By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
“We need to raise another $150,000 to reach $300,000,” May Wan announced at a dinner at the House of Hong on June 22.
A former president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Wan presides over the fundraising for the ambitious surveillance project by the nonprofit Seniors in Action Foundation (SIAF).
“With your contributions, we’re getting there,” Wan told the more than 200 dinner guests.
The project to equip Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (ID) kicked off almost a decade ago, when the SIAF, a nonprofit led by Nora Chan, raised money to put up four cameras.
But the current project involves adding dozens of new cameras and state-of-the-art technology that will eventually muster facial-recognition artificial intelligence and blanket the whole ID with electronic surveillance, making it the most monitored neighborhood in the city.
“As a police officer, I am very, very impressed,” said a Seattle police officer attending the dinner.
Some say that the equipment that will capture every protest, every car, and every individual on the streets of Chinatown is ushering in an era of authoritarianism that could ultimately destroy liberal democracy and freedom of movement, assembly, and identity.
Supporters of the project describe a neighborhood beset with crime in which homeless drug addicts casually and with impunity break down doors of honest, law-abiding merchants.
“The homeless people come over and break down the doors of businesses for a few dollars,” said a former SIAF board member, who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing his business with any contrarian publicity.
“Then the business owners have to spend thousands to make repairs,” he said.
Proponents of the project further contend it will also bring in money to a dying neighborhood.
Chan, the public face of the project and keynote speaker at the fundraising event, said it was necessary for everyone to play their part and donate in order to make the district safe enough to attract tourists.
“I’m a 73-year-old woman,” she said, “I can single handedly raise $150,000, but that’s only half. Everyone needs to work together.”
At the dinner, donations and checks trickled in, some as high as $30,000. They came both from Cantonese organizations that had been in the city for generations and also from newer mainland Chinese organizations, such as one affiliated with the Jiangnan region.
There are activists opposed to the surveillance project. They embrace a vision of Chinatown as a place of affordable housing, supported by the city government where the homeless are “our neighbors,” according to one activist who asked not to be identified because she felt she was not authorized to speak on behalf of her group, the Chinatown International District (CID) Coalition.
But proponents of the plan argue that such activists will actually bring about the destruction of Chinatown.
“Public housing will kill Chinatown,” said the former board member who asked for anonymity. “People who live there can’t afford to go out to eat.”
Instead, he argued, ensuring the safety of Chinatown will ensure the prosperity of everyone, not just merchants.
“You see, the seniors living here… they like to go out early in the morning to do exercise in the park. You think they’ll do that if the place continues to be unsafe?”
The idea of the cameras is to blanket the neighborhood with electronic surveillance that can be designed to look for a single individual, a protest, or even a specific car. The system can also be set up so the appearance of a certain troublesome individual can trigger the computer in the cameras to send an email to those in charge, alerting them of his presence.
Similar facial recognition technology has already been used in Baltimore, when law enforcement officials used it to identify members of a protest against police brutality that already had outstanding warrants out for them. Authorities were able to arrest them immediately, according to a recent article in the New York Times.
“We can arrange it to send an email if there is a protest,” said Jordan Ramadan, a representative of the company, Avigilon, that makes the system.
One of the cameras used by Avigilon was on display on the stage at the House of Hong. Gleaming white with an ominous black strip that Ramadan described as providing nighttime “infrared” vision, the monstrous globe hung over the festivities like an alien invader. Inside were four cameras that can be adjusted to zoom in, provide close ups, and pivot according to the will of the operator.
Similar technology has been used in Xinjiang in China and in other places to conduct surveillance of an entire population.
“Every entrance into and out of Chinatown will be covered,” said Ramadan, pointing to the slide.
To illustrate his point, the company traced in red a giant square around Chinatown, like a new laser-created boundary.
And yet the cameras will ultimately depend on human collaboration. They will record and monitor street activity around the clock. But if a crime is committed, it will take a human to report the crime so that technicians can pore through stored video on the servers and then supply it to law enforcement.
It was not immediately clear that many of the current residents of Chinatown would be eager to report crime to law enforcement.
At the fundraiser, members of the audience were asked to stand up and share stories about being subjected to criminal activity. Not a single person stood up, despite being offered a prize.
Finally, a former employee of the Seattle Police Department originally from China stood up and talked about graffiti on buildings and feeling unsafe walking at night.
In a subsequent brief interview, she professed admiration for Singapore.
“You can’t do anything bad because the government will catch you,” said Guanying Li, originally from Wuhan.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.