.
I

t is a cliché to say, but China is an exceedingly complex country, better yet, civilization, with a deep, rich history, diverse culture, and dynamic politics. When adding on the difficulty of learning Mandarin and Cantonese, the often-dual meaning of characters, words, and phrases, and the often-opaque nature of official business and political dealings, understanding China would better be described as art and science—and something even after a lifetime of study, one suspects they would only be scratching the surface.

We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State | Kai Strittmatter | Custom House | September 2020.

This opacity and difficulty are not merely philosophical considerations but have tangible, real-world effects. How the Chinese Communist Party presents itself to the world is not how it presents itself to the Chinese people. Hierarchies and structures, when mapped against similar Western entities, present a false appearance of that which matters and where one stands in the political pecking order. Overseas organizations purporting to be cultural often mask a more direct tool of Chinese Communist Party influence, such as those coordinated or directed by the United Front Work Department. Even the very fact that the Chinese Communist Party is, in effect, a political entity with a state and China is less a state with a political party, leaves Western observers scratching their heads.

What is happening in China today is, without question, remarkable. Its economic growth and development have reshaped the global economy while Beijing’s growing power and brashness raise alarm. It is not an exaggeration to say that the competition between the United States (and more broadly, the “West”—i.e., liberal, capitalist democracies) will define the 21st Century. There is a growing body of literature that seeks to answer the question of how this competition will play out, what the outcomes could be, or how the Chinese Communist Party’s actions will affect the West but there are few that turn the lens inward and look at how the Party is shaping China’s body politic and its citizens.

Mr. Kai Strittmatter, a German journalist for Süddeutsche Zeitung and a foreign correspondent in Beijing from 1997 until recently, offers a fascinating look at how the Chinese Communist Party is seeking to create its model citizen, to create its “New Man”, and ensure Party unity and ideological purity in the 21st Century in his new book We Have Been Harmonized.

This book is about much more than the technology behind China’s surveillance state. Interesting and quite terrifying as it is, Mr. Strittmatter’s book goes beyond the disembodied machine-learning face to see how the Chinese Communist Party is fundamentally reshaping Chinese society and culture. This radical transformation is, in fact, vastly more interesting and certainly more worrisome than its technological implementation—and that is saying something.

What is ultimately most fascinating about Mr. Strittmatter’s book is that the lens is predominantly directed at China and not the remainder of the world or the United States. While the penultimate and the final chapter address the Chinese Communist Party’s actions on the international stage and suggest potential courses of action to address this outreach, it is not the thrust of the book, and that is welcomed. What the Chinese Communist Party is doing overseas (both overtly and covertly) to shape international opinion, manipulate institutions and governments, and dominate the 21st century is concerning to be sure but what it is doing at home to its citizens presage an even more alarming future.

Put simply, what is happening in contemporary China is the wholesale restructuring of not just society and the individual by the Chinese Communist Party but rather a reshaping of thought, word, and ideology, enabled by the application of technology—all of which are designed to strengthen the Party (and Xi Jinping’s position), ensure its duration, and create a New Man in Xi Jinping’s update to the model of Marx and Lenin.

While the Soviet Union sought to achieve the “New Soviet Man”, imparting its Marxist-Leninist philosophy on the masses, controlling individual thought and action, it was never able to truly implement the totalitarian vision to its desired conclusion. It certainly came close to achieving the panopticon, but technological limitations prevented it from achieving those ends. Now, however, with the advent of the Internet, the explosion of mobile smartphones and big data, artificial intelligence, and near-constant state surveillance, the Chinese Communist Party can mold Chinese citizens to Xi Jinping’s vision.

Here, the hopes that the unstoppable force of the Internet would drive China’s society to open, politically liberalize, and lead to democracy were unfounded. Much like the expectation that opening China’s economy would lead to political liberalization, Western capitals and businesses told themselves these lies, hoping that if repeated enough they would become true. While some thought that trying to control the Internet would be like “nailing spaghetti to the wall”, the Party managed to do just that. China’s “Great Firewall” worked—Western sites are censored or blocked, information and traffic heavily controlled, and attempts to circumvent those barriers become criminal. The events of 1989 and Tiananmen Square, for example, simply don’t exist within China, at least not on the Internet and, increasingly, not in the common memory.

The Chinese Communist Party aims to “unify thinking” and its propaganda arm not only formulates the Party’s message, conveying it into the “hearts and minds” of the people but also censors information—"controlling the flow of information to the people and stemming and channeling the opinions the people express”. Here it is not enough to create a message and communicate it to the public, it is fundamentally about channeling their thoughts, feelings, and emotions toward a desired end within the bounds of acceptable thinking and creating outlets for expression that are Party-approved. Damming the water would only risk overflowing the banks, but allowing waterways and spillways ensures the Party controls the flow entirely.

