The Mandarin in the Machine

Issue Date October 2022
Volume 33
Issue 4
Page Numbers 176–80
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Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control. By Josh Chin and Liza Lin. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022. 320 pp.

China’s leaders have always been preoccupied with their demise. For them, the only thing harder than coming to power is keeping it. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), judging by word and deed, is obsessed with “stability maintenance” and the frailties that riddle its political system. When Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutal Communist regime collapsed on Christmas Day in 1989, security was tightened around Zhongnanhai, the compound that houses the CCP’s central headquarters. After the Soviet “Big Brother” drew its last breath, the Party dispatched teams of experts to Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia to autopsy the Soviet Union and determine the weaknesses and errors that had caused its collapse.

In February 2011, I witnessed China’s paranoid party-state firsthand when truckloads of security officers swarmed the swank Wangfujing shopping street and other upscale Beijing spots in anticipation of protests—the so-called Jasmine Rallies—triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings. Days earlier, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had been ousted, and China’s Public Security Bureau was on edge. The authorities banned jasmines from Beijing florists, and vendors were told to report anyone intent on buying the flower (a symbol borrowed from Tunisia’s revolution of the month before). Even now, nearly two decades since the start of the “color revolutions,” Party officials still regularly warn that they must steel themselves against possible popular uprisings that can sweep across the land. It is no small wonder that the budget for domestic security outstripped China’s military budget years ago.

About the Author

William J. Dobson is the Journal of Democracy’s coeditor and author of the book The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy (2012).

View all work by William J. Dobson

Josh Chin and Liza Lin, two veteran Wall Street Journal reporters, tell the story of the newest and most terrifying turn in the CCP’s mission to maintain its grip on power. Their deeply valuable book, Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control, details in chilling fashion how China has traded old-style, shoe-leather surveillance tools for Silicon Valley sophistication. The Stasi-style methods of workplace informants and neighbor spying on neighbor have given way to a massive data-harvesting enterprise that feeds artificial intelligence–driven technologies. China’s citizens are effectively imprisoned inside an algorithmic bubble. In this vision, no more does the Party need to content itself with chasing dissidents before they inspire thousands or go to ground. Rather the goal is to harness the power of big data to predict and identify those people most likely to pose a threat to the Party—before they act. China’s people are reduced to “a digital lineup of more than a billion people,” and the whole of human society exists as a massive engineering problem where behavior can be “standardized.” In this real-life, tech-fueled dystopia, the CCP seeks nothing less than the reprogramming of society.

It is almost as though Beijing has reimagined its citizens as customers of China, Inc. The Party has placed itself in the role of an amalgamated Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Venmo, and Google, but with the overweening repressive power of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful political organization in the world. If the regime can hoover up enough data on everyone—their habits, histories, and hopes—then it can anticipate the demands of its citizens ahead of time. If you know what people want even before they do, then why would they ever desire a say in their own governance? Behaviors can be rewarded or penalized based on how they align with the Party’s priorities. The tug-of-war between freedom and repression dissolves with optimization, and dissent becomes a nonsensical glitch to be deleted.

The CCP’s algorithmic-driven formula produces two very different worlds, and Chin and Lin chart a course into each. The first is the prison state, the Panopticon of social theorist Jeremy Bentham’s vision, where the many are under the surveillance of the few. Today this is most terrifyingly brought to life in the northwest province of Xinjiang, where the Party, in its campaign against supposed separatists and extremists, has opted to suffocate the Uyghurs and their way of life.

To feed the regime’s appetite for even the smallest details, Party functionaries visit every home to catalogue the inhabitants, ask about their habits or beliefs, and take note of the titles that rest on their bookshelves or the photographs from their last family vacation. Thousands of prefabricated police outposts—called “convenience police stations” because they offer reading material, cough drops, and a charging station for smartphones—crop up across city blocks. Security gates ensure that no one can walk far without having their ID cards and faces scanned. Metal fences and razor wire funnel drivers and pedestrians into narrow corridors for easier inspection.

And, of course, there are the cameras: long “rifle-style” models that zoom in on their targets in high-def detail; infrared lenses for night vision; wide-angle versions that follow people down the street; drones, armed with facial-recognition technology, that patrol more remote stretches. Against the backdrop of this dark security-scape, neighborhoods empty, familiar sounds and smells disappear, and people begin to vanish. Some Uyghurs are seized from their homes in nighttime raids. Most are simply told to report to neighborhood police stations, where they are bused away by the thousands to “reeducation” camps. “Sidewalks that had previously swarmed with crowds on weekends became lonely expanses of concrete where scattered footsteps seemed to land with an echo,” write the authors (p. 5).

