Josh Chin is the Deputy Bureau Chief for China at the Wall Street Journal and the coauthor with Liza Lin of the book Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control.
It’s hard to believe what was happening in Xinjiang and most Chinese people didn’t believe, but now they do. A lot of them do.
- Introduction – 0:38
- Describing Xinjiang – 2:38
- Social Engineering – 11:21
- Privacy in China – 19:08
- AI in China – 28:23
At this point most people have heard of the terrible nightmare afflicting the Uyghur people. But it’s not simply the repression of an ethnic minority that has shocked the world but the extent that technology has turned their home into a futuristic dystopia. Uyghurs are closely surveilled nearly everywhere. It’s difficult to imagine and hard to properly explain.
So, I reached out to Josh Chin. He is the Deputy Bureau Chief for China at the Wall Street Journal and the coauthor with Liza Lin of the book Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control.
My conversation with Josh begins with Xinjiang and the Uyghur people, but it moves onto how surveillance has become an everyday part of life in China. Widespread surveillance is not just a tool for the CCP, but an aspiration. It is an ambition to shape society through technology.
But this isn’t just a conversation about China. Many of these surveillance technologies are already used in democracies including the United States. Josh argues we need to think about new privacy laws to protect against abuses from these technologies.
So, my question for listeners this week is what should digital privacy laws protect against? Listeners on the Spotify app can simply reply to this week’s question. If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts, you can leave your response as a review or you can always respond to the show on Twitter or Facebook. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts. But for now… This is my conversation with Josh Chin…
Josh Chin, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Well, Josh, your book, Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control is really one of the books everybody’s talking about when they’re studying China, or when they’re asking questions about China. It’s really a phenomenal book that you’ve written with Liza Lin. One of the themes that it touches on is the Uyghurs and the surveillance state specifically in Xinjiang. I want to ask you about that because that part of China sounds so dystopian that I don’t even know how much to believe of what I’ve heard. But you’ve been there. Can you describe what it’s like to be in Xinjiang or East Turkistan as many Uyghurs call it?
Yeah. You know, I mean it’s funny that you put it that way because when I came back and told people what I’d seen there, a lot of people didn’t believe it either. I actually had a Chinese colleague who for years didn’t believe our own reporting and then she went on a vacation there and came back and was like, ‘Oh my God. You’re right. It’s true.’ But you know, it is sort of hard to believe. I can tell you when I first got there, it was shocking. At that point I’d been reporting in China for more than 10 years. I’d been all over the country and reported all kinds of stories. I had just never been surprised or shocked actually by something the way I was when I went to Xinjiang. It was like entering a dystopian novel.
I went in with a colleague in late 2017 when this campaign that the Communist Party was rolling out targeting the Uyghurs, and other Turkic Muslim minorities was really cranking up and it was like being dropped into a sort of high-tech war zone or counterinsurgency operation. As soon as you cross the border into Xinjiang from neighboring regions, you have guys in SWAT gear carrying assault rifles swarming everywhere. You had checkpoints every five or 10 miles on the highway, every few blocks in the cities. and there are cameras everywhere, microphones everywhere. You just had this feeling of intense suffocation from being there. And this is as a foreigner who’s relatively protected, so I can only imagine what it’s like for a Uyghur.
I mean, the one experience we had while we were reporting that I remember particularly vividly, we had a rental car and we were driving around. We were lost. We were in the countryside and we were trying to find our way back to a highway. In the middle of nowhere, nothing around, can’t see anyone, and all of a sudden, we’re surrounded by a cloud of dust and the dust clears. We come to a stop and there’s a police car in front of us and a police car in back of us. Guys get out. They’re in SWAT gear. They surround us with guns. They tell us to get out of the car and interrogate us for a while. We managed to talk our way out of it by sort of pretending to be lost economics reporters.
