Foreign firms are helping China become the world’s largest market for security cameras.

China, the world’s most populated nation, will soon become the world’s most surveilled, besting the United States as the largest market for security cameras in 2014, according to a report from Homeland Security Research Corporation (HSRC).

China’s homeland-security and public-safety funding grew from $100 billion in 2011 to $111 billion in 2012, and will reach $159 billion by 2015. HSRC forecasts that this funding will reach $257 billion by 2020, in accordance with China’s recently published Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).

The boom in surveillance expenditures partly reflects how quickly the country is growing as a commercial hub. Today, two out of three new airports built worldwide are in China, and many of these surveillance systems will be placed in these areas. The country’s public transportation system, the world’s largest, is poised to undergo a multibillion-dollar security upgrade, which will include not only cameras but also sensors to detect chemical and biological threats.

But many of the cameras will be used in public places like movie theaters and concert venues as part of China’s “Safe Cities” program, which seeks to put camera systems in more than 600 cities across the nation. For instance, in the Guangdong Province, a manufacturing center near Hong Kong, the government is constructing a million-camera surveillance system at an estimated cost of more than $6 billion. These cameras might be useful in monitoring, or possibly preempting, protests or dissident action.

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“The last three decades of dramatic economic growth in China have bred social tensions, ethnic frictions, and domestic terror, leading the central government to invest whatever it takes to defend the economic-social-political fabric of the country,” said HSRC spokesman Dan Inbar.

In 2012, about 40% of China’s $111 billion public-safety investment went to various forms of what China calls “nonmilitary” domestic surveillance, which American firms are allowed to sell to China. Among active foreign players in the Chinese security market are IBM China, FLIR, GE Security Asia, Honeywell Security Group, Tyco Fire & Security, Panasonic, Samsung Electronics, Siemens, Bosch Security, Sony, Sikorsky, Honeywell, and EADS.

The United States currently maintains an embargo to prevent the sale of “military” or “defense” equipment to China, but homeland and public-safety products aren’t considered defense products by the U.S. State Department. HSRC and the U.S. Department of Defense argue that the way China defines “defense” excludes activity that’s military in origin. —Patrick Tucker

Sources: Dan Inbar [personal interview], Homeland Security Research, homelandsecurityresearch.com

“In Beijing, ‘Smart City’ plan brings more surveillance” by Tom Hancock, Smart Planet (CBS Interactive), www.Smartplanet.com.