But if the Party has created this extreme, there also exists another. For China’s wealthy and upwardly mobile, life resembles something more akin to a consumerist utopia, where the Party strives to offer easy convenience, smart efficiency, and frictionless living. The denizens of high-end Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are never far from the prying eyes of the Party, but the web of sensors and surveillance is meant to make their lives easier. It cuts down on traffic congestion and illegal parking, and helps ambulances get to the scene quickly. Businesses that leave their deliveries on the sidewalk too long get a screenshot telling them to clear the path. Everyday annoyances such as mis-parked bicycles or piles of garbage on streets or sidewalks are recorded, and repeat violators can be publicly shamed by the authorities via WeChat, a Chinese social-media platform. The expansion of 5G mobile internet networks will open new data streams that could allow city planners to keep even closer tabs on retail sales, food consumption, air quality, or foot traffic.

Both poles of the surveillance state—the dystopian police state of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi or the effortless comforts of Hangzhou—are testaments to the regime’s insecurity. Because as surely as the Party fears disgruntled Uyghur separatists in the far west, so too does it worry about the restless expectations of its burgeoning middle class. The ambition behind the Party’s new technological machine is to make a tool that can seamlessly “terrorize and remold” those who would question it and “coddle and reassure” those who are willing to accede to the Party’s power (p. 127).

The reader who is not yet terrified by the breadth and ambition of the Chinese surveillance state is not paying attention. The Orwellian architecture, once built, will not be easily contained. Chin and Lin do a fine job of sketching how deeply implicated Western capital and know-how are in the creation of these invasive tools. Repressive technologies developed and perfected in the laboratory of China’s persecution of the Uyghurs will enter the technological bloodstream of democracies. The authors show how the rivers flow both ways. India has already rolled out facial-recognition technology to identify demonstrators marching in protests. U.S. law-enforcement agencies currently deploy a full suite of surveillance tools, and it will test U.S. democracy to guard against such instruments being put to broader and more sinister use.

Of course, when it comes to China, there are limits to what its newfound surveillance machine can achieve. Those who fear an all-knowing, omnipresent, AI-engineered Chinese surveillance state should temper their alarmism. The CCP may vacuum up vast troves of data on their citizens and their every move, but as Chin and Lin remind us, bureaucratic infighting and fiefdoms keep officials walled off from much of it. Despite the best efforts of the high-tech gambit, the government’s data are scattered among thousands of government agencies that do not communicate easily with one another. The officials and the systems that they oversee are not stitched together into a smooth, operating whole. More significantly, local Chinese officials actually have incentives to sabotage the surveillance machinery, lest it expose their failings to higher ups. For a system built on censored truths, the appearance of stability is often more important than actual stability for local officialdom. Tension between officials on the periphery and mandarins at the center is as old as China itself, and no algorithm has solved for that.

Despite the novelty of the CCP’s technological apparatus, there is something highly familiar about it. The Party’s history is littered with hubristic schemes—the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the one-child policy, a string of pernicious campaigns intent on measuring one’s “socialist purity”—that aimed to bend China and its people to the CCP’s will. They have almost always come up empty, usually with disastrous unintended consequences. The pragmatism that marked the Deng Xiaoping era, and that was carried forward by his immediate successors, is giving way once again to an audacious faith in the Party’s ability to engineer its favored outcomes. This, coupled with Xi Jinping’s increasingly personalistic rule, does not seem like a recipe for success.

After Deng, for a brief time, the CCP permitted other sources of information to filter to the top. There were small openings for investigative journalism—especially of the financial sector—and limited experiments in more participatory forms of governance. There was a space for grassroots civil society, especially if it was of a nonpolitical stripe and worked in concert with the state’s goals. Under Xi, these crevices have closed. Today, it is not hard to imagine the regime putting excessive faith in the truth-telling potential of an algorithm, which will work until the data, the inputs, the best calculations for how people should respond, fail them. And then the Party’s surveillance tools may be worth nothing more than a front-row seat to the chaos that ensues.

No one should take for granted the reporting that forms the spine of this book. Reporting in China today is difficult, sometimes dangerous, work; reporting on the secretive apparatus that undergirds the CCP’s digital authoritarianism is doubly so. Chin and Lin are fair and unflinching, and they rest their insights on the facts they gathered. That in itself makes Surveillance State a significant contribution to our understanding of what may prove to be a crucial moment in the arc of modern China.

The CCP’s most effective tool, as the authors point out, may still not be a technological one. While it no doubt has a serious intent, the Party may be making a show of its surveillance sophistication, in part, as a propaganda play. Because you do not need to surveil everyone if everyone thinks that they are being surveilled. Here, Chin and Lin offer us a sober reminder of what China’s surveillance state is and is not. We, too, should remember the limits of its grasp.


Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press

Image Credit: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images