But as they were letting us go, I asked one of the cops, ‘How did you even find us? There’s no one around.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, we have a camera back there that spotted your license plate and sent us an alert and that’s how we knew you were here.’ That was just an early personal introduction to what it’s like to be in Xinjiang. But if you are a Uyghur, it’s much more intense, because you’re being tracked everywhere you go all the time. I mean, just as an example, you leave your house, you scan in and out of your residential compound with your ID card. If you go to a bank or a convenience store or any public place, you would go through a security gate, scan your card, which would also scan your face to match it up.
There were police on the sidewalks who could wave you over and demand that you hand over your smartphone and they’d plug it into a scanner that would scan your phone for sort of digital contraband. This could be anything from actual terrorist material, which is extremely rare down to VPN software that you might use to get around censorship or even photos of Turkish movie stars who are seen as being too Turkish nationalist for the Chinese government’s tastes. So, it’s just unlike anything I think I’ve ever seen or imagined seeing in real life.
Of course, in the background of all of this are these internment camps where Uyghurs, who were through this process of surveillance and evaluation of their behavioral data, deemed to be a threat to the Communist Party. They were sent to these camps to be reeducated and this was a threat that hung over everyone. You could sense the fear in almost every Uyghur you talked to that this was constantly on the back of their minds.
Have you been to one of the internment camps? Have you seen it up close?
Yeah, actually I think my reporting partner at the time and I might have been the first Western journalists to film one of these camps. Before we went there on this reporting trip, a scholar of Xinjiang had pointed us to this one location outside of Kashgar, which is a big, famous Silk Road oasis city in the western part of Xinjiang near the border with Central Asia. It was like in a field. We were like there’s probably nothing there, but we’ll just go check it out. So, we got there and we were imagining a small school sized facility because the Chinese government had been euphemistically referring to these places as schools and when they would send Uyghurs there, they’d be sending them there for education supposedly. So, we were thinking maybe something like the size of an elementary school or something.
When we got there, I remember driving down this country road and it was just this humongous prison that just popped out of nowhere. It was nighttime and it was all lit up. There were search lights everywhere. A group of what looked like Uyghur family members were sort of huddling across from the entrance. The entrance was being guarded by these guys with assault rifles. We walked up to it to try to figure out what it was. There was a guy we asked. He’s like, It’s a school.’ And we were like, ‘I’ve never seen a school like this. What are they teaching?’ And he basically said, ‘You know, for your own safety, you should stop asking these questions and leave.’
We had a Uyghur taxi driver with us and so we felt like we didn’t want to put him in risk, so we did decide to leave, but it was a really, really striking experience and it definitely did make it clear that what was going on was not vocational education the way the government had said it was.
So, you saw one of the internment camps from afar early on. When did you actually learn what was happening inside of them from Uyghurs who actually had personal reports of the experiences that they had?
So, that was a big mystery. I mean, for a long time we couldn’t figure out what was going on in these camps. We sort of had a vague notion. There were a lot of rumors. We were trying to piece things together. You know, another reporter in Beijing, a friend of mine, who worked for Agence France-Presse, AFP, had been looking at procurement documents and figured out this list of things that they were ordering which was like tasers and cattle prods and handcuffs and the sort of stuff that a school would never order. So, we had through that sort of detail and rumors this vague notion.
But then in the following year, in 2018, you started to have a few ethnic Kazakhs who’d been sent to the camps and then let out, I think partially through the lobbying of the Kazakh government which borders Xinjiang. These people had been let out and gone across the border. They’d sort of snuck across the border to safety. Once they got to Kazakhstan, they felt free to talk about what they had gone through. So, it was through them that we started to learn what was happening and what was happening was, I think, a lot of the worst fears people had. You see in internment camps and obviously the first thing you think is Holocaust. It wasn’t exactly that. It was something sort of new. What was difficult about Xinjiang is that it was unusual and something we didn’t really have a framework for thinking about.
But essentially it was a 21st century form of brainwashing where they were taking Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and subjecting them to language training, Mandarin, that sort of thing, but also just political indoctrination. They would sit through hours and hours of classes about Xi Jinping and studying Xi Jinping thought and pledging allegiance to the party and denouncing Islam. If they didn’t do it to the satisfaction of teachers and prison guards and other authorities in the camps, they would be punished. They’d be forced to squat. They would have their heads shaved. They’d be denied food. They’d be beaten in some cases.
