surveillance system and the arbitrary detention of Tibetans in detention centers go hand in hand. They serve as one of the major tools of oppression against the Tibetans. The existence of vast prisons and detention centers across Tibet has been documented in the recent report of RAND published this year.

According to the Central Tibetan Administration, the surveillance system in Tibet is solely aimed at monitoring Tibetans and conducting arbitrary arrests and detentions against activities including, but not limited to, strong expressions of Tibetan identity and culture, disapproval of governmental policies, peaceful protest, resistance against political re-education campaigns, being in possess of pictures of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, posting or sharing information on human rights violations, and maintaining contacts with Tibetans living in exile. The installation of widespread cameras surveillance through the intelligent platform “Smart Construction Sites” across the TAR is one of China’s numerous intrusive surveillance tools against Tibetans. In the TAR and other areas of pre-occupation Tibet, surveillance programs include “village-based cadre teams,” a social control system called “Double-linked Household,” mass surveillance through construction of 5 G, biometric or genomic surveillance by coercive mass DNA collection of Tibetans using Thermo Fisher’s supply of DNA kits, and many others.


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