China: The Techno-Totalitarian Leviathan
Apple has removed from its App Store a smartphone app used by Hong Kong pro-democracy activists to crowdsource the location of protesters and police, after Chinese state media suggested the tech giant was aiding “rioters.”
Apple initially rejected the app last week, saying that it “encourages an activity that is not legal,” and allows users to “evade law enforcement,” according to its developers.
So, what do you think? Do you believe that American tech companies — and American companies in general — will risk the immense revenue they get from the Chinese market to stand up for liberal democratic values? Or will they capitulate, and lie to themselves and to the public about what they’re doing. Here’s Alan Jacobs with a comment.Excerpt:
I thought this day was coming, but I didn’t expect it to come so soon. I don’t believe Beijing expected it to come so soon either: the Chinese authorities were playing a long game, biding their time and building their power, and I do not think they were relishing an immediate confrontation with Western capitalism. But the Hong Kong protests forced their hand. Beijing clearly perceives these protests as an existential threat, and have decided that the moment has come to go all-in. They have pushed all their chips into the center of the table … and the capitalists immediately folded like a Chinese-made lawn chair.
NBA officials are bowing and scraping to Beijing and begging forgiveness while trying to tell Americans that they’re not really apologizing. (Adam Silver says he’s not apologizing for Daryl Morey’s exercise of free speech, but then what is he apologizing for?) ESPN/Disney is muzzling its employees. Apple is banning apps that Beijing wants banned, for whatever reason.
Jacobs says that it would take Apple a very long time to rebuild its supply chain outside of China. It’s clear that if Beijing says, “Jump,” Apple will say, “How high?” All these American capitalists are bullshi**ers. You have to see the quote Jacobs has from a former NBA league president about money and “social responsibility” — and you have to read the questions Jacobs poses about a conflict these woke weaklings are likely to face. His entire post is here.
The book to read right now — the book that every American should read, without delay — is We Have Been Harmonised: Life In China’s Surveillance State, by the German journalist Kai Strittmatter. I finished it this morning, and let me tell you, reading it is something close to a red-pill experience. I thought I had a pretty good handle on how extensive China’s surveillance state was. I was wrong. It’s much more extensive than I realized. And what’s more, reading this book made me realize that the dystopian Western future I’ve been thinking about all year — “soft totalitarianism” is the phrase I use — is not speculative science fiction. It already exists in China. We have the technology to institute it here in America. What we lack — for now — is the will. That could easily change. The system is so entrenched in China that I can’t imagine how anybody could resist it. It is not yet in place here. We can’t even begin to act against it happening here until we understand what is possible.
Kai Strittmatter (henceforth, KS) writes about how China has disproven one dogmatic belief of the Internet theorists: that the Internet cannot be controlled. Of course it can be. If the State wants to close off a country to the rest of the world, it can do it. If it wants to control the Internet within its own borders, that is also possible. What China is showing now is that it will exercise its economic soft power to control the discourse in other countries.
Take a look at this passage:
In a post on the messaging service WeChat (Weixin) – swiftly deleted – the sociologist Sun Liping from Beijing’s Tsinghua University identified three techniques for ‘mind control’. One central technique is the control of news sources: ‘The meal you cook can never be better than the rice you cook it with.’ The system successfully blocks information from outside and replaces it with ‘patriotic education’. Hence, for example, the ubiquitous narrative in which China’s ‘special national circumstances’ have made the country into a unique place unlike anywhere else in the world, and which requires the Party to rule in the precise way China’s subjects are currently experiencing. Secondly, the system starts building the parameters for your thought when you’re very young, changing the way in which you ask questions and steering you into predetermined channels. Once you have swallowed and internalised what the Party has fed you, says Sun Liping, you can’t even ask certain questions: they lie outside your realm of experience and powers of imagination. And thirdly, the system inspires the kind of fear that suppresses awkward questions: ‘If you don’t swallow all this, you’ll be punished.’
