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A warning from China’s surveillance state: It could happen here

China is using AI to engineer a society in which most people enjoy ‘convenience, security, and predictability.’ Isn’t Silicon Valley selling something like that?

Cameras linked to facial recognition technology display photos of jaywalkers alongside their names and ID numbers in Xinjiang, China.GILLES SABRIE/NYT

China is reportedly conducting unprecedented government surveillance and abusing human rights. Is that a harbinger of what might happen in Western democracies?

Josh Chin thinks that’s a prospect worth bearing in mind. In the new book he coauthored with Liza Lin, “Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control,” they make clear why privacy activists are wise to consider China a cautionary tale when trying to persuade Western democracies to safeguard privacy.

Chin is The Wall Street Journal’s deputy bureau chief for China, and Lin is a correspondent for the newspaper. Their book draws on five years of reporting in China, where criticizing the government is so dangerous that journalists must sometimes conceal their sources’ names and biographical information. Chin was expelled from the country in 2020 and is barred from returning.

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Chin and Lin’s book focuses on the Communist Party’s attempt to create a “perfectly engineered society.” The utopian plan isn’t to create a paradise for everyone. Dissidents and ethnic minorities constantly fear being sent to detention centers. And while the continued spread of the Omicron variant calls into question China’s ability to maintain strict social control through surveillance, the government doesn’t appear to be relaxing its grip. The country’s zero-COVID policy and massive monitoring for tracking contagion remain in full effect. My conversation with Chin has been condensed and edited.

How are President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party deploying surveillance technologies to control people’s everyday lives?

China is home to more than 400 million surveillance cameras, roughly a billion smartphones, and mobile payment systems that collectively rack up 10 times the global transaction volume of MasterCard. Chinese leaders essentially have direct access to all of that data. They use advances in artificial intelligence to help them mine that data for unprecedented insight into the individual lives and behaviors of Chinese people, which they are using to build a new, more nimble form of authoritarianism.

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Xi claims to be pursuing a noble goal — creating a “perfectly engineered society.” What does that society look like?

Xi believes that with enough data, the Communist Party will eventually be able to predict and solve problems before they even arise, leading to a society that’s automatically self-correcting. Everything from transportation to health care to electricity use will be optimized according to algorithmic models. People will live out their lives in a cradle of convenience, security, and predictability. Political dissent will eventually fade away for lack of social friction, while those few who refuse to assent will be instantly detected and shipped away to detention centers for reeducation.

Does China’s zero-COVID policy reflect this goal?

Zero-COVID is an example of what happens when techno-utopian thinking collides with reality. Xi used state surveillance to keep COVID under control for months — probably saving millions of lives in the process. That success filled Chinese people with immense confidence in the government’s approach. But then came the Omicron variant, which moved much faster than the surveillance machine could keep up. Xi had put more faith in tracking technology than vaccines, so his only choice was to use his surveillance tools to enforce citywide lockdowns, which have devastated China’s economy and led to outbursts of public anger. The result has been a dystopian world in which drones and robot dogs patrol cities to make sure people aren’t breaking quarantine.

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Who have Xi’s social engineering policies helped and hurt?

Whether state surveillance is terrifying or alluring depends on who and where you are. Middle-class Han Chinese people living in the country’s wealthier cities mostly experience it as a good thing. It keeps their streets clean and makes their lives easier. But the experience for political dissidents and ethnic minorities — particularly Turkic Muslims and Tibetans in Western China — has been suffocating and nightmarish. They live under constant, virtually inescapable scrutiny, with the fear that any misstep could result in being dragged off to a detention center somewhere.

What’s happening in the detention centers?

Chinese detention centers typically involve some level of psychological and ideological conditioning, whether it’s targeting drug users or members of religious movements like the Falun Gong. In Xinjiang, Uyghurs whose behavioral data marks them as “unsafe” are sent to internment camps where they are jammed in crowded cells, forced to study Mandarin, absorb propaganda, swear loyalty to Xi Jinping, and renounce Islam — all under threat of torture — with the aim of forcing them to assimilate.

How are these surveillance practices shaping Chinese attitudes about privacy?

The Chinese word for “privacy” didn’t appear in the official dictionary until the late 1970s. For a lot of Chinese people, especially in the countryside, contemplating privacy is still a luxury. But in the bigger cities, you’re starting to see more discussion of the value of privacy and individual liberty. The question is how far, and in what direction, that discussion will go.

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So far, the Communist Party has done a very good job of keeping the privacy debate focused on tech companies and their handling of user data. The government recently passed a personal information protection law that on its face is one of the strictest in the world, though it contains huge carve-outs for state security.

Josh Chin is coauthor of "Surveillance State: Inside China's Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control."Jun

You claim many countries are interested in Xi’s vision and are buying Chinese surveillance systems designed to enhance authoritarianism. Is China weakening global democracy?

Chinese tech companies have sold state surveillance systems to more than 80 countries, on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, including several democracies. In countries that are teetering between democracy and authoritarianism, these systems can often tip the balance in favor of the latter. We saw that in Uganda, for example, where President Yoweri Museveni used a Chinese-made surveillance system to target political opponents in the most recent election. Advanced democracies, meanwhile, have struggled to come up with a compelling alternative to the vision China is selling.

Doesn’t government and corporate surveillance also pervade everyday life in the United States?

The power these technologies have to alter human lives is so immense that they deserve to be rigorously scrutinized wherever they are deployed. The United States differs from China in that it has built-in safeguards against surveillance abuses, including courts and independent media. The main value for Americans in scrutinizing what’s happening in China is so they can grasp what it looks like if they allow those safeguards to deteriorate.

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Do you think the United States will become more like China?

Two years ago, I would have said there’s no way. But seeing how the fabric of American democracy has started to fray and thinking about the allure of these technologies — especially in a political environment that’s rife with fear and animosity — I do think it’s possible for a form of techno-authoritarianism to take hold here. It would probably look different than what we see in China, but the fundamental dynamics would be similar. The simplicity, security, and predictability these technologies promise have universal appeal. Resisting that outcome will require Americans to remember how to embrace the complexity and messiness that come with life in a functioning democracy.

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity, and a scholar in residence at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.). Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.