Later on, we did get reports of rape happening. There were rumors that people were being force fed pork, which for a Muslim is a taboo. A lot of the stuff still based on personal testimony because we haven’t been able to get into the camps and obviously to verify it. But the testimony was really consistent over time. It was the same people coming out and telling very similar stories. One of the more disturbing things we heard about is women being fed medications that then stopped their menstruation, which is when we started to realize there was, not exactly ethnic cleansing, but an ethnic re-engineering sort of effort going on. They were trying to control births among Uyghurs and then also reorganize their identity, their cultural identity, and make them more Chinese. That’s still underway. It’s evolved a little bit over time, but it’s still basically ongoing.
Something I found fascinating in your book was this idea of social engineering that they’re practicing in Xinjiang dates back to an engineer who was actually deported from the United States. Can you tell us a little bit about him and why this deportation was so important?
He’s definitely one of the more fascinating figures in this story. His name is Qian Xuesen. He’s a missile scientist, an engineer, mathematician, who came to the United States on a scholarship and was initially studying at MIT and then moved to Caltech where he established himself very quickly as a brilliant engineer and mathematician and became very involved in the creation of the American Rocket and Missile program, especially after World War II. He was named the first director of a very famous jet propulsion lab in California. But in the 1950s, he, like a lot of other people, came under suspicion in the McCarthy era. The FBI investigated him and accused him of being a member of the Communist Party. It turns out he probably had been a member of the Communist Party when he was in college, but that actually isn’t all that unusual for that time.
So, he was sort of persecuted during the McCarthy era and was put under surveillance in his home in Los Angeles for more than a year. During that time, he became really interested in this new field of study invented by mostly American scientists and mathematicians called cybernetics. Cybernetics is where we get cyberspace from, cybersecurity, all those cyber words come from this field. It’s essentially the field of how information is used for control in that sort of broad sense. That includes the biological sense, in the engineering sense, in the social sense. It’s just the ways that information is used to control an environment or to control an entity or a system. So, he got really into this mostly from an engineering standpoint. He thought it could be used to solve problems in engineering.
So, he wrote his own book based on that, which was really well received, and considered a sort of a major breakthrough in engineering. Right around that time he decided that he was done with the US. He was angry at the persecution. He saw that there were new things happening in China. The Chinese government obviously wanted him back and he was ultimately traded for a bunch of United States airmen who’d been captured in China during the Korean War, so he went back to China. When he got to China, he created China’s missile program and its space program or basically helped sort of midwife those programs. Later on in his career, he started to apply his engineering principles, this idea of cybernetics and using information as a means to control society.
He came up with this theory that if you kind of had enough data and the right tools combined with the right knowledge, you could engineer society the same way you engineer a missile or the same way you engineer any sort of mechanical system. This was something that the original cybernetic thinkers in the US had resisted, because they have felt like you can’t get good enough data to responsibly try something like that. There actually had been experiments in the US in California in the sixties of trying to do some social programs based on these ideas and they’d all sort of ended up failures. But he didn’t care about that or he wasn’t aware of that so he pushed forward.
This idea became really influential in the Communist Party. It was taught in the Central Party School, which is the main training academy for senior party officials in Beijing. So, what we’re seeing now in China is that vision coming to life.
It feels like for him these ideas of cybernetics were more than just engineering principles. I mean, it was more like ethical principles. The idea that this is the right way for society to govern. That this is the way that we not just can do things, but really should be doing things. I think it gets back to the title of your book, which is Surveillance State, because it starts to describe China as being not just a state that has surveillance, but that surveillance is really one of its guiding principles. It’s almost like part of its philosophy at this point of its governance. Like at one point it was a communist state, today it feels as if it’s a surveillance state. Is that how you feel when you titled the book this way?