The Chinese Communist Party is doing this in China, using the Internet. You don’t have to have much imagination to see how this same kind of thing is possible in the US. This does not require a police state. What if Google and other key sources of online information stopped allowing people to access sources of information that contradicted whatever Silicon Valley had decided was the Official Line? This “safe space” mentality that generations of American schoolchildren — and in particular those who grow up to attend elite US universities — have been schooled in changes what they are willing to tolerate, and the questions they allow themselves to ask. And cancel culture shows what happens to you when you dissent.
The Internet never forgets. The information about your thoughtcrimes is stored away somewhere, and will be forever. In China, they are open about what they do. In the US, it’s creeping up on us.
In China, says KS, people don’t really object to this control:
As long as social controls and intimidation go hand in hand with material rewards, and people are encouraged into consumerism. As long as they have the feeling that they’re enjoying more freedom than ever before.
This is what we too are becoming. Imagine trying to convince someone a decade ago to put into their homes a speaker that records their conversations and shares them with a major corporation. People would think you were crazy. Well, guess what: that’s what smart speakers do, but people accept them because they’re fun, and they offer the consumer more comfort and “freedom.” As of February 2019, 66 million smart speakers had been sold in the US. This is the new normal. And as Shoshanna Zuboff has documented in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Americans are becoming accustomed to having companies surveil them, because that’s just what you do. Your “smart” appliances watch what you do, and send the data back to the company, which uses that data to sell you more things. Nobody cares anymore. You feel powerless in front of it. In China, that’s because the police state mandates it. In our case, the government isn’t pushing this; it’s big business, and we’re fine with that. Chinese people may be more culturally accustomed to an authoritarian regime, because that’s all they’ve known. Here, our individualism and consumerism renders us prostrate before the demands of capitalism.
Check this out:
He spoke of the nationalistic and militaristic education system that the Party had rolled out across the country in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, which was now being developed further under Xi Jinping. It was having the desired effect, the painter said. ‘People born in the 1980s and afterwards are hopelessly lost. The brainwashing starts in nursery school. It was different for us. They called us a lost generation because schools and colleges were closed back then, and many of us were denied an education. But in reality we were probably the lucky ones. We fell through the cracks. The brainwashing didn’t get us. Mao was dead, and everyone was desperate for China to open up, for reform, freedom.’
David tells me that he sometimes gives them English books to read in his lessons, especially works of history, and sometimes articles from the New York Times. ‘But they look at me helplessly. Their thinking isn’t joined up any more, they don’t have any background knowledge.’ This is a generation who with just a few more clicks could access all the information in the world. But they don’t do it. They don’t want to.
‘My students say they haven’t got time. They’re distracted by a thousand other things,’ says David. ‘And although I’m only ten years older than them, they don’t understand me. They live in a completely differentworld. They’ve been perfectly manipulated by their education and the Party’s propaganda: my students devote their lives to consumerism and ignore everything else. They ignore reality; it’s been made easy for them.’
Censorship doesn’t just work because the regime makes it difficult to access free information: ‘Rather, it fosters an environment in which citizens do not demand such information in the first place’.
Do I really have to explain how our own distracted youth, who have been given no sense of history by this culture, and no strong religion, and therefore no ground on which to stand outside the consumerist culture and judge it, are just as vulnerable? We don’t see it because we don’t live in a police state. That’s what’s so unnerving about KS’s book: everything that has been perfected in China already exists here, in a rougher version.
China is much farther along in deploying artificial intelligence and related technologies for the sake of social control. In China, facial recognition software is so advanced that people use their faces to pay for things all the time. It makes life so secure and convenient. But:
The cameras can do more: they report when a face turns up at a particular place – a bus stop, for instance – with suspicious frequency. ‘That could be a pickpocket,’ says Xie. At SenseTime, a few blocks away, they also demonstrate how the cameras analyse crowds. The system can tell when a lot of people are gathering, says the company’s spokeswoman Yuan Wei. And when a lot of people are about to gather. The algorithm can also see when a lot of people are moving in one direction, while a single individual is going against the flow. ‘The system then identifies this person as abnormal,’ says Yuan Wei. And it sounds the alarm.
