Xi is using the power of technology not only to repress the Chinese people, but to push his Marxist-Leninist mode of government to other countries.
London: It was only a short video clip about the problems of life in China that Gao Zhgang sent on to his friend in the United States, but soon afterwards the police arrived at his home at Yingze in Shandong Province and arrested him on “suspicion of stirring up trouble”. This led to a charge of “slander” of the government and a 10-month jail sentence. Welcome to Xi Jinping’s China, a dystopian world where everything you do or say is closely monitored and recorded. Big brother really is watching you.
The hapless Gao used WeChat to send his video, the most popular app in China. Commonly called “the app of everything”, this instant messaging system has grown into a vast ecosystem of features—from communications to shopping, gaming, banking, appointments and travel. It’s so convenient for users in China, who spend on average 70 minutes a day within the app, that it’s as unimaginable not to have WeChat as not to have a smartphone.
That’s good news for China’s state security police, who use WeChat to carry out surveillance and harassment of anyone using it, especially dissidents or activists in exile who dare to speak out about human rights abuses in the country or campaign for democratic reform. Even documents and images transmitted among non-China-registered accounts undergo content surveillance, when files are analysed for anything that is politically sensitive in China. As users joke: “WeChat, they Watch”.
Millions of Chinese living abroad have discovered WeChat to be the bridge that links them to the trappings of home, from family photos and chatter to just about everything. As all other western social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter are banned in China, WeChat is their app of choice. It’s even used to send money from anywhere in the world to relatives in China.
Just how President Xi Jinping is using the power of this technology, not only to repress the Chinese people, but to push his Marxist-Leninist mode of government to other countries, was set out in a US Senate Foreign Relations report in July. As a warning to world leaders, the report describes how by assembling a “multimodal” biometric portrait of individuals, drawing on data such as DNA samples paired with facial recognition and then using omnipresent cameras and smartphone apps, China’s authorities are able to sort its people into categories, track their movements and even take pre-emptive actions against those considered threats. The report concludes that this strategy was trialled and is now fully realised in Xinjiang as part of China’s cultural genocide of the Uyghur Muslims.
But there’s more. Spurred on by their distaste for anything resembling a liberal lifestyle, the Chinese government has become convinced that an even greater degree of social control is both necessary and possible. Enter the dystopian world of “social credit”, a concept designed to reach within every corner of existence, both online and off. The system monitors each individual’s consumer behaviour, conduct on social networks, and real-world infractions such as speeding tickets or quarrels with neighbours. Then it integrates them into a single, algorithmically determined “sincerity” score. Every Chinese citizen receives a literal, numeric index of their “trustworthiness and virtue”, an index which unlocks everything. This single number will determine the opportunities citizens are offered, the freedoms they enjoy, and the privileges they are granted. In other words, if you behave yourself and are a good citizen, you are rewarded. If not, you get a “smack”. This is the world George Orwell wrote about in his book 1984, except this is fact, not fiction.
Beijing doesn’t want these capabilities to remain only in China. The country physically exports digital infrastructure to more than 60 countries through its Belt and Road Initiative, with Chinese companies marketing surveillance products to developing countries in Africa, South America and Central Asia. In Venezuela, they are helping the authorities to craft a “Fatherland Card” that monitors citizens’ behaviour, and in Zimbabwe, Chinese companies are facilitating the country’s ambitious facial recognition programme.
Not content with just digital infrastructure, the Chinese government is also exporting its laws. Nations that have participated in seminars organised by the regime in China tend to return home and craft similar cyber security legislation. By building influence in global standard-setting bodies, China hopes to shape international guidelines towards an authoritarian ethos. In fact, many believe that Xi’s ultimate aim is to create a world governance in China’s image.
Perhaps China’s most active and contentious current “export” is in ideas. Boosted by its self-proclaimed “success” of beating Covid-19, Beijing is trying to convince the world that “closed is better than open” and that “controlled is better than free”. The nation’s propaganda machine has been attempting to seize the narrative surrounding the pandemic, reframing the episode as an example of the agility and organisation of the communist leadership. In September, Xi Jinping held a glitzy, triumphant ceremony to celebrate China beating the virus, just at the time that President Donald Trump’s lethargic attempts to do the same were failing. Infections were spiking in America causing several hundred thousand deaths. “We quickly achieved success in the people’s war against the coronavirus and are leading the world in economic recovery,” Xi said, in the heavily publicised event. No doubt he is also feeling rather smug about this week’s IMF projections on world GDP outcomes for 2020, with the US’ economy predicted to fall by 4.3%, the Euro Area by 8.3% and India by a whopping 10.3%, while China’s is predicted to grow by 1.9%. Despite waves of Western scepticism, China’s share of world GDP at market prices has risen from 2% in 1995 to 16% today.
Beijing is convinced that the US is in terminal decline and that it can take its place as the world’s leading country. In support of this, China is reshaping international organisations and now heads four out of the fifteen United Nations specialist agencies, more than Russia, France, the UK, and the US combined. Beijing uses the leaders of these agencies to co-opt international institutions, control their talking points and install Chinese telecommunications equipment in their facilities. This is invariably Huawei, ensuring that Beijing will always have covert access to information at any time. Also, China’s membership on the UN Human Rights Council has enabled the CCP to prevent criticism of its abuses in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. All this while President Trump pursues his disastrous policy of withdrawing the US from international institutions, giving China an open goal.
So, might countries wavering on the edge be persuaded by Xi’s argument that China’s economic success and defeat of the coronavirus is cast-iron proof that the Chinese “closed” system is superior? Will this persuade leaders that democracy has failed and that they too should adopt the Chinese authoritarian system? These are dangerous times for democracy.
But dangerous times offer opportunities. As the United States hunkers down for one of the most consequential elections in its history, Delhi is in a uniquely strong position to join forces with the US to push back against malign Chinese behaviour, regardless of whether the next President is Donald Trump or Joe Biden. The pact between India and the United States signed on Tuesday, paving the way for deeper military cooperation between the two countries, is an exciting first step towards what should be a future strong and resilient relationship between the world’s two largest democracies. If this happens, democracy will be saved.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.