China believes mass surveillance will help it engineer the perfect society
Five years ago Josh Chin was driving with a colleague outside of Korla, the second-largest city in China’s Xinjiang region, when they found themselves on a winding dirt road. A cloud of dust formed, and when it cleared, one police car was in front of them and another was behind them.
Several officers, some carrying assault weapons, surrounded the car, gestured for them to get out and interrogated them about what they were doing in the area. After persuading the police officers to let them go, Chin asked one of them how they had found them in the first place.
“We have cameras back there,” Chin recalls the officer saying. “One of them recognized your license plate.”
Such advanced surveillance has become the norm in Xinjiang and around the country, according to Chin’s new book, “Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control,” which he co-wrote with his Wall Street Journal colleague Liza Lin.
The pair, both longtime China reporters, describe the building of a dystopian police state in Xinjiang, where China, many human rights groups say, is perpetrating genocide and crimes against humanity against the mostly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic groups.
Under the guise of counterterrorism, they write, China has been using advanced artificial intelligence, facial recognition software, DNA collection, “Big Brother” programs and other tactics “to exert total control” over local populations.
But surveillance is not limited to Xinjiang. Even in cities like Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, China is using surveillance to create a “digital utopia” where technology helps improve everything from traffic patterns to emergency responses.
It’s “a new society engineered around the power of digital surveillance,” they write, and it’s a model China appears to be exporting to other authoritarian countries.
I recently spoke with Chin — now based in Taiwan — and Lin — now based in Singapore — about their new book. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What shocked you most about surveillance in Xinjiang?
Chin: The shock came in two waves. The first was just seeing so much futuristic and untested technology being unleashed indiscriminately, and seemingly without hesitation or consideration of the side-effects, on an entire population of people. The second came when we realized the Communist Party was using it to reboot one of the most reviled institutions of the 20th century — the mass incarceration of a religious minority in gulag-style camps.
How do you compare surveillance in Xinjiang to the rest of China?
Chin: In Xinjiang, surveillance is truly totalitarian. It covers every Turkic Muslim in the region. It’s pervasive and constant, and its aim is to remold the individuals it targets. In the rest of China, Covid complicates the picture. Pre-Covid, the Xinjiang style of hard surveillance was reserved for half-a-dozen categories of people, including ex-cons, dissidents and the mentally ill. People outside that category experienced surveillance mostly in terms of “smart city” conveniences, like being able to scan their faces to pay for subway tickets. But under “zero Covid,” nearly everyone in China has been subjected to hard surveillance in the form of health codes that track and limit their movements depending on their exposure — similar to the way authorities in Xinjiang track exposure to the “ideological virus” of religious ideas.
Lin: Over the last 20 years, the Chinese social contract was that we’ll give you higher salaries and better living standards and you’ll keep us in power. But in the past five years, with Chinese economic growth slowing, the Chinese government realizes that the old social contract is no longer working because you’re going to hit a point where not everyone’s income is rising. You’re an authoritarian government, but you still need to keep your citizens happy to stay in power. So the new social contract, outside of Xinjiang, is we’re using all this technology to make your life nice and efficient by doing things like clearing traffic jams and helping ambulances get to hospitals faster, and you give us your loyalty. And the government has always viewed Xinjiang as a place that breeds separatism. They always want to clamp down on it, and with digital technology, they’ve found an almost easy way to do it.
To what degree do you fault or blame U.S. technology companies for their role in the use and abuse of surveillance technology in China?
Chin: U.S. tech companies midwifed the Chinese surveillance state from its most embryonic state in the early 2000s, and they continue to nurture it with capital and components. They’ve done this for the same reason American companies always do things: it’s extremely profitable. U.S. chip makers say they can’t control how every single buyer uses their products, which is true. But can they try harder than they are? Almost certainly.
Lin: Western technology and capital have been the building blocks of China’s surveillance state. Right from the early years, when China was seeking a way to build up its capability, folks like Sun Microsystems, Nortel Networks, Cisco, Siemens were there to sell to Chinese police. I would describe the feeling Western companies had towards China in the early days and even up to recent years as naive optimism and strategic corporate ignorance. Now, folks are talking about the possible regulatory risks to doing business in the market and scouring their supply chains for evidence of forced labor.
How much further can China take surveillance?
Chin: Beijing’s ultimate goal is something like a perfectly engineered society — one that has no dissidents because everyone is satisfied, that automatically course-corrects without leaders having to intervene with force. They seem more likely to end up with something less than perfect, which will still require them to track and punish misbehavior. They also have huge technical and political barriers to overcome. It’s hard to say where all this will end up, but I think it’s safe to say the Communist Party isn’t done trying to optimize its control over Chinese society.
It seems that the Chinese public generally approves of China’s surveillance technology. To what degree do you think that approval is a result of state propaganda?
Chin: It’s extremely difficult to disentangle public opinion from propaganda in China. To some degree, it may not really matter. State surveillance is, at heart, a propaganda project. Its aim is to persuade people that they’re being watched, along with everyone around them. That gives people a sense of security while at the same time encouraging them to modify their own behavior. To the Party, what matters is the belief, not how people come to hold it.
Lin: I had gone into this project thinking state surveillance is always a very bad thing. But a lot of Chinese people find surveillance attractive. Chinese state media are not shy about saying how amazing the surveillance is at finding criminals. There are stories in local papers about abducted or missing children who were reunited with their parents because of facial recognition technology. The surveillance state is as much a propaganda project as it is a tech and infrastructure one.
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