When he says “the system” identifies a person as abnormal, he means that the machine does it. It doesn’t require a human being to have eyes on the potential dissident. AI takes care of it for you.
The cost of consumer convenience:
Two apps, Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay, have split the market for cashless payments between them – and the Chinese love them. An entire population has switched to mobile payment in record time. Hardly anyone uses debit or credit cards any longer – and nobody carries cash. In 2017, the Chinese used their phones to make 17 billion US dollars’ worth of transactions. That year, over 60 per cent of all cashless transactions worldwide took place in China. I could pay with WeChat in the snack bar in my side-street, the greengrocer’s, the hairdresser, and use it to buy noodle soup for the equivalent of £1.30. Eventually, people started giving me funny looks when I reached into my trouser pocket for cash. In Beijing, even the beggars now use barcodes, which passers-by can scan using WeChat to make their small donation.
At a courthouse in the Haidan district of Beijing, you can use WeChat to submit files and pay fees. The identity of the person submitting is confirmed via facial recognition.105 And in December 2017 the state press announced pilot projects in 26 cities to test WeChat as a state-recognised, electronic social-security identification and ID card. It’s the dream of every lazy citizen. It’s also the dream of the surveillance state, which gets news of its citizens’ every move and every transaction delivered for free in real time.
It’s the dream of every lazy citizen. Good thing we Americans aren’t lazy, that we would rather live in a more difficult way, as long as it preserves our privacy and liberty. /sarcasm off
Behold, the future:
Middle School No.11 in Hangzhou drew enthusiastic attention from the press in 2018 when it had ‘eyes in the sky’ installed in every classroom: surveillance cameras with a continuous view of every student.113 ‘They are all-knowing eyes; nothing gets past them. As soon as someone nods off or starts daydreaming, he is captured on the spot, using facial recognition,’ said an article on Sina.com.
According to the article, the cameras not only capture how often during the eight-hour school day a student’s mind wanders; they also they also ‘analyse facial expression and mood – whether someone is happy, sad, annoyed or reluctant – and send the data straight to a terminal that analyses the student’s attitude to learning. The system really does have magic powers.’
The school has long since done away with the school card that students used to use for the canteen or the library. ‘Students scan their faces to get food, they scan their faces to buy things, and they scan their faces to borrow books.’ Big data and facial recognition, according to the report, are helping ‘students to study more efficiently.’
A student named Xiao Qian admits that he used to be a bit lazy in the lessons he didn’t enjoy as much: ‘You might close your eyes for a minute or read another school book under the desk.’ With the eyes in the sky, those days are gone: ‘Now you feel the gaze of a pair of mysterious eyes on you constantly, and no one dares to go off-task any longer.’
In some districts you have to install a state-monitored GPS transmitter in your car, if you own one. You can only buy petrol once your face has been scanned at the petrol station and the system has declared you harmless. In every city, town and village, cameras follow your every move. If you’ve been identified as a potential troublemaker, then in some places the cameras will send an alert as soon as you stray more than 300 metres outside the ‘safe zone’ that has been designated for you. If you own a mobile phone, you must install the Jingwang (‘clean net’) app on it. This app has access to the content of your phone and, according to the government, is supposed to ‘prevent people from accessing terrorist information’. It detects all ‘damaging information’ and ‘illegal religious activity’ in the form of text messages, e-books, websites, images and videos, and automatically reports them to the authorities.
At the countless police checkpoints you have to pass through several times a day in this province, officers scan your face with their smartphones, then check your phone to see if you really have downloaded Jingwang. If you buy a kitchen knife, a QR-code assigned to you will be stamped on the blade at the point of sale.119 The authorities know how often you go to prayers, whether you have friends or relatives abroad, and whether you know anyone who has been to prison. All this is stored on your file, along with your finger prints, your blood group,scans of your iris and samples of your DNA, which the government takes at free health check-ups without informing you of what will happen to them. (The construction of the police force’s DNA database relies on technology provided by the American company Thermo Fisher, as the New York Times recently revealed.) The sum of all this information determines whether you are permitted to stay in hotels, rent a flat or get a job. Or whether you end up in one of the many re-education camps set up all over the province.