By defining what is acceptable and what is not, often changing it on a whim, the Party sows confusion and disrupts “the rationality and reality that give people a frame of reference”, it takes “the compass away from the nation and the world.” Mr. Strittmatter describes, in fascinating detail, the ever-evolving and changing list of banned words, phrases, and ideas, all of which are censored from China’s internet and ecosystem of communications apps. Equally, some seek to subvert this list or go around it, provoking a cat-and-mouse game, which—enabled by technology—is increasingly in the favor of the Party.

Yet, the actions of the Party, in its eyes, are not repressive. Here “there is simply ‘stability maintenance’ (weiwen) and a ‘harmonious society” (hexie shehui).’ Mr. Strittmatter’s story is replete with examples of this Orwellian double-speak. The Chinese Communist Party’s co-optation of the language of the Party’s opponents is equally alarming. Protestors in Hong Kong are not democratic activists but in fact, fighting against democracy and seeking to undermine the rule of law. Throughout the mainland, now in Hong Kong, and increasingly abroad, the Party blocks information, creates counter-narratives, and co-opts the messages of its opponents. For the West, this is obvious thanks to the free press, diversity of information outlets, and open access to the Internet. For much of the Chinese body politic, there is nothing out of the ordinary for they have little access or little interest in seeking out alternative information sources.

The Chinese Communist Party’s technologically enabled totalitarianism is truly all-encompassing. The Party’s presence is felt across the app eco-system with social media, cashless payment applications, and others quantifying good socialist behavior, such as studying Xi Jinping Thought. This is part of the much-discussed social credit score which aims to assert another level of social control, rewarding those that behave in a good socialist manner and punish those who go against the orthodoxy or simply violate norms of behavior.

Mr. Strittmatter describes the planned communities emerging with their own social credit scoring systems—if you host a socialist conversation at home: five points. If you help your elderly neighbors: five points. Fail to separate your trash from your recycling, you lose five points. It is like the homeowners’ association from hell and vastly more intrusive, providing nosy neighbors with actual metrics for one’s compliance with the HOA rules and bylaws. It is interesting to note that that there are multiple programs under development across the country and is unclear how they will merge, if at all. Yet, the result is a vast manipulation of individual behavior orchestrated by the Party to ensure compliance through incentives and punishments, like access to schools, banking, international travel, and even one’s love prospects—imagine Tinder with an ideological scoring.

It is not enough that the Party should censor or control the behavior of the individual, it is that the society should ensure conformity. Public shaming for transgressions against the Party or Chinese society is critical to force the individual to live within the bounds of acceptable socialist behavior. Here, he relates how individuals are forced to confess and apologize publicly for their transgressions against the Party. Zhang Yiming, the founder and CEO of Jinri Toutiao—perhaps the largest news aggregator in the world—offered a groveling apology for “vulgar content” that appeared on his platform and “violated the core socialist values”. This would be akin to Jack Dorsey apologizing for content that spoke ill of the Constitution. Even everyday citizens are forced to confess and publicly apologize for their slights against the Xi orthodoxy.

Taken as a whole, the Chinese Communist Party’s “intention is not to deceive, but to intimidate”. As Mr. Strittmatter writes, “the source of Xi’s power over his own ranks remains intimidation”. “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era” or more simply Xi Jinping Thought, is the doctrine and ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Not since Mao Zedong has one man had such dominance and control over the Party or, arguably, any party’s ideology. It not only dominates the Party but dominates the lives of the Chinese citizens.

Each step of the Party’s propaganda efforts is designed to control Chinese citizens’ thoughts, words, and deeds both directly and indirectly. In the case of the former, transgressions are punished through imprisonment, isolation, and disappearances. In the case of the latter, the all-encompassing nature of the Party’s surveillance and the atmosphere of fear and intimidation ensures that Chinese citizens censor themselves. Self-censorship is the beginning of the Party’s efforts, with the end goal of no longer needing to censor or intimidate the population.

How much the Party has shifted the body politic in China is simply remarkable. In one anecdote, Mr. Strittmatter relates how a fertility clinic sought donations from men who demonstrated loyalty to the Party, almost seeking the transmission of the “Red Gene” to future generations of Chinese citizens. He notes that there are already examples of Xi Jinping Thought appearing in the titles of academic papers—papers that seek to definitively prove the accuracy, value, or power of the General Secretary’s ideology.

