China believes mass surveillance will help it build an ideal society

Five years ago Josh Chin was driving with a colleague outside Korla, the second largest city in China’s Xinjiang region, when he found himself on a winding dirt road. A cloud of dust formed, and when it cleared, one police car was in front of them and the other behind them.

Several officers, some of whom were carrying assault weapons, surrounded the car, signaled them to exit and questioned what they were doing in the area. After persuading the police officers to let them go, Chin asks one of them how they found him in the first place.

“We have cameras there,” Chin recalls the officer. “One of them recognized your license plate.”

Such advanced surveillance has become the norm in Xinjiang and across the country, according to Chin’s new book, “Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control,” which she shared with her Wall Street Journal colleague Liza Lin. wrote. ,

The pair, both longtime Chinese journalists, describe the creation of a dystopian police state in Xinjiang, where China, several human rights groups say, has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against mostly Muslim Uighurs and other ethnic groups. Used to be.

They write that under the guise of counter-terrorism, China is using advanced artificial intelligence, facial recognition software, DNA collection, “Big Brother” programs and other tactics to exert “total control” over the local population.

But surveillance is not limited to Xinjiang. Even in cities such as Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, China is using surveillance to create a “digital utopia” where technology helps improve everything from traffic patterns to emergency responses.

It is “a new society engineered around the power of digital surveillance,” he writes, and it is a model that China appears to be exporting to other authoritarian countries.

I recently spoke with Chin – now based in Taiwan – and Lin – who is now based in Singapore – about their new book. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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What struck you most about surveillance in Xinjiang?

Chin: The blow came in two waves. The first was that so futuristic and untested technology was being used indiscriminately on entire populations of people without hesitation or consideration of side-effects. The second came when we realized that the Communist Party was using it to revive one of the most reprehensible institutions of the 20th century – the mass incarceration of a religious minority in Gulag-style camps.

How do you compare surveillance in Xinjiang to the rest of China?

Chin: In Xinjiang, surveillance is really totalitarian. It includes every Turkic Muslim in the region. It is comprehensive and continuous, and aims to re-mold the individuals it targets. In the rest of China, Covid has complicated the picture. The pre-Covid, Xinjiang style of rigorous surveillance was reserved for half a dozen categories of people, including ex-oppositions, dissidents and the mentally ill. People outside that category mostly experienced surveillance in the context of “smart city” features, such as being able to scan their faces to pay for subway tickets. But under “zero COVID”, almost everyone in China has been subjected to strict surveillance in the form of health codes that track and limit their movements based on their performance – the way officials in Xinjiang have “conceptualized the virus”. “Tracked to get in touch with. Religious Views.

Lin: In the past 20 years, the Chinese social contract was that we would give you a higher salary and a better standard of living and that you would keep us in power. But over the past five years, with Chinese economic growth slowing, the Chinese government has realized that the old social contract is no longer working because you are about to reach a point where not everyone’s income is increasing. You are an authoritarian government, but you still need to keep your citizens happy in order to stay in power. So the new social contract outside Xinjiang, are we using all this technology to make your life better and more efficient by doing things like clearing traffic jams and helping ambulances get to hospitals faster, and you can help us Give your loyalty. And the government has always viewed Xinjiang as a place that breeds separatism. They’ve always wanted to dominate it, and with digital technology, they’ve almost found an easy way to do it.

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To what extent do you blame or attribute the role of US technology companies in the use and abuse of surveillance technology in China?

Chin: American tech companies midwifed the Chinese surveillance state from its most embryonic state in the early 2000s, and they continue to nurture it with capital and components. They’ve done it because American companies always do things: it’s hugely profitable. US chip makers say they cannot control how every single buyer uses their products, which is true. But can they work harder than that? almost certainly.

Lin: Western technology and capital have been the building blocks of China’s surveillance state. From the early years, when China was looking for a way to build its capacity, people like Sun Microsystems, Nortel Networks, Cisco, Siemens were there to sell to the Chinese police. I would describe Western companies’ sentiment towards China in its early days and even until recent years, as naive optimism and strategic corporate ignorance. Now, people are talking about the potential regulatory risks involved in trading in the market and scouring their supply chains for evidence of forced labor.

How far ahead can China monitor?

Chin: Beijing’s ultimate goal is something like a fully engineered society—one in which there is no dissatisfaction because everyone is satisfied, one that automatically course-corrects without interfering with the force of leaders. It seems they have a higher chance of ending up with something less than perfect, which would still require them to track down and punish the misbehavior. They also have huge technical and political obstacles to overcome. It is difficult to say where this will all end, but I think it is safe to say that the Communist Party is not trying to optimize its control over Chinese society.

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It seems that the Chinese public generally approves of China’s surveillance technology. To what extent do you believe that approval is the result of state propaganda?

Chin: It is extremely difficult to separate public opinion from propaganda in China. To some extent, it doesn’t really matter. State surveillance is, at heart, a propaganda project. Its purpose is to make people understand that they are being monitored along with everyone around them. It gives people a sense of security while at the same time encouraging them to modify their behavior. For the party, what matters is trust, not how people hold it.

Lynn: I went into this project thinking that state monitoring is always a very bad thing. But many Chinese people find surveillance attractive. The Chinese state media is not shy about saying how amazing surveillance is at catching criminals. Local newspapers have stories about kidnapped or missing children who were reunited with their parents because of facial recognition technology. Surveillance State is as much a propaganda project as it is a technology and infrastructure.

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