Is the West copying Communist China’s surveillance state?
The overwhelming majority of the 264 articles I have written on Covid and the big state overreactions of the past few years had to do with how very easily and quickly our governments were able to take over almost every aspect of life, from travel to education to health care to our churches to even when you could leave your home, for how far and for how long.
This was a burgeoning police state deployed in the name of keeping us safe. The surveillance state that so very quickly arose had us all living like common criminals, and anyone who dared to resist felt the full force of the law, be they lone joggers in an empty park or pyjama-clad mothers at home. It was ‘health’ tyranny on steroids.
And it happened all over the West, especially here in Melbourne. It really was hellish. And the only thing worse than this Big Brother overreach was the way the masses so readily went along with it all. They were more than happy to act as Stasi spies and even turn in friends and family who dared to believe that basic human rights and liberties are utterly essential and inviolate.
If this was a dry run for any future total takeovers of democratic nations, we now know exactly how it will pan out. It does not look good at all. And the really scary thing is, we already know just what the totalist Police State looks like. We do not need to speculate.
We have North Korea to examine. We have Communist China to check out. Alarm bells should be going off all over the place as to what we find there. But most folks seem totally oblivious and unaware. So it is up to some of us to try to sound the alarm, and to alert others to what the full-tilt fascist state actually looks like.
Simply examining China in some detail should be enough to wake us out of our stupor. I have penned a number of pieces of late on just how bad things are under the CCP-controlled nation. It is bad news indeed. But let me look at this even further. To do so I will draw upon one very important new book: Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control by Josh Chin and Liza Lin (St. Martin’s Press, 2022).
In this volume the authors remind us how a quite small cadre can control an entire nation: “Though its membership accounts for a little more than 5 percent of China’s population, the Communist Party is the ultimate power in the country, standing above both the government and the legal system. It is also the driving force behind the conception, construction, and operation of the Chinese surveillance state.” ix-x
Early on the authors describe how overwhelming the state surveillance system is, and how little human privacy remains in China:
The volume of personal data theoretically available to the Party strains comprehension. By the start of 2020, close to 350 million cameras recorded the comings and goings in Chinese streets, in public squares, in subway stations, and around commercial buildings. More than 840 million smartphones bounced around in the purses and pockets of Chinese pedestrians, sending a steady stream of location data to telecom operators. Mobile payment systems logged millions of transactions a day in databases that offered searchable, ever-evolving portraits of human activity rendered in breathtaking detail.
As it continues to amass more data and develop new ways to process it, the Party dangles the promise of a perfectly engineered society: one in which the government has the power to track your every move with cameras that can recognize your face and the unique rhythms of your gait, microphones that can recognize your voice, and smartphone GPS systems that relay your location to within a few feet; in which government officials can scrutinize your private chat history, reading and viewing habits, internet purchases, and travel history and can crunch the data to judge how likely you are to help or harm public order; in which artificial intelligence companies work hand in glove with police to track down fugitives, find abducted children, and publicly shame jaywalkers; and in which public services, rewards for good deeds, and punishments for misbehavior are all delivered with mathematical precision and efficiency.
To be sure, much of this vision remains aspirational. Some of it the Party may only partly realize, and some of it might not materialize at all. But significant pieces of it are already taking shape in cities throughout China thanks to evolutionary leaps in artificial intelligence. Machines can now listen, see, and “think” on an entirely new level, making it possible to harvest personal data on a scale that a decade ago would have seemed impossible. The same machines can also help sift the data to dissect, and even predict, human behavior. p. 7
Sound a bit familiar? Just recall how medical lepers (the unjabbed and other recalcitrants) were monitored 24/7 here in the West during the Covid reign of terror and denied basic goods such as travel, education, access to services, entry to workplaces, and so on.
The 300-page book looks at China’s grandiose tyranny in great detail. Consider the social credit system, and the system of blacklists it relies upon. As they explain:
The lists were linked together in a system of “unified rewards and punishments” that copied names from one list to the others. This meant someone who stirred things up online wouldn’t just have their internet access limited by the cyberspace authorities but might also be banned from taking out a mortgage by the banking regulator. Shame was a feature of the system as well. In some cities, mobile operators fixed it so that anyone calling a blacklisted person would hear a warning that they were about to talk to someone untrustworthy. p. 225
This ought to sound quite familiar as well. With woke businesses and woke big tech in bed with woke governments, we see the same thing already happening here. Ever get a message from Facebook for example telling you that the post you shared contains false information and you are blocked from posting for a week or a month? Ever have Google control what search results you get?
Ever have YouTube pull down a video that does not fit in with the secular left narrative? Ever have the police knock on your door for daring to discuss a freedom march on the social media? Ever been part of a freedom march violently disrupted by the police? We have been there and done that.
Just as I am seeking to compare and contrast the situation in Communist China with where we may be heading in the West, so too do the authors. They close by reminding us that in a world of crime and criminals, some surveillance and some security systems will always need to be in place. The question is one of finding the proper middle ground between the Chinese police state and an anarchistic free-for-all. They write:
Whatever approach democracies choose, they will ultimately need to start with transparency. Digital surveillance prefers to work out of sight, in the shadows. Minimizing its harms means dragging it into the light. “This is Civics 101,” Kevin Haggerty, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who studies surveillance in policing, told us in the early days of our work on this book. “You can introduce whatever structure you want, but if you don’t have a vibrant tradition of independent journalism, civic engagement, they mean nothing.”
Exposure, of course, only gets us so far. Even with the reality of state surveillance laid out on the dissection table under the glare of surgical lights, we still have to wrestle with difficult choices. A system of face-tracking cameras to find abducted children or an app to track carriers of the next pandemic virus may seem justified in themselves, but what happens when you factor in the potential for surveillance creep? How else might such systems be used by people in power once everyone else has stopped paying attention?
There are no easy answers, but understanding and accepting that—finding a way to embrace complexity and inconvenience—is ultimately the best antidote to the Communist Party’s vision of a society ruled by numbers. p. 262
As mentioned, there is a place for the police and for basic security measures, but the line between a democracy and a police state can become quite thin. With so many more alarming moves underfoot, from a cashless society to digital identity measures to so-called safe cities and 15-minute cities, we are quickly making that line very fuzzy indeed.
We had better learn from places like Communist China before it is too late.
It is both sad and amazing how many folks unfriended me in 2020-2022 because I was concerned about the loss of our liberties and basic human rights while they were more concerned about doing whatever Big Brother told them to. And most of these were Christians! They seemed to prefer blind subservience to the secular state over valuing freedom – including religious freedom.