The politicization of academics and science has a real risk of undermining the value and results of the undertaken research. How can China maintain its relentless drive in research and development, both of which require elements of openness, free expression, and intellectual freedom, when the Party’s political ideology aims to stamp out those very things? There is, however, precedent for this—the Soviet Union achieved incredible scientific breakthroughs for a time, certainly early in the life of the USSR, but the system became sclerotic and ossified. It is unclear whether the same will happen to China or if China will become the dominant power before such sclerosis sets in.

The application of technology to control the flow of information, ideas, and ideology, and to build-in conformity is alarming in and of itself. It is, however, the use of this technology to restrict the rights of and imprison a minority population that is the most frightening prospect. The world is witnessing a technologically enabled genocide with the imprisonment, re-education, and wholesale elimination of the Muslim Uyghur population in China’s western provinces. Through biometric scanning, facial recognition, and even DNA surveillance, the Chinese Communist Party is ensuring that Uyghurs cannot move, act, or live without the omnipresent eyes watching them—and an increasingly large portion, if not majority, of the population is simply imprisoned.

Mr. Strittmatter does not mince words about the Chinese Communist Party under General Secretary Xi Jinping. “It is a Leninist dictatorship with a powerful economy and a clear vision for the future.” Through its use and misuse of technology, and the adoption of Xi orthodoxy, the Chinese Communist Party today is radically reshaping the body politic of contemporary China. Never in human history has such a massive experiment in social restructuring ever been attempted or had the technology to do so. There are, of course, dissidents and opposition figures, but their impact is small, their presence is marginalized, and their lives are often shockingly short.

The potential for the export of these tools, techniques, and technologies to other authoritarian regimes, and even those that are less authoritarian, is the most alarming issue for the international community. The drive towards greater social control, enabled by advanced technologies, is the greatest threat towards the Western ideal of liberty, free expression, and the free exchange of ideas. While the West is confronting the challenge of surveillance capitalism and the omnipresence and omniscience of “Big Tech”, it risks missing the more insidious threat of state-driven surveillance capitalism as embodied by the Chinese Communist Party. Through his careful prose, insightful commentary, and deep knowledge of China, Mr. Strittmatter offers a much-needed look at an Orwellian future that is here today.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Book Review: Life in China’s Surveillance State

Photo via Pixabay.

April 17, 2021

We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State | Kai Strittmatter | Custom House | September 2020.

I

t is a cliché to say, but China is an exceedingly complex country, better yet, civilization, with a deep, rich history, diverse culture, and dynamic politics. When adding on the difficulty of learning Mandarin and Cantonese, the often-dual meaning of characters, words, and phrases, and the often-opaque nature of official business and political dealings, understanding China would better be described as art and science—and something even after a lifetime of study, one suspects they would only be scratching the surface.

We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State | Kai Strittmatter | Custom House | September 2020.

This opacity and difficulty are not merely philosophical considerations but have tangible, real-world effects. How the Chinese Communist Party presents itself to the world is not how it presents itself to the Chinese people. Hierarchies and structures, when mapped against similar Western entities, present a false appearance of that which matters and where one stands in the political pecking order. Overseas organizations purporting to be cultural often mask a more direct tool of Chinese Communist Party influence, such as those coordinated or directed by the United Front Work Department. Even the very fact that the Chinese Communist Party is, in effect, a political entity with a state and China is less a state with a political party, leaves Western observers scratching their heads.

What is happening in China today is, without question, remarkable. Its economic growth and development have reshaped the global economy while Beijing’s growing power and brashness raise alarm. It is not an exaggeration to say that the competition between the United States (and more broadly, the “West”—i.e., liberal, capitalist democracies) will define the 21st Century. There is a growing body of literature that seeks to answer the question of how this competition will play out, what the outcomes could be, or how the Chinese Communist Party’s actions will affect the West but there are few that turn the lens inward and look at how the Party is shaping China’s body politic and its citizens.

Mr. Kai Strittmatter, a German journalist for Süddeutsche Zeitung and a foreign correspondent in Beijing from 1997 until recently, offers a fascinating look at how the Chinese Communist Party is seeking to create its model citizen, to create its “New Man”, and ensure Party unity and ideological purity in the 21st Century in his new book We Have Been Harmonized.

This book is about much more than the technology behind China’s surveillance state. Interesting and quite terrifying as it is, Mr. Strittmatter’s book goes beyond the disembodied machine-learning face to see how the Chinese Communist Party is fundamentally reshaping Chinese society and culture. This radical transformation is, in fact, vastly more interesting and certainly more worrisome than its technological implementation—and that is saying something.