Yeah, I mean, I think that’s true. I think China is the first major state, maybe any state, that we’ve seen that has self-consciously made surveillance a part of its governance model. If you could step back, surveillance is a part of every state, since states can’t really function without collecting data on the people they are governing. If you want to levy taxes or you want to distribute welfare, you’ve got to know how much money people have or don’t have. If you want to raise an army, you need to know which families have young men in them that you can draft into your military. So, this goes all the way back to ancient Rome.
Where China is unique is that it really has made the collection and analysis of that information on a mass scale, a core part of how it envisions society and its job of managing society. But this isn’t a totally new idea. Right? I mean, you had in the 20th century all the totalitarian leaders of that era dreamed or fantasized about scientifically managed societies. The Third Reich, for instance, that was part of what they were aiming for. Right? They had an idea in their mind that they thought was scientific about what the perfect society was and they were trying to bring it about. They weren’t able to for a variety of reasons, but one of them, which is technological, is the ability to collect information and analyze it.
It didn’t exist on a sufficient scale back then and the Communist Party now in China believes that it does. Partly thanks to Silicon Valley companies like Google and Amazon and Facebook, they now have the tools to harvest huge amounts of data about human behavior. Just massive, massive amounts that would be unimaginable to people 20-30 years ago, much less a hundred years ago. We also have really sophisticated ways of analyzing that data and using it to make predictions. So, the Communist Party sees this as a really game-changing development for managing people in societies and then they’re trying to make the most of them.
Is that a philosophy just of party leaders and maybe political elites or do everyday citizens in China understand that’s what’s going on and actually buy into that philosophy too to any extent?
It’s hard to say how many regular people in China really think about it in those terms and even in the Communist Party I think it’s a very high-level notion. It’s the sort of thing that Party scholars write about and party scholars teach to the most senior level officials. Then the senior level officials think about it and how to operationalize it. At the lower levels in China, the thinking is more just in terms of ideas like security and convenience, these sort of services that states are supposed to deliver.
I think most Chinese people or most of the Chinese people we talked to especially in the early part of doing the research of this book, to the extent they thought about it, they were just like, ‘It makes our lives better and makes us safer or it makes our lives easier. As long as you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have to worry about the negative consequences of it. So, it’s great. We love it.’ Even into the early part of the pandemic, you saw when China was controlling the virus that conviction sort of grew more. There was much more awareness of these technologies and of that data collection because it was just such a core part of how China controlled the pandemic. So, people were thinking about it actively, but their conclusion was it’s keeping us safe.
So, awareness of it has grown over time. The attitudes have changed, and it’s changed a lot recently with the way the pandemic ended. But even so, I think a lot of Chinese people think about it in terms of how it impacts their daily lives in a very pragmatic way.
Yeah. Even before the pandemic began people in China though, seemed to have limits to the amount of privacy that they were willing to give up. You mentioned a few cases in your book where there were companies that would stream surveillance cameras from different facilities and people in China got really angry about that. Can you tell us a little bit about that and maybe other ways that people in China think about privacy?
Yeah, so the degree to which people in China embrace privacy is probably one of the more fascinating and dynamic and tricky topics that we tackled. At the beginning of the book, most of the people we talked to didn’t really think about it that much. But as we dug into it more, we realized, especially in the cities, in bigger cities where you had more educated people, people who had maybe studied abroad in the US or the UK or Australia, there was a sense of privacy and there were these incidents in which people got really angry at privacy violations.
In the case you referenced, which is really fascinating, there was a security technology company that had come out with these cheap internet connected surveillance cameras that people have in their homes sort of like baby cams or along those lines. These cameras automatically connected to a cloud service. The idea of being if anyone has one of these cameras, you can check it remotely, even if you’re not at home through the cloud. But the difference was that usually those connections are private. They’re password protected. In this case, the company made it very easy for people to put these streams up publicly and, I think in a lot of cases, they didn’t even realize they were being streamed publicly.
