By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, author of Axion China
September 6, 2022
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
A new book by two China correspondents argues that the Chinese government is pioneering a new governance model based on mass surveillance.
Why it matters: China's huge population, economic heft and global sway mean the country's domestic surveillance architecture could have ramifications far beyond its borders.
Mass surveillance can oppress, but it also offers the promise of more livable cities and seamless digital services, which is what makes digital authoritarianism as a governance model so seductive, the authors state.
What's happening: Hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras blanket China, information from billions of digital payments are scooped up weekly, online speech is scrutinized, and people's movements are tracked through satellite location systems connected to their phones.
But the Chinese government has bigger plans for all of this data than just weeding out individual crimes or acts of political dissent, Wall Street Journal reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin write in "Surveillance State: Inside China's Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control."
Instead, the Chinese government aims to replace a social contract based on economic growth that now appears unsustainable with one powered by digital surveillance.
The big picture: After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which the People's Liberation Army violently crushed a student-led pro-democracy movement, the Chinese Communist Party offered a tacit alternative to the Chinese people — in place of liberal political reform, the Party would guarantee economic growth and prosperity.
This social contract functioned reasonably well for more than two decades, as China's GDP growth soared. But as the country's economic engine has slowed, party leaders have realized they must find a new alternative, Chin and Lin write.
Surveillance-enabled social control is the "China solution" they are creating and beginning to sell to the rest of the world as an alternative (and superior) governance model, they write.
What they're saying: "By mining insight from surveillance data," the authors write, the party "believes it can predict what people want without having to give them a vote or a voice. By solving social problems before they occur and quashing dissent before it spills out onto the streets, it believes it can strangle opposition in the crib.”
Between the lines: Western media coverage tends to portray the Chinese government's mass surveillance regime as purely oppressive, but AI-powered systems can also create more convenient cities and easier lives, the authors write.
The book explores "both the totalitarian darkness of Xinjiang and the breezy techno-utopias on the country’s wealthy coast to show how the same algorithmic controls can terrorize or coddle depending on who and where you are.”
In Hangzhou, for example, data-based traffic surveillance has allowed the city to refine its traffic management to resolve the chronic traffic jams that made life there tedious for many residents, the authors write.
Behind the scenes: The idea for the book began with a visit to an ambitious startup, Chin and Lin told Axios in an interview. That startup turned out to be SenseTime, now one of the world's largest facial recognition technology companies, which is sanctioned by the U.S. government for its complicity in human rights violations in Xinjiang.
"We walked into the office, and it was like walking into 'Minority Report,'" Chin said, referring to the 2002 science fiction film with Tom Cruise.
"You had to scan your face to go in, there was a camera trained on the street outside that was labeling cars and people and bicycles in real time. It was science fiction. It was mind-blowing."
SenseTime employees said they were selling their technology to police departments. Chin and Lin soon realized the company was at the forefront of a new state-encouraged effort to link surveillance technology with policing at a mass scale.
What to watch: How these technologies spread around the world, and how that affects the shape of human society and governance.
"Are we all headed for a world where the China Solution reigns supreme?" the authors ask. "Or is there a way to somehow reconcile machine-powered government audits of human behavior with the preservation of individual liberty?"