What is ultimately most fascinating about Mr. Strittmatter’s book is that the lens is predominantly directed at China and not the remainder of the world or the United States. While the penultimate and the final chapter address the Chinese Communist Party’s actions on the international stage and suggest potential courses of action to address this outreach, it is not the thrust of the book, and that is welcomed. What the Chinese Communist Party is doing overseas (both overtly and covertly) to shape international opinion, manipulate institutions and governments, and dominate the 21st century is concerning to be sure but what it is doing at home to its citizens presage an even more alarming future.

Put simply, what is happening in contemporary China is the wholesale restructuring of not just society and the individual by the Chinese Communist Party but rather a reshaping of thought, word, and ideology, enabled by the application of technology—all of which are designed to strengthen the Party (and Xi Jinping’s position), ensure its duration, and create a New Man in Xi Jinping’s update to the model of Marx and Lenin.

While the Soviet Union sought to achieve the “New Soviet Man”, imparting its Marxist-Leninist philosophy on the masses, controlling individual thought and action, it was never able to truly implement the totalitarian vision to its desired conclusion. It certainly came close to achieving the panopticon, but technological limitations prevented it from achieving those ends. Now, however, with the advent of the Internet, the explosion of mobile smartphones and big data, artificial intelligence, and near-constant state surveillance, the Chinese Communist Party can mold Chinese citizens to Xi Jinping’s vision.

Here, the hopes that the unstoppable force of the Internet would drive China’s society to open, politically liberalize, and lead to democracy were unfounded. Much like the expectation that opening China’s economy would lead to political liberalization, Western capitals and businesses told themselves these lies, hoping that if repeated enough they would become true. While some thought that trying to control the Internet would be like “nailing spaghetti to the wall”, the Party managed to do just that. China’s “Great Firewall” worked—Western sites are censored or blocked, information and traffic heavily controlled, and attempts to circumvent those barriers become criminal. The events of 1989 and Tiananmen Square, for example, simply don’t exist within China, at least not on the Internet and, increasingly, not in the common memory.

The Chinese Communist Party aims to “unify thinking” and its propaganda arm not only formulates the Party’s message, conveying it into the “hearts and minds” of the people but also censors information—"controlling the flow of information to the people and stemming and channeling the opinions the people express”. Here it is not enough to create a message and communicate it to the public, it is fundamentally about channeling their thoughts, feelings, and emotions toward a desired end within the bounds of acceptable thinking and creating outlets for expression that are Party-approved. Damming the water would only risk overflowing the banks, but allowing waterways and spillways ensures the Party controls the flow entirely.

By defining what is acceptable and what is not, often changing it on a whim, the Party sows confusion and disrupts “the rationality and reality that give people a frame of reference”, it takes “the compass away from the nation and the world.” Mr. Strittmatter describes, in fascinating detail, the ever-evolving and changing list of banned words, phrases, and ideas, all of which are censored from China’s internet and ecosystem of communications apps. Equally, some seek to subvert this list or go around it, provoking a cat-and-mouse game, which—enabled by technology—is increasingly in the favor of the Party.

Yet, the actions of the Party, in its eyes, are not repressive. Here “there is simply ‘stability maintenance’ (weiwen) and a ‘harmonious society” (hexie shehui).’ Mr. Strittmatter’s story is replete with examples of this Orwellian double-speak. The Chinese Communist Party’s co-optation of the language of the Party’s opponents is equally alarming. Protestors in Hong Kong are not democratic activists but in fact, fighting against democracy and seeking to undermine the rule of law. Throughout the mainland, now in Hong Kong, and increasingly abroad, the Party blocks information, creates counter-narratives, and co-opts the messages of its opponents. For the West, this is obvious thanks to the free press, diversity of information outlets, and open access to the Internet. For much of the Chinese body politic, there is nothing out of the ordinary for they have little access or little interest in seeking out alternative information sources.

The Chinese Communist Party’s technologically enabled totalitarianism is truly all-encompassing. The Party’s presence is felt across the app eco-system with social media, cashless payment applications, and others quantifying good socialist behavior, such as studying Xi Jinping Thought. This is part of the much-discussed social credit score which aims to assert another level of social control, rewarding those that behave in a good socialist manner and punish those who go against the orthodoxy or simply violate norms of behavior.

