Is Chinese-style surveillance coming to the west?
In 2005 I was chased, by car, from Shanghai to Hangzhou by Chinese secret police. My crime? Setting up meetings with Chinese writers.
I was there working on a report for PEN International on the organizations that cater to literary writers. What issues did writers care about? What activities did they engage in?
The car tailing us bobbed in and out of traffic to keep up, and later slowed when it looked like it would overtake us. It was a frightening experience although my companion from PEN and I were not arrested, and we suffered no consequences from the surveillance and pursuit.
On the other hand, the Chinese writers we were to meet with the night before in a Shanghai restaurant, had been detained and questioned. One was taken to tea. The other dinner at KFC. Anything to prevent them meeting with us.
We could only hope that our efforts to learn more about these writers and support them in their work would not bring them any real harm. And the experience left me with an enduring admiration for their courage to even agree to meet with us in the first place.
But that was 15 years ago.
If we were to return to China to do a similar report today, who knows if we would even know we were being watched?
In a very short time, China’s surveillance capability has become immensely sophisticated and now extends beyond keeping tabs on political dissidents to developing a system for monitoring the behavior of the entire population.
You could, in fact, argue that the technologies that once promised to be a liberating force are now just as easily deployed to stifle dissent, entrench authoritarianism and shame and prosecute those the Orwellian government of President Xi Jinping deems out of line.
Since the massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989, digital technology has given the Chinese government new, more stealthy modes of silencing, oppressing and disappearing dissidents, and stifling historical discourse.
This includes censoring online even mentions of 4 June, and an ever-changing catalogue of words and phrases that, depending on circumstances, are deemed threatening, including “feminism”, “1984”, “I disagree” and certainly anything that might draw attention to Uighur or Tibetan rights, or the independence of Taiwan.
Twitter – and many social media platforms people use freely elsewhere – is banned in China, and many people who have found ways to work around its censorship have been detained as recently as this year.
According to Amnesty International, China “has the largest number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world” which is, of course, related to it having “the world’s most sophisticated system for controlling and surveilling the web”, as CNN has reported.
While we once hoped the internet would deliver us freedom of expression, the ability to communicate freely across borders and even be a channel for dissenting views, we now see the very opposite is occurring.
Worse, the Chinese model is now being exported. Wired magazine has reported that China is “exporting its techno-dystopian model to other counties … Since January 2017, Freedom House counted 38 countries where Chinese firms have built internet infrastructure, and 18 countries using AI surveillance developed by the Chinese.”
The scale of China’s domestic surveillance apparatus is extraordinary. The country is in the process of developing a “social credit” system which has been described as Big Brother, Black Mirror and every dystopian future sci-fi writers have ever dreamed up all rolled into one, and which is due to be operational next year.
The social credit system will enable the government and others to access details of people’s behavior, rate them and make them publicly available. The potential to “name and shame” people for minor lapses such as late-paying of bills is obvious but so is the way such ratings could also be employed to deny citizens employment or to justify detaining them for political reasons.
Both in the west and in China, the use of the internet to track individuals is facilitating oppression and paving the way towards authoritarianism.
We in the west are beginning to comprehend the sheer extent to which we are monitored and manipulated via social media companies tracking our data and monetizing it by selling it to political parties, retailers and even foreign governments.
The dangers these trends pose are shown to be at their peak with tech’s willingness to divulge our data or attempt to sway aspects of our personal lives and political opinions. We saw this with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal, as exposed by Carole Cadwalladr, and the allowance of targeted disinformation campaigns.
What is happening in Orwellian China today is a warning to us in the west that the freedoms we have so blithely taken for granted are already being compromised by the behavior of social media giants and other tech compguardiananies. The authoritarian impulses behind such control have already seeped into the American political system and without greater vigilance, and a willingness to fight back, we all may be subject to surveillance on a Chinese scale.
The 2019 PEN World Voices Festival runs May 6-12 in New York City and includes Rise Up: Tiananmen’s Legacy of Democracy and Freedom;Orwell’s China and Siri, Where’s My Democracy, Presented with the Guardian.
Chip Rolley is senior director of literary programs at PEN America and director of PEN World Voices Festival