So, you had this website that was essentially live streaming 24 hours a day security footage from inside people’s homes, from like yoga studios, zoos, wig shops, like just everywhere. It was just this wild 24-hour camera studio of the entire country and it kind of went unnoticed for a long time until one day there was a young woman who stumbled on it and was just appalled, because in some cases there were videos of young children dancing and that sort of thing where it’s just like you look at it and you’re like it’s creepy. So, she exposed it in a blog post that went viral and basically that website within a couple weeks was shut down along with a bunch of others that had mimicked it. But that’s just one example.
There were several privacy moments for China where it was clear that people were thinking about that. The key difference is if you’re comparing it to the way Americans think about privacy, for example, almost all of that vitriol, all of that anger was focused on companies. It was focused on search engines. It was focused on social media companies or on these video companies. It almost never touched on the government which in some ways is the exact opposite of the US for a long time. For a long time in the US all the concern was about government collection of data. No one really cared about what Google or Facebook or Amazon was collecting. People just weren’t aware of it or if they were, they were like it’s worth the trade off, but we just don’t want the government collecting our data.
So, China was the opposite. It was the government’s going to collect their stuff, but we were really angry about these companies. So, there is definitely a privacy consciousness in China and it’s growing. It is growing over time and I think that is one of the really interesting developments that the government is constantly struggling to deal with.
Hasn’t the government actually encouraged some of that vitriol against private companies as well? Like when people get frustrated and they start expressing themselves on some of the Chinese social media that rather than censoring those comments, the Chinese government actually amplified them.
Yeah. You know, this was actually a really, I have to say, pretty impressive piece of political jiu-jitsu that the Communist Party pulled off, because they saw as these controversies kept piling up, they realized it was going to be a problem. Normally, what the government does when something like this happens is they just crush it. They have the world’s most sophisticated censorship apparatus and they just wipe it out. Those of us who were in China at the time when this was first starting were really shocked that that wasn’t happening. And not only was it not happening, the government was encouraging it. You know, state media would pile on. They would come in and they’d be like, ‘Oh, look at these terrible companies and what they’re doing with data. It’s awful.’
Then they came out with a few years later, what is on paper, one of the world’s most or one of the world’s strictest personal information protection laws. It’s probably second only to Europe. So, if you look at this on the surface, you’re like, what is going? I think what we discovered is they very cleverly redefined privacy, which is they made privacy only about the private sphere, not the public sphere. They created this idea that personal information should be protected from companies and the way that companies and private interests use data. That needs to be very, very heavily regulated, but that for security reasons, the government should have access to that data. And you know, this is not a totally alien idea to Americans.
I mean, anyone who was alive during 9/11 and remembers the Patriot Act, that was essentially the argument that US government made at the start of the War on Terror. ‘Yes, privacy is important, but security is more important. So, we’re going to need to temporarily, supposedly, take the liberty of accessing Americans’ data in order to keep them safer.’ But China did this in a really stark way and in a really successful way for the most part.
So, you already mentioned that views on privacy had begun to change after the pandemic or rather with the protests about Zero-Covid that broke out in Xinjiang. The area that is the most dystopian in terms of the surveillance state was pretty much ground zero for the widespread protests that happened in China. How have ideas about privacy changed since those protests?
Yeah. So, the story of the protest really is just remarkable. I mean, when you think about it, the fact that it started in Xinjiang, is perfect in a way. You know, essentially what the story is about is that the government overstepped. It took it too far. We kind of have to wind it back a little bit though, because for the first year of the pandemic, the government was actually really successful using surveillance to control a really potentially disruptive event. I mean, they managed to essentially rid the country of Covid. After that first outbreak from Wuhan, they locked it down and life in China was basically normal for most of the first year of the pandemic.
So, at that point, everyone was very happy with the surveillance. They thought this is great. I mean, they’re looking at everywhere else in the world. They’re looking at the US, Europe and people are dying left and right. They’re thinking, ‘Wow, our system is the best system,’ and then Omicron arrived. Because Omicron spread so quickly, so much faster than the original strain of the virus, the surveillance system couldn’t keep up. So, in order to keep things under control, the government had to turn the focus of the surveillance system from the virus to people. It started instituting lockdowns. It couldn’t do the sort of fine grain control anymore.
