Death by Harmony
The mechanics of Chinese repression are a frightening marvel.
by Kai Strittmatter (Custom House, 368 pp., $28.99)
In his masterful new book, We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State, veteran German journalist Kai Strittmatter chronicles the state surveillance arrangements that have become the world’s most advanced. He lays out for the reader the now-commonplace features of contemporary life in China: “preventative policing;” a social credit system that enforces citizen compliance through surveillance, economic penalties, and community pressure; “deep learning” algorithms that track items from consumer habits to offensive social media posts; and state manipulation of media content on a mass scale.
We Have Been Harmonized documents the pervasive ways in which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has expanded into virtually every aspect of the lives of its citizens. It has done so with a set of singular goals: to eliminate dissent, reinforce the regime’s legitimacy, and force conformity. These objectives, driven by the government’s encouragement of nationalist sentiment and a massive aggregation of power by current Communist Party General Secretary and PRC President Xi Jinping, have been facilitated in recent years by a profusion of next-generation technologies.
In meticulous detail, Strittmatter explores and explains both the mechanics of these enablers of China’s 21st-century authoritarianism and their effects. His narrative includes Xinjiang, where technology has made possible the mass internment of over a million Uighur Muslims and the monitoring of millions more. It extends to the way in which China’s censors have policed, shaped, and, ultimately, stifled the country’s previously vibrant social media. The examples vary, but all of them follow a familiar arc: one of profound societal control designed to diminish critical thought, instill a single-minded allegiance to the party, impose docility and conformity, and encourage a trade-off between privacy and prosperity.
If We Have Been Harmonized suffers from a flaw, it is that its account at times seems too deterministic. As drawn by Strittmatter, the PRC under Xi is a sprawling authoritarian leviathan whose rise seems not only inevitable but inexorable.
It’s certainly true that the PRC’s digitally enabled authoritarianism presents a formidable generational challenge. Yet China’s post-imperial history suggests that the present campaign for “harmonization” could end by creating more, rather than less, instability in the long run. As my colleague Joshua Eisenman has argued, millions of Chinese, aware of the turmoil that followed the country’s last great totalitarian consolidation under Mao Zedong, now worry that, after Xi leaves the political scene, the current period of relative stability may give way to deep and perhaps protracted divisions.
The current Chinese model, however, represents an existential challenge to Western values. It is no coincidence that the rise of China’s digital authoritarianism tracks closely with the global decline of freedom. In its most recent Freedom in the World survey, democracy NGO Freedom House noted that, after a surge following the collapse of the Soviet Union, freedom has now been in decline around the world for fifteen straight years.
The PRC is not solely responsible for this reversal, of course. Yet China’s model of modern repression, which the PRC has used to great effect against its own populace, has become a distinct export commodity in Beijing’s dealings with authoritarian-leaning governments in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere along the path of its Belt and Road Initiative. It is hard to divorce the advance of Chinese authoritarianism and its associated technologies from the receding appeal of the often messy processes found in democratic societies.
Although Strittmatter doesn’t mention it, the Trump Administration deserves significant credit for the growing global awareness of this fact. The focus of Trump’s White House on “great power competition” with China went a long way toward demolishing the previously persistent idea that the PRC, with sufficient political engagement and economic overtures, could somehow be transformed into a “responsible stakeholder” on the world stage. The Chinese government itself, by mishandling and obfuscating the coronavirus pandemic over the past year, has done the rest—to a point at which global publics are now uniformly souring on the PRC, and the Biden Administration, after initial vacillation, appears to have embraced the need for long-term strategic competition with Beijing.
But if America now understands that it has a China problem, it remains a long way from formulating a serious solution to it. With devastating efficiency, Strittmatter discusses the manifestations of China’s digital authoritarianism, from ubiquitous surveillance techniques modeled on philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea of a “panopticon” to the mass data mining and DNA collection underpinning what is increasingly understood to be genocide against the country’s Uighur minority. Yet, as he makes all too clear, these tactics are just part of a broader, whole-of-government approach on the part of China’s Communist Party to shape the behavior—indeed, the reality—of the citizens it rules.
For now, at least, America has nothing resembling a national plan to compete with these arrangements. While Beijing has comprehensive strategies for dominance in spheres ranging from artificial intelligence to space exploitation, U.S. efforts in those arenas (and others) remain disjointed, divided between government initiatives and private-sector alternatives that often compete with one another. Quite simply, America lacks China’s national unity of effort on the very frontiers that could help enshrine the long-term dominance of the Chinese model.
The problem is massive and urgent. If Beijing has its way, the United States has only a few years before it is overtaken by China and its “national champion” firms in fields like artificial intelligence—and only a few more to create the enabling technologies capable of penetrating gaps in China’s “Great Firewall” before they close for good. If America does not move swiftly, in other words, the central warning of We Have Been Harmonized about the spread and entrenchment of China’s digital authoritarianism could indeed become reality. For those seeking to understand the true scope of the problem and its thoroughly frightening implications, Strittmatter’s book is essential reading.
Ilan Berman is senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
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