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The country is home to half of the smart cities projects worldwide – and people disagree over whether it’s a cause for concern.

Imagine a city where you can take a driverless bus to an unmanned supermarket or enter a hotel room using a facial recognition system – a place with a brain controlled by artificial intelligence, where almost all of the infrastructure and everyone in the city is monitored and linked to some kind of software.

This is not some dystopian vision of the future or a scene from a new sci-fi movie. In fact, in China, it's already happening. Located about 60 miles south of China's capital Beijing is Xiongan New Area. This former backwater is being transformed into a new high-tech smart city. Built entirely from scratch, it's one that could provide a model not only for new cities in China, but in other parts of the world. Envisioned as China's "city of the future," Xiongan's basic infrastructure is expected to be completed by 2022 and will have a population of 5 million.

Of the 1,000 smart city projects that are currently being built worldwide, China is home to half of them. Given that the smart city initiatives involve collecting large amounts of personal data, some experts are raising concerns over what's driving China's smart city boom and what the projects really mean for its citizens.

China argues it's pragmatic for it to create smart cities: The government claims it is fully engaged in implementing smart city initiatives as a way to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of its rapidly growing cities, providing citizens with improvements in transportation, communication, environmental management and crime prevention.

"China is experiencing a large-scale and fast urbanization process, which requires more modern, data-based and intelligent social governance," says Peng Sen, president of the China Society of Economic Reform, a prominent Beijing-based government think-tank.

The commitment to smart cities was firmly established by the Chinese government in its 12th Five-Year Plan issued in 2011. In the years since, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Xi'an, Yinchuan and Hangzhou have become notable examples of older urban areas that have received smart city makeovers.

In Hangzhou, a city in East China with a population of 9.47 million, a smart city system designed by Chinese tech giant Alibaba called "City Brain" has been in use since 2016. Essentially, City Brain is an artificial intelligence system that uses big data and big computing power to improve and fix traffic problems.

By monitoring every vehicle in the city, City Brain has reportedly already helped reduce traffic jams by 15%. Its creators claim it can optimize traffic for the entire city, predict where traffic jams will occur and even prevent traffic accidents by instituting preemptive traffic control and policing.

But while tech companies, authorities and city planners are all quick to praise the benefits of smart city initiatives, critics warn many citizens are woefully unaware of the impact that data collection systems could have on personal privacy.

"Smart cities are, above all, surveillance cities that enable close monitoring and management of large populations," says Vincent Mosco, a smart city expert and author of "The Smart City in a Digital World." "As a leader in smart city systems, China is subjecting its citizens to greater routine surveillance than citizens have experienced at any time in history. Sensors are now embedded throughout the urban infrastructure, in everyday home appliances, and in the devices citizens carry. These collect data 24/7 with or without the awareness and approval of citizens."

Eva Blum-Dumontet, senior research officer at Privacy International, a United Kingdom-based charity that defends and promotes the right to privacy across the world, has similar concerns.

"The collection of data without proper data protection in place means you create a power imbalance between the government that collects the data and the citizens whose data are collected," she says. "We think it's time for citizens to be reclaiming smart cities so we can have cities built for citizens and not to surveil citizens or exploit them for profit and power."

Some argue that Chinese citizens are not as bothered by these concerns as their counterparts in the West. At a panel discussion in Beijing last year, for example, Robin Li, the CEO of China's biggest search engine Baidu, said Chinese citizens are more willing to trade privacy for stability.

"I think Chinese people are more open or less sensitive about the privacy issue," Li said. "If they are able to trade privacy for convenience, for safety, for efficiency, in a lot of cases they're willing to do that."

His comments sparked a furious online backlash as Chinese netizens took to the popular microblog platform Weibo and harshly criticised him for making such a statement. The reaction suggested Chinese citizens care more about their privacy rights than previously assumed.

Mosco, the privacy expert, says that surveillance is more pervasive in China because the government insists on imposing it throughout the country and in stopping any resistance in discussing the matter with Chinese citizens. However, his research indicates that citizens in China are no more likely than those in other nations to trade privacy for security.

"I have learned that people in China resent persistent and pervasive surveillance and try to resist in small, individual ways such as by using devices that are more difficult to monitor," he says.

Fan Yang, a privacy expert specializing in Chinese smart cities, believes that smart cities are more or less just a marketing pitch that in reality are a trap to collect more data that mostly benefits authorities and tech companies.

"They always talk about how smart cities will be used for public good to solve different urban problems," Yang says. "However, for citizens, these urban problems like air pollution, smog and traffic jams still exist. Even after smart city initiatives are implemented, nothing much changes that ordinary citizens can benefit from."

Mosco agrees.

"The benefit from smart cities clearly goes to the authorities who are able to use the promise of the modern, high-tech city to extend and deepen surveillance," he says. "It also goes to the big tech companies who profit first from building the smart city infrastructure and secondly by commodifying the entire smart city space. Citizens gain some operational efficiency but at great cost to their liberty."


Autor(en)/Author(s): Matthew Keegan

Quelle/Source: U.S. News & World Report, 31.01.2020

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