They had just to lockdown entire cities. You saw this really dramatically in Shanghai where people were stuck in their homes and they couldn’t get enough food and were freaking out. This is one of the wealthiest cities in China, but it was in other cities as well. I think this was a moment where you had people in China who up to that point, had only really experienced the benefits of state surveillance. If you live in a city like Shanghai, state surveillance mostly makes your life easy. It’s where you can scan your face to do banking or to get into an apartment building. Everything is sort of algorithmically arranged to make your life really smooth and you just scan a QR code to buy everything. It’s a sort of digital utopia.
But now for the first time, you have huge numbers of wealthy Chinese, Han Chinese people experiencing the hard edge of state surveillance and they didn’t like it. That went on for several months afterwards. But I think that was a real turning point where people started to have really, really serious second thoughts about the system and its downsides. Eventually it came to a breaking point and that was the end of last year. There was this fire in Xinjian, in Urumqi, in the capital of Xinjian and a bunch of people died.
The suspicion was that those people died partly because there were so many Covid related barriers put up that people couldn’t get out and firetrucks couldn’t get in. So, people blamed rightly or wrongly, I mean, I think we still haven’t fully determined exactly why that happened, but the main point is that public perception was that this was because of Zero-Covid. Suddenly, you had this outpouring of sympathy with Uyghurs and Xinjiang among Chinese people which is just remarkable. If you spend any time in China, you know that the discrimination against Uyghurs is deep seated. So, here was an instance in which people all over the country were holding candlelight vigils for Uyghurs and identifying with them.
There was all this doubt, like you said at the beginning. It’s hard to believe what was happening in Xinjiang and most Chinese people didn’t believe, but now they do. A lot of them do. It’s just stunning. So, the result of that was that those candlelight vigils grew into these huge protests, which in contemporary China is just unimaginable. You just don’t see nationwide protests like this. I mean, hundreds of people in different places. Maybe hundreds of people might not sound like a lot, but in China that’s immense. It was really, really shocking. It did help catalyze the end of Zero-Covid in China.
So, Covid is over and the Communist Party’s really trying to get back to normal life and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s over. We handled it really well. It was great and now we’re moving on.’ But there is a lot of lingering resentment and a lot of broken trust in cities in China. We’ll have to see how that plays out, but I think it’s incredibly significant.
So. when I think about the surveillance technology in China, my mind immediately drifts to artificial intelligence technology. I just immediately assume that all of it involves artificial intelligence, even when it doesn’t. It’s just kind of baked into the conversations that we’re having these days. How much of a role does artificial intelligence really play in the surveillance state in China?
Yeah, you know, that’s one of these questions, especially now everyone’s talking about ChatGPT and AI is having yet another moment. I think one of the things that has come out of that whole conversation, which is really interesting, is the FTC in the US came out with a warning to advertisers not to oversell the abilities and the prevalence of AI. That’s one of those things that when you talk about AI, it’s like what does that even mean? AI’s been around for decades. Spam filters in your email are basically AI. So, when you talk about surveillance in China that tendency is magnified, because it’s China. It’s this far away land that’s mysterious and hard to perceive. So, the answer is that it is quite heavily involved in the surveillance state, but not all of it.
For example, in Xinjiang, the way that they are collecting information and categorizing Uyghurs and deciding who goes to the camps is partly being done by AI, but part of that is just being done by people. The platforms that are used to collect data, use what’s known as data fusion. So, the major sort of technological innovation, if you want to call it that in Xinjian, is this platform that they’ve built that was originally designed for the military that can suck in all kinds of different data and be used to compare it really quickly. That’s not using AI necessarily. It’s just a way of collecting and analyzing. But they do use AI in a lot of the cameras, for example.
