China:  A Country Where Digital Totalitarianism Reigns

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We Have Been Harmonized:  Life In China’s Surveillance State
by Kai Strittmatter
September 2020


We Have Been Harmonized is a must-read for those who want to comprehend the totalitarian state that China’s President Xi Jinping has created since assuming power in 2012. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), who had suffered grievously under Mao Zedong, was a pragmatist and opened up China; Xi Jinping is a harsh dictator like Mao.

Kai Strittmatter is a German journalist who writes for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. From 1997 until recently, he worked as a journalist in Beijing. Prior to his becoming a foreign correspondent, he studied journalism and Chinese history, politics, and culture in Xi’an and Munich. He is fluent in Mandarin. Thus, he knows China well.

We Have Been Harmonized chronicles how the China that we once recognized as “opening up” and “reforming,” the China that cared more about pragmatism than Marxist/Leninist ideology, the China that was friendly to Western values, has disappeared. It has been a decade since Xi Jinping took control of the Chinese government, and under his iron hand, China has gone from an authoritarian state to a totalitarian state — one that recognizes no limits to its authority in any sphere of public or private life.

Xi serves both as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and as president of the People’s Republic of China. The first section of the book describes the purges that Xi undertook upon assuming power in 2012 (eerily similar to Stalin’s infamous purges in the Soviet Union during the 1930s). No Chinese leader since Mao Zedong (who died in 1976) has accumulated this much raw power and control over every aspect of Chinese life.

Strittmatter explores the classic mechanisms of dictatorship that the Chinese Communist Party has re-employed:   intimidation, terror, torture, and execution. Party functionaries throughout the country have been paralyzed by fear, as the party’s Central Commission of Discipline Inspection has investigated not only corruption but also the ideological purity of party officials. More than 243 party officials committed suicide between 2009 and 2016 (a throwback to Mao’s Cultural Revolution).  And like the Soviet “show trials” of the 1930s, there have been frequent teary “confessions” broadcast on national TV by alleged criminals and traitors against the state — confessions which were usually written and forced on the alleged criminals by their jailers.

Upon President Xi’s accession to power, the Chinese Communist Party flooded the country with propaganda, including state slogans written on banners in public places declaring that “the people are happy,” “China is strong,” and “Harmony reigns” — all thanks to the Party! The Orwellian Doublethink described in 1984 has taken root again in China. Strittmatter recounts how indoctrination is everywhere, starting in preschools with patriotic songs and rhymes. The entire curriculum in elementary and high school is structured around Party propaganda, and it forms the basis of the political training that staff in the civil service, universities, and state-run companies have to attend on Friday afternoons, as they imbibe the latest intricacies of “Xi Jinping thought.” It all sounds like Mao’s Little Red Book fifty years ago. 

In 2012, President Xi gave the order to “win back the commanding heights of the Internet,” and thereafter the Party began censuring all undesirable thoughts and ideas published online. More than 900 million Chinese use the Internet, but Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia are all banned in China. Legions of watchers ferret out all “undesirable” postings on the web – especially on China’s two main social media sites, WeChat and Weibo. Xi’s China strives for universal thought control.

Strittmatter also describes how accurate and truthful history has gone down the memory hole, especially since the National People’s Congress passed a law in 2018 threatening punishment to anyone “insulting or slandering heroes and martyrs” – including, of course, Communist dictators. So, describing how tens of millions starved in Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958 through 1961 can get you thrown in jail.

The second section of We Have Been Harmonized describes how the Chinese Communist Party is using Artificial Intelligence and image and facial recognition software to create a society where there is no privacy. Some years ago Chinese officials recognized that U.S. firms like Google (Alphabet) and Facebook (Meta) were far ahead of the pack in Artificial Intelligence. China went on a crash course to catch up to the United States in this area; the Chinese have largely caught up. The Chinese government now uses facial recognition software from Chinese firms like Megvii and Sensetime, storing it in huge databanks to create an all-seeing eye that spies on its 1.4 billion citizens. Strittmatter estimates that there are now 600 million surveillance cameras in China – all linked to government offices.

Some examples of how this all-seeing eye works:  The police in Jinan and Shenzhen publicly shame people who cross the street when the lights are red. Their faces appear in real time on a video screen on the side of the road – together with their name, address, and ID number. In April 2018, in a stadium in Nanchang, the eye picked out a 31-year-old whose profile had been placed on a national data base for “economic offenses” – from a crowd of 60,000 concertgoers. Cameras are in subway stations, on passenger cars on trains, in school classrooms, in malls, on street corners – everywhere.

Over the past half-dozen years, police forces in various provinces have been gathering all the data they can on hundreds of millions of citizens:  medical records, religious affiliation, credit cards, takeout orders, online behavior flights, train journeys, face, voice, fingerprints. Everything goes into the government data bank – which when manipulated with Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition software means there is no such thing as privacy.

And what is scariest of all in a society like this:  The all-seeing eye doesn’t have to be looking at you, for the totalitarian society to function.  All that matters is that you feel it might be – so your behavior is controlled.

In one of the most chilling sections of You Have Been Harmonized, Strittmatter uses his thorough knowledge of Xi’s China to give a brilliant description of China’s Social Credit System. All the government data on citizens is forwarded to third-party Artificial Intelligence providers whose algorithms analyze and rate behavior as good or bad. Those with bad behavior are labelled “trust-breakers” or “discredited.” One’s score determines access to social resources. Citizens who get a low score are not allowed to apply for a government job, fly, or buy tickets for high-speed trains. They can even be denied the ability to leave the country. They have no access to bank loans or insurance. Public exposure is built into the system so that a blacklisted person’s picture may appear on government web sites throughout the country.

Of course, in reality, the Social Credit System is not about trust and harmony; it is about government control through the collection of data and the all-seeing eye. Mao’s totalitarian regime has returned in the guise of a digital totalitarianism created by Xi Jinping, with an efficiency Mao could not have come close to achieving.

The illusion that China’s rapid economic growth during the past few decades would make the country more democratic and friendly to the West has been shattered by President Xi’s dictatorship, which has returned China to an iron-fisted totalitarianism. Xi has abrogated of the Hong Kong Treaty (which was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s relative freedom until 2047) and repeatedly threatened to invade Taiwan, which poses no threat to it other than showing how a free-market democracy run by Chinese can work. Such flexing shows that the Chinese Communist government is determined to become the leading global power – as China saw itself in the 18th century and before, the so-called “Middle Kingdom” surrounded by barbarians.

Strittmatter’s brilliant book We Have Been Harmonized demonstrates how dramatically things have changed in China in the decade since President Xi assumed power. The West is now dealing with a modern version of Mao. The United States, and indeed the West, needs to wake up and carefully and thoughtfully make plans to counter this worrisome challenge. There is still time, because China and the West are still economically mutually dependent — but time is growing short.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $5.7 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.


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