While we discuss data, 5G, and tracing apps, a book by Kai Strittmatter on how the CCP dreams to keep the entire world under surveillance may help.
by Massimo Introvigne
A timely book
The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the international conversation on issues such as 5G, apps tracing where we are and what we do, and data storage in China by Western companies. For those taking decisions in democratic countries, it would be a good idea to read a book published in German in 2018 and in English in 2019 by a German journalist with a long experience of China, Kai Strittmatter.
The book, We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State (London: Old Street Publishing) may be dismissed by some readers because of Strittmatter’s open display of partisan political opinions about the West. He accuses President Donald Trump and several other Western leaders to use technology to spread fake news, just like their Chinese counterparts do. Obviously, the situation is not the same. Yes, some politicians lie everywhere, but in the U.S. or Europe there is a vigorous free press eager to contradict any statement by those in power. In China, those who contradict Xi Jinping go to jail or “disappear.”
The book is so good about China, however, that readers are advised to overcome their possible disagreement about U.S. or European politics. Strittmatter describes Xi Jinping’s China as the perfection of totalitarianism. Stalin and Mao dreamed to keep their citizens under surveillance 24/7. They did not succeed, for the simple reasons that they lacked the technology. Xi Jinping’s chances “are much better,” and he is building “the most perfect surveillance state the world has ever seen. Ideally, one where you can’t even see the surveillance.”
Just as other recent books by scholars, We Have Been Harmonised starts by debunking the idea that Xi Jinping is organizing a state on the basis of traditional Chinese values: “these norms and values are not ‘Chinese’—they are the norms and values of a Leninist dictatorship.” It is also false that Chinese are not capable of democracy because of something peculiar in their ethnicity and history. Strittmatter suggests to those buying such propaganda in the West a quick trip to Taiwan, where they will discover a vibrant Chinese democracy.
The book, then, presents a rich array of essential facts. For the first time in Chinese history, under Xi Jinping the budget devoted to internal security outstripped the budget for national defense. Under the banner of the anti-corruption campaign, Xi has first created a regime of surveillance and terror directed at party cadres: according to the CCP’s own statistics, 243 high Party officers committed suicide in recent years. Later, the campaign extended to all Chinese. Xi revived the Cultural Revolution practice of self-criticism and public confession by the accused, this time live on the Internet and television. Those reluctant to confess are persuaded through “electric shocks, burns, maltreatment of sexual organs, and sleep deprivation.” If they still resist and prefer to go to trial, they face courts that have a conviction rate of 99.9%. If lawyers try to seriously defend them, they are also jailed and tortured.
All this is supported by such a massive propaganda that, Strittmatter reports, a certain percentage of the population ends up believing the most absurd fake news. Not only the media under Xi Jinping lost the small areas of independence they had before him, the CCP also controls movies, videogames, and popular music. Popular rappers are compelled to sing songs featuring lyrics such as, “We all know the original vision and mission of the CCP / It works tirelessly for the happiness of the people.” And a leading videogame company had to produce and promote a game called “Excellent Speech: Clap for Xi Jinping,” where to win one should applaud the leader more enthusiastically than the competitor. The company claims that in just 24 hours after its release, gamers had already given to Xi Jinping more than a billion claps.
Xi Jinping’s predecessors were afraid of the Internet. Xi, Strittmatter argues, loves it. One of his titles used by CCP propaganda is “the wise man of the Internet,” and in 2012 he launched the campaign to “win back the commanding heights of the Internet,” not only in China but internationally. An army of millions of trolls (popularly called in China “fifty cents,” as they used to be paid half a Yuan for every online comment) were recruited to access social media and other Web sites, including those officially banned in China, and spread Xi’s propaganda in all languages. In Chinese language only, it was calculated that the “fifty cents” posted more than 448 million pro-CCP messages on social media in one year. Chinese are encouraged to use WeChat for their private conversations, but are also told that “the State reads your messages,” so you had better beware.
The real “Chinese dream” of Xi Jinping is to achieve a perfect control through artificial intelligence. The Chinese system of facial recognition is already better at recognizing faces than even the smartest human beings. At the time of Strittmatter’s writing, China already had a data base of 1.5 billion faces, including not only (almost) all Chinese citizens, but also “every foreigner who has passed through China’s border.” Once in the system, the technology can recognize you for life, and “masks, hats, sunglasses, even plastic surgery present no problem.”