China is a world leader in what’s known as computer vision. So, this is stuff like facial recognition, the ability of computers to scan an image or video footage and identify what’s in it. China is extremely good at facial recognition. They have gait recognition. So, they can recognize people by the way they walk. They say they can even recognize people now with masks on as a result of the pandemic. That’s an AI application that China is very good at and is doubling down on. But there’s also AI being used to predict things like traffic patterns and manage traffic or manage and analyze mundane things like the way utilities are used or how national health insurance is managed. I mean, it’s kind of boring stuff, but meaningful for governments.
One of the more dramatic uses of this was in the city of Hangzhou which is a tech hub in Eastern China where they have many cameras around the city. They have what’s known as a city brain which was developed by the company Alibaba. Some people may have heard of it. It’s a big e-commerce company, which is based in Hangzhou and city brain is a data fusion platform, but it does run on AI. So, it sucks in all sorts of data from around the country, including cameras that basically track every car in the city and optimize traffic.
But then they also have this system where if an ambulance is picking someone up and they need to get to the hospital quickly, the ambulance could flip on a system that directs traffic in a way that will clear the roads so that that ambulance can get straight to the hospital. So, in some cases these are life and death applications that are actually interesting. You can see how they could make life better. I think up until the pandemic, that is mostly what people were paying attention to.
You mentioned that the FTC was asking corporations not to oversell ai. Does China oversell their use of artificial intelligence as a way to control society and to give the impression that they’re able to do more than they actually can?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, this is one of these moments as a journalist where something that starts out being a problem actually shows you an even more interesting truth. So, we started out reporting this book and there were all these stories on the state media about facial recognition being used to find long lost children and reunite them with their parents or do all these other kinds of magical things. We kept looking into them and a bunch of them turned out to just be bs or at least exaggerated, if not outright fabricated. We were just like, ‘God, this is so frustrating. Maybe there’s nothing to it.” So, for a while we were really frustrated because we were looking for examples for our book. Then we realized that state surveillance is as much a propaganda exercise as a technological undertaking in a lot of ways.
I mean, I will say in Xinjiang in a lot of places the tech does work and it is real and it has real impacts on people, but there’s this other element of it that comes through in the media where you see them wildly exaggerating what this technology can do. The point is to make people feel like they’re being watched in ways that they maybe aren’t, because the idea is you don’t actually need to be able to see everything as long as you can persuade people that you can. That will lead them to modify their behavior. This is an old idea. This goes back to the very beginning of the notions of state surveillance and this idea of the panopticon.
Some people have heard of this idea, this circular prison that was designed by a British sociologist named Jeremy Bentham, who actually stole the idea from his brother, which is this prison that is circular and it has a turret in the middle. It’s arranged so prisoners never know when they’re being watched. There’s a security guard in the middle and he can be sort of keeping an eye. Of course, he can’t watch everyone all the time, but prisoners don’t know. They can’t see when they’re being watched, so they just assume that they are. That really is in operation in China. The Chinese government constantly talks about how great its systems are and people believe it.
You mentioned that in Xinjiang that the technology really works, but in a lot of ways, the fact that they have the internment camps is actually proof of its own limitations because you would have a much more targeted approach if the surveillance was as pervasive as they want you to believe it is. I mean, one of the scary things about Xinjiang is that it wasn’t targeted at all. It was starting to get to the point that almost everybody in that community was being sent into these internment camps. I mean, I think that’s almost evidence of the fact that there’s enormous limitations as to how much they can actually watch and surveil different people even when they want to.
No, that’s true. We shouldn’t exaggerate the extent to which they can control and track people. There are definitely limitations. I think what the story of China has shown is that at this point it is much easier to use technology as a stick than as a carrot because you can use it to control and terrorize people quite easily. But to like do that really fine work of truly understanding the behavior of an individual and trying to guide it and mold it and nudge it in certain ways that is still very difficult. We probably still don’t have the technology or the data to do that yet. It’s a much easier thing to track a population, figure out who the troublemakers are, and then shove them off into an internment camp, lockdown cities that sort of thing. That level they can do.
