Coming to America: Chinese State Surveillance?

Faces of jaywalkers are publicly displayed: a wall of shame

It can’t happen here. Surely the Bill of Rights, built in to the American Constitution, will save us slumbering frogs from being boiled alive in the proverbial pot of water. We can delude ourselves into thinking that totalitarianism is so 20th Century. The ubiquitous web will shine disinfectant light on the insurgent dictatorships of the world. The case of China is anomalous. The Great Firewall of China is merely a Maoist hangover in a country still gripped by a geriatric Communist Party. It can’t happen here. Right?

Mayor Bloomberg successfully ran NYC according to the motto: “The goal is algorithmic governance.” Data driven policies are the enlightened way to govern. Steven Pinker, in his convincing book, Enlightenment Now, has documented that science based technocracies have moved the population upward if we consider the measurable data of well being. And it is the richness of current behavioral data that provide the empirical basis for rational policies that will continue the trend toward greater well-being. Martin Chorzempa, who is responsible for the quote above, is a fellow of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. However, that quote was made in connection with his observation that invasive mass surveillance is what offers this new way for the government to MANAGE the economy and society. (“Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I. Shame and Lots of Cameras”, New York Times, July 8, 2018. Paul Mozur is the reporter)

In spite of the regime put in place after 9/11, the idea of mass surveillance provokes an indifferent shrug. Companies like Google and Facebook have normalized the reality that our every move is tracked and recorded. It’s a fair exchange. We trade privacy for convenience. It is so pervasive that Soshana Zuboff has labelled it “surveillance capitalism.” Instead of timber, cotton, and oil, the new raw material is human experience. Our behavior is processed for the sake of “hidden commercial practices of extraction, production, and sales.” (“The Definition”, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) In hundreds of pages, Dr. Zuboff, professor emerita of the Harvard Graduate School of Business, details how our behavioral data is exploited to tune, herd, and modify our behavior for commercial purposes.

In China, commerce and government are not quite separate. It is an authoritarian regime whose goals supersede the individual. That is true of all totalitarian governments. The almighty State. Stalin once toasted author Maxim Gorky with the words: “The production of souls is more important than tanks…And that is why I raise my glass to you, writers, engineers of the soul.” (Age of Surveillance, p. 535). Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, etc., are now the ones engineering our souls. Just as totalitarianism seeks to refashion the soul and bind it to the goals of the State, ours are being massaged by the Tech Oligarchy. It did not end well in Stalin’s Russia. Millions were slaughtered for the good of the Almighty State.

It can’t happen here, right? Google and Facebook just want to make money, not turn us into zealots for the Reich. Of course, we ever vigilant Americans would never tolerate a social credit system like China’s. As CNN’s Roger Creemers reports:

“China’s core internet agenda is to leverage the explosions of personal data…in order to improve citizen’s behavior…Individuals and enterprises are to be scored on various aspects of their conduct—where you go, what you buy and who you know–and these scores will be integrated within a comprehensive database that not only links into government information, but also to data collected by private businesses.”

Dr. Zuboff points out that the aim of the Chinese government is to guarantee social outcomes rather than market outcomes (Age of Surveillance, p389).

“China’s Chilling Plan to Use Social Credit Ratings to Keep Score on its Citizens”

Paul Mozur, of the New York Times, has recently revealed how the Chinese government has automated racism. They are using facial recognition technology to track 11 million Uighers, a Muslim minority, for “search and review.” Moreover, they have detained nearly a million in “indoctrination camps.” The idea is to pressure them to become more “Chinese.” The technology is also used to keep tabs on the day to day activities of the Uighers. Facial recognition technology now extends to the entire Chinese population. Government surveillance includes people with criminal records, mental illness, drug addicts, and THOSE WHO HAVE PETITIONED THE GOVERNMENT OVER GRIEVANCES.

The madness of King Donald no doubt would not extend to ordering facial recognition of the US population, even if they rejected him at the voting booth. Unless, perhaps, Congress has been neutered. The Intercept reported on April 29 that Looking Glass Solutions, a Virginia based intelligence firm, gathered information on more than 600 demonstrations across the country, information that was the shared with DHS, and state level enforcement agencies. These demonstrations were protesting the Trump Administration’s policy of ripping children from their parents at the border. Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrant’s Rights Project said, “They [the protestors] will again be outraged to learn that, rather than focusing resources on reuniting these families, the Administration was instead spying on them for expressing themselves.”

Our First Amendment rights have been trampled on by our government for centuries. Vietnam taught us that. Protestors, unions, have long been spied on and profiled over the years by government agencies. So what else is new? The difference is that in the age of pervasive behavioral data collection, incremental moves by these same agencies can profile virtually the entire population. And then, Chinese style social credit policies can begin to fan out from federal hiring, to federal contracts, into student loans, the banking system, all the way down to the average person in the street who may thinking about buying a TV. Totalitarian tiptoe.

One may think that China is merely an outlier on the world stage. And yet I have noticed in the reporting on the trade negotiations between the US and China that China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which offers its trade partners generous terms for infrastructure development, has made drastic inroads with Asian, African, and South American partners. I have also noted that these arrangements can be instantly cancelled if the partner voices too loudly a criticism of the Chinese government. Given the ascendency of the Chinese economy, and its very real encroachments onto the world stage, why not emulate the Chinese model of government also? Isn’t that the basis of its success? Market socialism? Authoritarianism. Total control.

Keep people well fed and distracted. Punish criticism. Eliminate rival ideologies. By the way, did I forget to mention the murderous regime of Saudi Arabia? Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, General Electric, General Dynamics are proud of the billions they’ve made selling tools of death to the Saudis. While Jared Kushner’s buddy MBS is slaughtering opponents, his underlings finally acquired enough grey matter to figure out how to use these toys to kill hundreds of innocent Yemeni civilians. But let’s not criticize the Trumps, they need to pay off debts. Jeez, I hope my boss doesn’t fire me for writing this. Make Amerika Great Again!

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