KS writes about how China is in some cases extending its Social Credit System mentality to foreigners. Want to do business in China? Better not do anything to offend the Chinese government. That factory you have in Shenzhen is nice; it would be a shame if something happened to it. The capacity and the will to monitor a person’s presence online and in social media exists in China. Under China’s system, if a Chinese citizen is connected socially with another citizen with a low social credit score, it will cause their own social credit score to go down. What if an American business executive puts a Facebook post up about a documentary about the Dalai Lama they saw, and liked. That will get them in trouble with China, if the Chinese are monitoring their account.
Think it won’t happen? Last year, a US employee of Marriott was fired after the Chinese raised hell over his having simply liked, from a Marriott Twitter account he was working, a tweet by a Tibetan separatist group thanking Marriott for calling Tibet a country. The Chinese don’t allow Twitter in China, so no Chinese citizens (except those overseas) could have seen the tweet. Doesn’t matter. That’s how Beijing rolls. We have seen this week how much power the Chinese have over the NBA.
Finally, KS writes:
We are witnessing the return of totalitarianism in digital guise. The People’s Republic of China has always been a dictatorship. But it was only for a few years under Mao that it was a totalitarian state, which tried to creep into every last corner of its subjects’ brains, its eye watching over their bedrooms and their closest relationships. The new totalitarianism will be much more sophisticated than the versions that Mao and Stalin gave us, with undreamed-of possibilities for access and mind- control, now that we have all stored our minds in smartphones – now that we record every step we take and every thought we think digitally. Best of all, the new totalitarianism has the luxury – unimaginable in the past – of being able to dispense with terror as an everyday tool. It’s enough if the violence remains at a subliminal level, as an ever-present threat. In this way the new regime insinuates itself, quietly and imperceptibly at first, making citizens into its accomplices.
‘Wouldn’t it be the best of all worlds if, in a few decades, we didn’t have to talk anymore about the system and its rules?’ Zhao Ruying asked me. She is the department head in charge of implementing the Social Credit System in Shanghai. ‘We may reach the point where no one would even dare to think of committing a breach of trust, a point where no one would even consider hurting the community.’ She beamed with delight at the thought. ‘When we reach this point, our work will be done.’ Then the new man will have been born.
Please, take my advice and read We Have Been Harmonised. It’s important. I was pleased to see that Strittmatter, at the end, points out that everything he identifies as part of the techno-totalitarian present in China is already happening here in the West, in a more rudimentary way, usually connected with commerce, not the state. We have the freedom now to set clear limits, via the law, on what corporations, institutions, and the state can know about us through technological means. But we won’t even think about doing it if we keep sleepwalking, and mindlessly handing over our privacy to Big Data.
The portrait of China in We Have Been Harmonised has given me a big boost on my current book project, which is to interview people who lived through Soviet-style totalitarianism, and get advice from them about how to recognize and resist totalitarian means and the totalitarian mindset. In China, it’s almost certainly too late. The state already knows everything about you, and can stamp out any resistance before it has the ability to coalesce. The people raised in such a society won’t even think about liberty, because they will have been conditioned to be obedient — not out of fear, mostly, but because you will not be able to do anything in China without compromising yourself. Using the predictive powers of AI, the Chinese state will know that you might be about to do something “wrong” even before you become aware of it — and the state will intervene to stop you. This is not Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report”; this is China today.
Will it be us tomorrow? It might well be. Again, read this book. There is no reason to believe that what happens in China will stay in China. As KS points out, the Chinese are already selling surveillance-government franchises to cities in Africa and Latin America. The Chinese Communist Party is making their entire country a “safe space,” and deploying the most advanced technology to make it happen. Mao could only have dreamed of what Xi has accomplished.