The new Chinese surveillance state

Shoshana Zuboff warned us of the perils of American surveillance capitalism, and Edward Snowden of the American surveillance state.  But China’s ruler, Xi Jinping, is creating a surveillance system that leaves anything else far behind.

I recently read WE HAVE BEEN HARMONIZED: Life in China’s Surveillance State, by a German journalist named Kai Strittmatter, about how the components of the new system are now being put into place in different parts of China.

The components are:

A unified Internet service that combines the functions of a smart phone and a credit card, and allows for tracking of all electronic communication and all financial transactions.

A video surveillance system using facial recognition software that allows for tracking of all public behavior.

An artificial intelligence system capable of integrating all this information.

Algorithms that give people a “credit score” based on the government’s approval or disapproval of their behavior.

This is something like the two-way television sets in George Orwell’s 1984 and something like the East German Stasi’s real-life eavesdropping and surveillance system.

Both the fictional and the real system were limited by the human inability to keep track of everything all of the time.  The Chinese government’s hope is that advanced computer technology can overcome these limits.

At the same time, China is still an old-fashioned Soviet-style police state.  Dissidents are treated the same as in the Soviet Union in the 1970s.  The new controls do not replace the old.  Instead they are layered on top of them.

China, according to Strittmatter, is a virtually cashless society.  Payments are made through the WeChat app on the TenCent smartphone service or the Alipay app on the Alibaba service.  All transactions and all calls are monitored.

Certain words and phrases are forbidden in electronic communication. including “I do not agree,” “my emperor,” “Animal Farm” and “Winnie the Pooh”—the latter a nickname for the tall, stout, benign-looking  General Secretary Xi.

A law imposes three years in prison for anyone who posts a harmful rumor on the Internet, if it is shared 500 times or viewed 5,000 times.  There was a wave of arrests in 2013 for spreading false rumors.

Strittmatter saw a video surveillance system at an intersection that showed the faces of jaywalks on a huge screen, together with their names, home addresses and ID numbers.  These systems do not exist everywhere in China, but they are examples of what might be.

He saw a video surveillance system in a collage classroom that monitored whether students were paying attention.  It also recorded their facial expressions, which were fed into a system that supposedly could evaluate their feelings and emotions.

Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, a leading Chinese search engine company, told Strittmatter that his goal was to insert artificial intelligence into every aspect of human life.

The Chinese government plans to use this data to set up a “social credit” system which will give each Chinese person a score for “social truthworthiness.”  Strittmatter saw such a system being tested in the small city of Rongcheng.

In Rongcheng, everybody starts out with a score of 1,000.  They can increase their score by doing approved things and decrease their score by doing disapproved things.

If you have more than 1050 points, you are a Triple A citizen who is a Role Model of Honesty, and get certain privileges, such as being able to get an unsecured bank loan.

If you have 599 or fewer points, you are a D citizen, or Dishonest.  Your name will be published and added to a blacklist, which bars you from, among other things, travel by airplane or high-speed train.

Examples of bad behavior were not cleaning up after your dog, or spilling water and leaving an icy patch on a sidewalk in winter.  Examples of good behavior were helping an elderly couple move, giving a calligraphy class and organizing a sing-along of Communist revolutionary songs.  Each of these was plus or minus five points.

“Illegal religious activities” bring a penalty of 100 points.  Complaining to higher authorities about local injustices brings a 50-point penalty.  Taking a complaint all the way to Beijing results in an automatic “D” classification.

You can also be punished for “negative online behavior.”  But it is possible to earn points by spending time on-line studying “Xi Jinping thought” and passing a quiz.

This is one of many social credit pilot projects.  Some are voluntary.  But they are taking hold nationwide. In 2018, 17.5 million Chinese were barred from air travel and 5.5 million from travel by high-speed train because of their reported behavior.

The idea of creating a harmonious society by enforcing rules of behavior goes back a long way in Chinese culture.  Ordinary Chinese interviewed by Strittmatter like the idea of rewarding good personal behavior and penalizing bad behavior.

What’s concerning to many Chinese intellectuals is that system stifles criticism of corruption and misgovernment, and discourages enterprise and originality of thought.  That’s also the possibility that the system can be hacked or otherwise manipulated.

China achieved astonishing economic progress after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976,  HIs successor, Deng Xiaoping, who ruled from 1978 to 1992, was able to allow enough slack in the system to free up entrepreneurial energy and scientific and artistic creativity, yet keep control in the hands of the Communist Party and Chinese state.