But that is still really useful for the Communist party and really, really powerful. I think it’s one reason that even after the protests over Covid, you had people calling for Xi Jinping to step down. I mean, there’s clearly a huge amount of anxiety and anger and skepticism in China about the Communist Party’s rule. You know, the party just doesn’t feel like it’s in danger of ever losing its grip because even if these surveillance tools aren’t as precise as maybe the party wants them to be, they’re still immensely powerful.
So, China often says that it’s not trying to export its regime model. It’s not trying to export its form of governance to other countries to replicate. But they are exporting the surveillance technologies that they develop, design and manufacture. Is the surveillance state the future of governance for many other countries beyond China?
Yeah. You know, it’s funny when you raised that question, it reminded me of the really interesting interview you did with Elizabeth Economy. You were talking about whether China is trying to export its model. I think she’s right in the sense that China may not be trying to export its model wholesale, but it is exporting pieces of it. You definitely see this in the case of surveillance technology in that the way that they make sales to other countries is by bringing police from those countries over to China and taking them to the Ministry of Public Security Building off of Tiananmen Square and showing them how it works. This idea of Chinese style control is part of the sales pitch for these technologies.
You know, in reality, I don’t think there’s any other country that could plausibly build something like a Chinese surveillance state, because China just has advantages that other countries don’t. It has a huge population that generates a lot of data. It has good centralized systems for collecting that data. It has good technology. It has money. It has a large and competent bureaucracy that can use those systems. That just doesn’t exist in a lot of countries, but in some ways that doesn’t matter. I think China’s aim is to not necessarily replicate itself in other countries, but to alter the norms globally so that it is okay for governments to use these technologies in whatever way they say fit. It’s similar to the way they approach the internet.
They don’t necessarily say that everyone should censor the internet the way they do, but that every government should have the right to censor the internet if they want to and in whatever way they want to. So, it’s a similar idea. They have really been successful at selling this technology. I mean, the most recent sort of independent data we have is a little bit old now. It’s from 2020 compiled by a scholar from the University of Texas named Sheena Greitens. She found that in 2020, China had exported state surveillance systems, so systems basically being sold to governments, to 80 countries worldwide, including a bunch of democracies and some police departments in Western Europe.
The technologies are out there and even if they’re not Chinese technologies, this type of technology is all over the United States. NYPD, LAPD, police departments everywhere are experimenting with and using this technology. So, even if it’s not necessarily a Chinese form of state surveillance, state surveillance is spreading. The main reason we wrote this book wasn’t actually to criticize China. It was so that people who live in democracies can understand what is happening in China and use that knowledge and apply it to what’s happening in their own countries.
So, you know, in the United States, we do have authorities trying to use facial recognition to track people who are participating in protests. You’re starting to see this in particular in the US around the issue of abortion, because now you have states that have banned abortion and police in those states are going to companies like Google and asking for data about people who are searching for abortions or asking for location data of people who might have gone to abortion clinics. You can imagine the same thing happening if the US were to suddenly pass strict gun legislation. You could have police doing the same thing to try to find people who were buying guns illegally and that sort of thing. So, it’s not hypothetical. These are real questions for democracies particularly in the US that we really haven’t started to wrestle with.
The US doesn’t even have a privacy law. There’s no overarching privacy law in the United States. The closest we have is a constitutional guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure. That’s it. But that’s a very limited right. So, I think one of the major hopes we have with this book is it will help stimulate that discussion.
Well, I definitely think that it has. It’s definitely a book that I hear people talking about. A lot of people that I know have read the book, so I think it’s a great read. I definitely recommend it. Once again, the title of the book is Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control. It’s written not just by Josh, but also by Liza Lin. Thank you so much, Josh for writing it. Thank you so much for joining me to talk to me today.
Really, really appreciate it, Justin. This was a great conversation.
Read more from Josh Chin in the Wall Street Journal
“The Mandarin in the Machine” A review of Surveillance State in Journal of Democracy by Will Dobson
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