China: mark of the East
With events and technology occurring at lightning speed in China during the past few years the question must be asked . . . is China the Mark of the East?
We don't have to imagine the dystopian merging of commerce and political authoritarianism in a total surveillance state; it already exists in the People's Republic of China. No doubt China's totalitarianism has become far more sophisticated than the crude Sino-Stalinism practiced by its first leader Mao Zedong, a fact that proves that it's entirely possible to have a wealthy, modern society and still be totalitarian. The techniques of social control that have become common in China could be adapted by Western countries with relative ease. In the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping opened China to free- market reform, Western experts predicted that liberal democracy wouldn't be far behind. They believed that free markets and free minds were inseparable. All the West had to do was to sit back and watch capitalism free the liberal democrat deep inside China's collective heart.
Forty years later China has become spectacularly rich and powerful, creating in a single generation a robust, colourful consumer society from a mass population that had known only poverty and struggle since time immemorial. The Chinese Communist Party, which worked this miracle, not only maintains a secure grip on political power but is also turning the nation of 1.4 billion souls into the most-advanced totalitarian society the world has ever known. Beijing's clever use of consumer data, biometric information, GPS tracking coordinates, facial recognition, DNA and other forms of data harvesting has turned China into a beast never before seen worldwide. The tools of surveillance capitalism are employed by the State to administer their so-called 'social credit' system, which determines who is allowed to buy, sell, and travel based on their social behaviour.
In effect, they have pioneered the use of artificial intelligence and other forms of digital data gathering to create a State apparatus that not only monitors all citizens constantly but can also compel them to behave in ways the State demands without ever employing the Secret Police or the threat of gulags, and without suffering the widespread poverty that was the inevitable product of old-style communism.
The great majority of Chinese pay for consumer goods and services using smartphone apps, or their faces by facial recognition technology. These provide consumer confidence and security, making life easier for ordinary people. They also generate an enormous amount of personal data about each Chinese individual, all of which the government tracks. The State has other uses for facial recognition too. Television cameras are ubiquitous on Chinese streets, recording the daily comings and goings of the nation's people. Beijing's software is so advanced that it can easily check facial scans against the central security database. If a citizen enters an area forbidden to him (such as a church) or even if a person is walking in the opposite direction to that of a crowd, the system automatically records it and alerts the police. In theory, the police don't have to show up at the suspect's door to make him pay for his disobedience. China's social credit system automatically tracks the words and actions – online and off – of every Chinese citizen, and grants rewards or demerits based on obedience. A Chinese who does something socially positive (helping an elderly neighbour with a chore or listening to a speech by leader Xi Jinping) receives points toward a higher credit score. On the other hand, one who does something negative (letting his/her dog defecate on the footpath or making a nasty comment on social media) suffers a social credit downgrade.
Because digital life – including commercial transactions – is automatically monitored, Chinese with high social credit ratings gain privileges. Those with lower scores find life harder. They aren't allowed to buy high-speed train tickets or fly anywhere. Doors close to certain restaurants. Their children may not be allowed to go to college. They may lose their job and have a difficult time finding another. He/she will also be isolated as the algorithmic system downgrades those who are connected to the offender. The bottom line: a Chinese citizen cannot participate in the economy or society unless he/she has the mark of approval from Xi Jinping – the country's all-powerful ruler. In a cashless society the State has the power to bankrupt dissidents instantly by cutting off access to the internet, and in a society in which everyone is connected digitally the State can make anyone an instant pariah when the algorithm turns them radioactive, even to their family.
The Chinese State is also utilising totalitarian methods for ensuring that coming generations don't have the imaginative capacity to fight back. In his 2019 book We Have Been Harmonised – China's term for neutralising citizens deemed to be a threat to the social and political order – a journalist who spent years in Beijing reporting for a German daily reveals the techno-dystopia that modern China has become . . .“The State's information-control apparatus has demolished the ability of young Chinese to learn facts about their country's history in ways that contradict the Communist Party's narrative. Even though a great deal of information remains available to students, they don't care about it. Many say they haven't the time; they're distracted by a thousand other things. They live in a completely different world, having been manipulated by their education and Party propaganda. They devote their lives to consumerism and ignore everything else: they ignore reality, and it's been made easy for them.”
A population that has been wholly propagandised by a totalitarian State, and demoralised by hedonistic consumerism, will hardly be in a position even to imagine opposition to its command and control strategies. Even if some dissidents did emerge, the government's total information system would quickly identify and 'harmonise' them before they had the opportunity to act, or even if they had the conscious thought of dissenting! Unnervingly, reports now show that Chinese officials are applying this predictive software to its data culls to identify potential future leaders and possible enemies of the State before awareness of their potential rises in the individuals' minds.