George Orwell’s predictions in 1984 came several decades too early, but they hit the mark. In a heartbeat, Orwell’s dystopic digital authoritarianism might have translated into reality, to the point that nowadays we no longer cast a curious look at the tracking apps on our phones or the video surveillance cameras in shops or buses. This is particularly true for China, where social surveillance has deeper philosophical roots than in Western societies. Without having to disturb the whole Red-Guard system, just consider the “neighbourhood community committees” in charge of watching over the moral and political order of an entire neighbourhood since their establishment in the mid-1950s. In Communist China, social control remains a “habit” that makes small restrictions to personal freedoms easier to accept.
As the country modernized, social control ceased to rely primarily on people, and turned to the digital realm—a shift that fitted President Xi Jinping’s call for China’s rebranding as a technology superpower. Well-before the infamous trade war with the United States, for instance, the country had already enacted the “social credit system”, which assigns a reputational score to each citizen based on compliance with state-prescribed behavioural norms. This system functions through technologies such as facial recognition, big data analysis and artificial intelligence and, perhaps more importantly in this context, is the first nationwide instance of digitalised public monitoring. It can also be considered as an attempt at “soft” policing – i.e., the reliance on non-coercive elements to maintain order.
The coronavirus has led to the acceleration of mass surveillance around the world, and especially in China. While “red flags” about the potential privacy violations of surveillance technologies were raised by democracies around the world, Beijing credited these systems for their role in containing the spread of the disease. Indeed, the emergency acted as a catalyst for major advancements in several technologies (such as health or localization), either via a general calling from central authorities or through state and private funding. For instance, SenseTime, one of China’s top developers of artificial intelligence technologies, recently declared that its face recognition system had become sophisticated enough to disclose the identity of people wearing face masks with significant accuracy.
An easy parallel comes to mind. The last time masks and surveillance technologies made the news in China they were related to instances of political contestation – that is, the Uyghur minority claims and the Hong Kong protests. Indeed, the footage of Hongkongers destroying smart lampposts, which caught the world’s attention, remains fresh in our minds. It also was not very long ago that the world was asking about the internment camps in the Uyghur homeland of Xinjiang, and how people there are identified and sentenced to them. Indeed, for years scholars have been calling attention to the establishment of a police state in northwest China, where local law enforcement supervises the activities of all.
Despite these real concerns, it cannot be denied that surveillance technologies have proven effective tools at combatting the corona virus crisis. After all, extraordinary situations often call for concessions from the part of citizens, while governments are often more at risk to see their legitimacy challenged at these particular junctures and seek to consolidate power by different means. Authoritarian states, in particular, have the most to gain from the normalization of high-tech public monitoring, and China’s history of social control, combined with its past experiences, makes the country a prime candidate. Yet, if the use of this type of technologies was to become normal (and abandon Orwell’s dystopian fiction), political contestation will intensify and sensibly disrupt state-society relations.
The case of Xinjiang is emblematic of this dynamic in China. According to eye-witness accounts, health and surveillance technologies in the region got mixed up fairly early: in the past few years, free check-ups, for instance, were apparently used as an excuse to collect blood samples as well as digital face casts and fingerprints from members of the Uyghur minority group. In Beijing’s view, the long-term aim of such an intrusive campaign was to ensure regional stability and eradicate what the government identifies as terrorism. Yet, the massive use of surveillance technologies did not lead to the expected results, but further damaged relations between authorities and the Uyghur people. A possibility that is not remote and risks precipitating unresolved conflicts. Indeed, relying on surveillance technology does not automatically secure the “love for the Big Brother” that Winston eventually developed between Orwell’s pages—its efficiency and rapidity of action, notwithstanding.
This is the second article of the series on how Covid-19 has changed state-society relations in China. The previous issue discussed the authoritarian implications of mass mobilisation, while the next one will focus on the new possibilities opened by the pandemic for civil society to contest and resist state power.