Mr. Strittmatter describes the planned communities emerging with their own social credit scoring systems—if you host a socialist conversation at home: five points. If you help your elderly neighbors: five points. Fail to separate your trash from your recycling, you lose five points. It is like the homeowners’ association from hell and vastly more intrusive, providing nosy neighbors with actual metrics for one’s compliance with the HOA rules and bylaws. It is interesting to note that that there are multiple programs under development across the country and is unclear how they will merge, if at all. Yet, the result is a vast manipulation of individual behavior orchestrated by the Party to ensure compliance through incentives and punishments, like access to schools, banking, international travel, and even one’s love prospects—imagine Tinder with an ideological scoring.

It is not enough that the Party should censor or control the behavior of the individual, it is that the society should ensure conformity. Public shaming for transgressions against the Party or Chinese society is critical to force the individual to live within the bounds of acceptable socialist behavior. Here, he relates how individuals are forced to confess and apologize publicly for their transgressions against the Party. Zhang Yiming, the founder and CEO of Jinri Toutiao—perhaps the largest news aggregator in the world—offered a groveling apology for “vulgar content” that appeared on his platform and “violated the core socialist values”. This would be akin to Jack Dorsey apologizing for content that spoke ill of the Constitution. Even everyday citizens are forced to confess and publicly apologize for their slights against the Xi orthodoxy.

Taken as a whole, the Chinese Communist Party’s “intention is not to deceive, but to intimidate”. As Mr. Strittmatter writes, “the source of Xi’s power over his own ranks remains intimidation”. “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era” or more simply Xi Jinping Thought, is the doctrine and ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Not since Mao Zedong has one man had such dominance and control over the Party or, arguably, any party’s ideology. It not only dominates the Party but dominates the lives of the Chinese citizens.

Each step of the Party’s propaganda efforts is designed to control Chinese citizens’ thoughts, words, and deeds both directly and indirectly. In the case of the former, transgressions are punished through imprisonment, isolation, and disappearances. In the case of the latter, the all-encompassing nature of the Party’s surveillance and the atmosphere of fear and intimidation ensures that Chinese citizens censor themselves. Self-censorship is the beginning of the Party’s efforts, with the end goal of no longer needing to censor or intimidate the population.

How much the Party has shifted the body politic in China is simply remarkable. In one anecdote, Mr. Strittmatter relates how a fertility clinic sought donations from men who demonstrated loyalty to the Party, almost seeking the transmission of the “Red Gene” to future generations of Chinese citizens. He notes that there are already examples of Xi Jinping Thought appearing in the titles of academic papers—papers that seek to definitively prove the accuracy, value, or power of the General Secretary’s ideology.

The politicization of academics and science has a real risk of undermining the value and results of the undertaken research. How can China maintain its relentless drive in research and development, both of which require elements of openness, free expression, and intellectual freedom, when the Party’s political ideology aims to stamp out those very things? There is, however, precedent for this—the Soviet Union achieved incredible scientific breakthroughs for a time, certainly early in the life of the USSR, but the system became sclerotic and ossified. It is unclear whether the same will happen to China or if China will become the dominant power before such sclerosis sets in.

The application of technology to control the flow of information, ideas, and ideology, and to build-in conformity is alarming in and of itself. It is, however, the use of this technology to restrict the rights of and imprison a minority population that is the most frightening prospect. The world is witnessing a technologically enabled genocide with the imprisonment, re-education, and wholesale elimination of the Muslim Uyghur population in China’s western provinces. Through biometric scanning, facial recognition, and even DNA surveillance, the Chinese Communist Party is ensuring that Uyghurs cannot move, act, or live without the omnipresent eyes watching them—and an increasingly large portion, if not majority, of the population is simply imprisoned.

Mr. Strittmatter does not mince words about the Chinese Communist Party under General Secretary Xi Jinping. “It is a Leninist dictatorship with a powerful economy and a clear vision for the future.” Through its use and misuse of technology, and the adoption of Xi orthodoxy, the Chinese Communist Party today is radically reshaping the body politic of contemporary China. Never in human history has such a massive experiment in social restructuring ever been attempted or had the technology to do so. There are, of course, dissidents and opposition figures, but their impact is small, their presence is marginalized, and their lives are often shockingly short.

The potential for the export of these tools, techniques, and technologies to other authoritarian regimes, and even those that are less authoritarian, is the most alarming issue for the international community. The drive towards greater social control, enabled by advanced technologies, is the greatest threat towards the Western ideal of liberty, free expression, and the free exchange of ideas. While the West is confronting the challenge of surveillance capitalism and the omnipresence and omniscience of “Big Tech”, it risks missing the more insidious threat of state-driven surveillance capitalism as embodied by the Chinese Communist Party. Through his careful prose, insightful commentary, and deep knowledge of China, Mr. Strittmatter offers a much-needed look at an Orwellian future that is here today.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.