President Bill Clinton and other Western leaders in the 1990s thought that China was moving in the direction of democracy, free markets and the rule of law, and that they could speed up this process by bringing China into the world economy..

Xi Jinping is tightening up of the system to prevent this from happening.  A 2013 directive calls on Communist Party members to fight against “Western values”—specifically including independent civil society, separation of governmental powers, an independent judiciary and coming to terms with history.


China’s global reach

In the early days of the Cold War, I heard the argument that the Soviet system was better than the Western system because poor people prefer bread to freedom—that is, they prefer an adequate material standard of living to the right to speak freely or vote in contested elections.

My generic answer is to ask how denying people the right to ask for bread helped them to obtain bread.  But in the case of the Soviet system, the question didn’t really arise.

In Stalin’s USSR and also in Mao’s China, hundreds of thousands and maybe millions were executed or worked to death in labor camps, while millions and maybe tens of millions starved to death as a result of bad economic policy.  The USSR in time became less totalitarian, but fell behind the West economically.

China is different.  China is a success story.  The growth of China under Deng Xiaopeng is a greater economic miracle than the recovery of Germany and Japan after World War Two.

Whether or not Xi Jinping’s policies are equally successful, China has enough economic momentum to continue its rise for some time to come.  To many, China offers an attractive model for organizing a society.

China has a strong export market in surveillance technology, which make its model easy to adopt.

The China Electronics Corporation has set up surveillance networks for the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, Strittmatter reported, while Vietnam, Uganda and Tanzania not only have Chinese technology, but have enacted laws based on the Chinese model.

In all, China has sold surveillance and Internet infrastructure to  38 countries and surveillance technology using artificial intelligence to 18 countries.

The Chinese government monitors Chinese students abroad.  It also monitors American businesses and scholars, and grants and refuses access to markets and archives based on whether their behavior is acceptable from the Chinese point of view.

As an example, Strittmatter reported that Columbia University Press in 2017 removed more than 300 academic articles and book reviews critical of China from its China Quarterly web site “to ensure that other academic and educational materials remain available to researchers in this [Chinese] market.”

This decision outraged scholars, and CUP backed down, but the pressure from China for “harmonization” remains.


China in perspective

We in the USA have created all the elements of China’s surveillance state on our own, without any influence from China. All that it would take to duplicate the Chinese surveillance state is to bring together all the separate monitoring and surveillance systems into one integrated whole.

Our government has its own world wide surveillance network, and its economic sanctions are aimed at cutting off the targets from participating in the world economy, not just denying access to our domestic markets.

It is understandable that China seems less threatening than the USA.  As the saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.

But I don’t think most people, even in cultures based on love of community and respect for authority, want to live under a system in which they are monitored every waking hour, either by officials or by algorithm.  We need to beware of becoming entangled in China’s surveillance state or setting up its equivalent ourselves.


The Art of Mind Control by Aaron Sarin for Quillette.

Who Needs Democracy When You Have Data? by Christina Lawson for MIT Technology Review.

Exposed: China’s Operating Manuals for Mass Internment and Arrest by Algorithm by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian for the International Committee for Investigative Journalism..

China Taking Big Brother to Central Asia by Yau Tsz Han for Eurasianet.

Images via B&N; HRiW; Vice; Axios.

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3 Responses to “The new Chinese surveillance state”

  1. Nikolai Vladivostok Says:

    Meanwhile in Taiwan, there is not mass surveillance to ensure proper behaviour and yet the population behaves in a much more pro-social way than on the mainland. Much less pushing, spitting, toilet avoidance and littering. A helpful and polite people, very friendly.
    There’s a bit of honey there, plus a version of Chinese civilization that was not brutalized during the Cultural Revolution. No vinegar required.

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      I appreciate your comment, since I’ve never visited Taiwan or the mainland of China myself.

      Strittmatter reported on the surprise of Chinese tourists at how the Taiwanese obey the rules of traffic, even when there’s no policeman or video camera looking on. And also how one Chinese tourist freaked out when she encountered a Falun Gong member expressing forbidden thoughts.

      Evidently the Chinese on Taiwan owe a lot to the statesmanship of Chiang Chingkuo, the son and heir of Chiang Kaishek, who managed a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy.

      It would be interesting to speculate on whether Taiwan represents a path that the rest of China could have taken and didn’t, or could still take.


  2. whungerford Says:

    Estonia has an online system for official records and government services. The intent is benign, but I suspect it might someday be misused.


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