Over just two days, I read the newly-published book We Have Been Harmonized cover to cover. For anyone interested in China, global economics, or high-tech surveillance, I heartily recommend it. The book is superbly written, well-researched, and comes from an author who is an expert in the field. In this post, I would like to explore some of the topics covered in the book.
For starters, I offer a philosophical question: Is there such a thing as a universal, indomitable human spirit? In other words, are all human beings imbued with the desire to live their lives freely and express themselves without fear of reprisal? Or is this notion simply coming from the head of someone like myself who has been blessed with life inside a western liberal democracy his entire life?
At the end of the book, that’s the question that was on my mind, because, as with the poor souls trapped in North Korea, I felt sorry for the Chinese. They have never been richer, never been more powerful, and never had a brighter future ahead, and yet I see a nation of 1.4 billion humans whose government wants to treat as one unified, obedient, singularity. For a person with my viewpoint, it’s a repulsive and unsettling reality.
It won’t be long before China is the largest economy on the planet. Their resentment of the “lost century” (most of the 1800s) runs deep, and they have no intention of squandering their financial or military might. In the process, they want every want of their citizens to fall into line and become the ‘new man’ that Marx and Lenin dreamed about creating.
In spite of being nominally Communist, it is instead, in some ways, the most shamelessly money-grubbing society dedicated to Social Darwinism and the worship of billionaires. Modern Chinese society scoffs at what we in the west might call “snowflakes” – – people who have fallen on hard times and want help from others. Modern-day Chinese culture is steeped in the law of the jungle.
Yet this is not a society of fierce individualism. On the contrary, they have re-invented dictatorship for the digital age. And the word “dictatorship” isn’t one I am throwing around recklessly. Right there, front and center, in Article I of their own constitution, they describe themselves oxymoronically as a “democratic dictatorship.” The party matters. Individuals do not.
Yes, even if you’re a billionaire. Jack Ma is one of the richest men on the planet. Yet he hasn’t been seen since October. No one knows what might have happened to him, but when you’re talking about the Chinese government, anything is possible. No amount of money will protect you.
One of the most overused words when discussing a society of government these days is “Orwellian“. The most trivial news events – – like the cancelling of a book contract because of controversial political views – – is deemed Orwellian. Yet once you read about all that is going on in China, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the word is totally apt. It’s just that George Orwell could never have imagined the omniscience and omnipresence of the CCP police state, since the technologies employed weren’t even fantasies during his day.
There are almost 200 million surveillance cameras in China. There’s no need for neighbors to rat on neighbors. There’s no need for millions of secret police officers to swarm neighborhoods. The “eye in the sky” is always there, and the quantity of these state eyeballs is growing relentlessly.
More importantly, the software behind all those cameras is the true phenomenon. They can monitor in real time every activity of every citizen, and the more cameras there are, the more saturated the surveillance becomes. Citizens whom the state has been seeking for years can suddenly be caught and thrown into China’s ever-growing prisons.
The man behind all this, of course, is Xi Jinping. Up until 2012, he was pretty much a nobody on the national scene. He was bland, ordinary, and never left much of an impression. As 2012 turned to 2013, he was thrust into the party’s top position, and since then he has become as close to a deity as the godless Chinese culture will allow. The reverence around the man is similar to that which clung to Mao, and frankly I think we may eventually recognize him as the greatest threat to world peace since Hitler. It all depends on the global economy can hold together or not.
As the book’s author reminds us, Orwell wrote that he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future. The censorship in China is absolutely chilling. We all know about the Tiananmen Square horrors of June 1989. However, if you go on the web in China, the year 1989 doesn’t even exist. You can learn all about the events of 1988. Or 1990. But the year between them, it’s as if nothing happened.
There was a time not too long ago that society was actually opening up in China. The belief among Americans was similar to what we thought of Russia after the Soviet Union fell – – “the more they move to free enterprise, the more they will become like us.” We projected ourselves into their society, and we figured that if they buy and sell like us, and run businesses like us, they’ll slowly start thinking and acting like us, too.
Of course, this turned out not to be the case. Culture runs very deep. Russia’s long history of corruption ruined the prospect for any true free enterprise and liberal western ideals, and China’s obsession with societal order and ‘harmony’ – – plus the neverending fear from the CCP that they will ever lose any power – – created a culture which was, in the clumsy phrasing of their government, is “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
After Xi came into power, the baby steps that were being made with respect to free expression, an honest press, and a moral, trustworthy society quickly atrophied. Anyone speaking or writing anything not in abject praise of the CCP was jailed, tortured, or killed. Anyone who dared challenge any aspect of Party power was silenced. Even celebrating Christmas in secular form was stopped, even though for a while the Chinese were absolutely loving the celebration.