A huge number of surveillance cameras, doubled in Xinjiang and other “risky” areas, continuously photograph, and identify through facial recognition, all Chinese citizens. Their movements are coordinated with credit card and bank records, “medical histories, takeaway orders, courier deliveries, supermarket loyalty card numbers, methods of birth control, religious affiliations, online behaviour, flights and train journeys, GPS movement coordinates and biometric data.” A Dutch expert found in early 2019 data about Xinjiang inadvertently parked in an unprotected cloud, and discovered that in 24 hours 6.7 million pieces of information had been collected about 2.5 million Uyghurs.
Paradoxically, the only way of salvation for the Chinese is corruption. The CCP gathers your data, but a corrupted officer may erase or alter them for money, which explains why members of persecuted religious movements are still able to get passports and escape abroad.
These data in China are used to fuel the social credit system, a creation Xi Jinping is particularly proud of. Each Chinese citizen starts with 1,000 points at adulthood, as an A citizen. With more than 1,030 points, you can become a double-A citizen, or even ascend to the model status of triple-A with more than 1,050. But you can also be downgraded to B, C (under 849 points) or D (under 599). A law of 2016 provides that C and D citizens (and, to some extent, B) can no longer fly, board high-speed trains, be connected through high-speed Internet, or enter the best hotels and restaurants. In 2018, 17,5 million Chinese were denied access to planes because of their low social credit status. While neighbors may be alerted about the presence of a B, the names and pictures of C and D “appear on large screens” in their cities and villages, and they are publicly shamed.
Incredibly, the Chinese social credit system has been defended by some in the West as a way to guarantee a needed and scarce resource, trust, by allowing the business community to immediately identify those who have a history of fraud or dishonest practices. However, Strittmatter notes that the maximum deduction, 100 points, is applied not only to those convicted of serious crimes, but also to those who have attended “illegal religious activities” or have commented on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, or Xinjiang in a way regarded as not supporting the CCP line.
From China to the world
The “Chinese dream” Xi Jinping talks so much about is not limited to the perpetual surveillance of the citizens of the People’s Republic. Xi dreams of a surveillance extended to the whole world.
He has started with opponents, real or imaginary. Strittmatter tells of how British civil rights activist Benedict Rogers was kept under surveillance; his friends, neighbors, and even his mother in Dorset were identified and received slanderous letters about him. The New Zealand sinologist Anne-Marie Brady, who had exposed the propaganda activities of the United Front abroad, received death threats. “Her house and office in Christchurch were broken into several times,” and “someone broke into her garage and her car was found to have been tampered with.”
When an executive from the German car manufacturer Daimler posted on Instagram a spiritual thought by the Dalai Lama, totally unrelated to China, Tibet, or politics, he was immediately identified. Threats to suspend commercial relations with China were issued to his company, which had to apologize for what it called the “extreme error” of his manager. Publishers such as Cambridge University Press and Springer also accepted to withdraw texts critical of the CCP in order not to lose access to the lucrative Chinese market for scholarly publications. Pro-CCP academics are generously funded, but those who criticize the Party are banned from receiving visas: “for many Sinologists, that would mean the end of their careers.” In international universities the Confucius Institutes, where they exist, also agitate against academics perceived as anti-CCP.
Xi Jinping wants you
Xi Jinping, however, is not happy about keeping watch outside China on opponents only. Ideally, he would like to gather data on everybody. He offers the “Chinese model” to all countries, in two different ways. First, some governments agree to cooperate with China in implementing similar surveillance systems and even sharing data. Russia is mentioned by Strittmatter (and, interestingly enough, the Russian Orthodox Church), as well as Ethiopia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Zimbabwe. The latter became the first country to store data on all its citizens in China. Other countries are courted. A European diplomat told Strittmatter that, “with countries like Hungary and Greece, China is now practically sitting round the table in Brussels” at the European Union—and that (my comment, not Strittmatter’s) was before Italy signed the Belt and Road agreement and politicians with strong pro-Chinese views became part of the Italian government.
The second way of collecting data is to offer to large private companies storage services in China, with the persuasive argument that they are much cheaper than elsewhere. Some accept. They assure their non-Chinese customers that agreements have been signed by the Chinese guaranteeing that data will remain safe. Not that the CCP feels bound to respect its own laws, Strittmatter objects, but in this case a law of 2017 compels all companies operating in China to share all data they keep there with the intelligence service and the police if they are requested to do so.
Strittmatter’s book is required reading for all those who deal with China, even more now during the COVID-19 epidemic. The pandemic created the necessity to collect data about almost every human being on the planet: if they test positive to the virus, authorities want to know whom they met in the previous days. China offers its technologies, and Huawei its 5-G networks to transmit data quickly. Not only the book proves that the “Chinese model” is a recipe for totalitarian control, but it warns politicians in democratic countries to make sure that data collected there, particularly with the help of Chinese technology, will not end up in China.