Investigating the Surveillance State

By Josh Chin

July 12, 2022

With the world's largest surveillance network, China’s surveillance network accounts for over half of the surveillance cameras in use around the globe. And China’s spy operation is aimed at everyday citizens. This new way of digital totalitarianism offers a blueprint for the rest of the world, posing a potential threat for our digital future.

In this extended Q&A from The Fifth Draft — the National Fellows Program newsletter — New America National Fellow Josh Chin previews his forthcoming book, Surveillance State, based on his award-winning investigative reporting with co-author Liza Lin on China’s emerging digital surveillance state. Here he details how technology laid the groundwork for mass surveillance and the collaborative reporting process.

Sign up for The Fifth Draft to hear how the best storytellers find ideas that change the world. Your Fellows project, Surveillance State, will be published this fall. Can you share the origins of the project and why this book now? The book grew out of an investigation into Chinese state surveillance that the Wall Street Journal launched in 2017 after we stumbled onto a Chinese startup that was raising millions of dollars to develop facial-recognition systems for police. That piece went on to win the 2018 Gerald Loeb Award for international reporting. After we finished that initial wave of reporting, it was clear that what the Communist Party was trying to do with technology in China was the kind of tectonic development that called for the deep excavation you can only really do with a book

Surveillance State and many of your reported pieces are co-authored by Liza Lin. What is the collaborative reporting and writing process like? We originally started working together because we had complementary reporting beats. Liza was plugged into China’s tech industry and I’d spent years covering Chinese politics. We needed knowledge of both to properly tackle state surveillance as a topic. But in the course of reporting, we discovered that our skills fit together in other ways. Liza is a whiz at getting important people to tell her things they probably shouldn’t. Often, I was able to set the gems of insight she uncovered in the right context for them to shine a bit brighter. When it came time to write the book, we divided up the chapters based on expertise, but we stuck to the same dynamic. There was plenty of give and take, but we managed to achieve one of our primary goals, which was to keep the voice and the quality of reporting consistent throughout.

What goals do you have for the book? What do you hope U.S. audiences will take away from the book, and are those goals different for a Chinese audience? We don’t intend this as an anti-surveillance jeremiad. There are plenty of those out there already. Instead, the hope is the book will give people a way to grasp state surveillance in its totality — its seductive side as well its nightmarish one — so that they’re prepared to face a future in which these technologies are pervasive, and hopefully shape it in ways that preserve as much of our humanity as possible. Unfortunately, censorship in China is now so sophisticated that probably only a handful of people there will get to see the book. For those few, we hope it helps them make a little more sense of the new world they’re living in. To Americans, the book stands as a warning. China’s surveillance state was fertilized by technology and ideas produced in the United States. The more our commitment to democracy withers, the likelier we are to see something similar sprout out of American soil.

You are the deputy China bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced reporting on China, and how have they changed since your first article on mass surveillance in 2017? In 2017, it was still possible to do a pretty wide range of reporting in China despite a fog of nationalist animosity you could see gathering on the horizon. Since then, the environment has become downright toxic — a trend that follows the poisonous turn in U.S.-China relations. At the start of 2020, I was expelled from China along with two WSJ colleagues, which turned out to be the start of a tit-for-tat that resulted in dozens of reporters getting kicked out of both countries. Correspondents who have been able to remain in China are now consistently harassed, both on reporting trips and online. A lot of regular Chinese people consider it too risky to talk to foreign reporters, even about innocuous subjects. As a result it’s gotten much harder to tell nuanced stories about the country — and sadly, there’s less demand for them as well.

When it comes to writing about surveillance and other sensitive subjects, what steps do you take to protect sources' privacy and safety? This has been by far the biggest challenge. It’s complicated by the fact that the risks and threats are always evolving. Over time I’ve learned to accept there’s no such thing as completely secure communication, though I remain committed to making it as irritating as possible for someone to eavesdrop on my sensitive conversations. I’ve also had to become much more attuned to the sort of detail that can give someone away or attract the wrong kind of attention. On the flip side, I continue to struggle with how far to go in shielding outspoken people from saying something in print (or on video) that will come back to haunt them in ways they may not grasp. Ultimately, there are no perfect answers.