It has even reached the point that puns – – yes, puns – – have been banned. I didn’t know this, but evidently the Chinese language is perfect for puns and wordplay, since it is rife with homophones, and there is a long, rich history of wordplay among literate Chinese. Not anymore. The CCP considers is too dangerous. You wouldn’t want people thinking creatively
In defense of China, I can completely understand their desire for control. After all, if you’re going to oversee a population of 1,400,000,000 people, you don’t want a nation with 300 political parties, thousands of terrorist attacks every year, and a ceaseless chorus of complaints and suggestions. Far better and easier to get the entire population to STFU and do as they’re told. Or else.
Past autocracies have achieved this through terror and secret police. China, however, pictures The Party as being, instead, like God. That is to say: he’s everywhere, he’s all powerful, but you can’t see him. You just know he’s there, and he might be watching. Thus, if you’re afraid of him, you’re going to behave yourself. You become your own secret police. The ultimate fulfilled dream of any dictator.
I learned from the book that the budget for internal security is actually greater than that of the military. They control their citizens through constant surveillance, torture, prisons, executions, show trials, mock confessions, and other forms of state terror. Even Winnie the Pooh has been banned, because the doughy, inscrutable Chairman Xi bears a strong resemblance to him, and heaven forbid anyone laugh at the infallible Jinping.
The entire culture is like a theocracy, except that their god is “the Party”, which is the centerpiece of all their thinking. And the assumption is that all will be well so long as this absolute power is in the hands of a benevolent dictator.
The devil’s bargain could not be simpler: if you hand over your freedom, we’ll give you prosperity and protection. The citizens of China seem to accept their way of life with a shrug, and understandably so. What can anyone do about it? So they just accept the state of affairs with resignation and focus on the only thing that’s left to matter in China: buying stuff.
And buying stuff is yet another way the Party keeps their eye on you. Whether you are buying a single piece of bubble gum or a new Ferrari, the state knows everything you buy, when you bought it, where you bought it, and with whom. If you rent a bicycle and go to a friend’s house, they will know it, because every purchase made and everything that can be tracked (in this instance, the exact path you took your rented bike) is reported back to the all-encompassing state database.
The appeal of an omniscient, omnipresent government is easy to understand. Who is going to commit a crime in a place like this? Who is going to try to cheat you? China is one of the safest countries in the world, and understandably so. People are scared shitless, and unless you are intent on being a criminal, that’s just fine and dandy.
But it still doesn’t sit right with me. If omnipotence is in the hands of an all-wise, all-kind, all-perfect being, well, yeah, maybe so. But is Chairman Xi these things? I doubt it. Maybe ask the million Uyghurs that were dragged off to “re-education camps” their opinion on this matter. Not that they’d dare utter the truth. There is no group of people more closely monitored on the planet.
I never intend to live out my days in China, so why do I care about any of this? Why should you? Well, as a global citizen, I think it’s important to have at least a passing awareness of what’s going on with what will surely be one of the most important and powerful countries on Earth. Secondly, it’s valuable to have an understanding as to how all those cameras, all that artificial intelligence, and all that database processing technology is being applied to observe, oppress, and control the Chinese, because some aspects of that will surely be entering our own lives here in the land of the free.
Some may simply dismiss this, stating that the Chinese culture isn’t compatible with democracy. The book’s author absolutely dismisses this idea, pointing to Hong Kong and, more stridently, Taiwan, as examples of how Chinese people behave in a truly democratic society. Taiwan is a thriving, well-ordered, polite culture, and it’s not because there are cameras monitoring their every move. Given the right infrastructure, people actually do choose to be decent and civil. Americans do not have a monopoly on this human trait.
Could anything trip up the all-powerful Xi? Well, the man is surrounded by sycophants and yes-men, so naturally there is the risk of calcification. In other words, a society like China’s will move fast and work hard, because they are told to, but I would hardly expect much in the way of true innovation. I don’t think it’s an accident that the United States is responsible for most important innovations and technologies over the past hundred years. You cannot browbeat a people into ingenuity. Industry, yes. Flashes of insight? No. That requires a truly liberated mind.
The main risk for the world, I think, is a military one. As long as consumerism – – the new opiate of the masses in China – – continues to thrive, then all will be well. But, for whatever reason, if a long-lasting global financial crisis takes hold, and prosperity in China falters badly, then Xi will take the route any self-respecting dictator would take: he will divert the attention of the masses to a common enemy, outside the confines of the Middle Kingdom, and create war. And that is the greatest risk of all.