Surveillance State: A Conversation with Josh Chin
In their new book, Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control (St Martin’s Publishing Group, 2022), investigative reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin examine the emergence of automation-assisted digital surveillance in China and in spaces of Chinese development around the world. Drawing from reporting done in Xinjiang, eastern China, Uganda, and elsewhere, they tell a gripping story of the way China’s immense bureaucratic state is being integrated with cutting-edge technology, producing a form of authoritarian state power that is unprecedented in the way it moves from consumer convenience to authoritarian control. At the same time, Chin and Lin’s work expands the object of critique beyond the Chinese political and economic system, to understand digital surveillance as a contemporary global phenomenon arising simultaneously from multiple centres—namely, China, the United States, and Israel. They also humanise the issue by telling stories of what privacy and surveillance look like on the ground from Uyghur, Han, and Ugandan citizen perspectives. The reporting that forms the core of this project began in 2016 and 2017 and, along with the reporting of Megha Rajagopalan, Gerry Shih, and others, it shaped global understanding of the way technology was being utilised to perpetrate automated forms of anti-Muslim racism that rose to the level of crimes against humanity in northwestern China.
Darren Byler: One of the most fascinating points you and Liza raise in your book is the way Chinese citizens think of the term ‘privacy’ (隐私). You show how usage of the term has skyrocketed since China shifted towards a technology-driven market economy. If you search 隐私 in Google Books Ngram Viewer, you see there has been a 350 per cent increase in usage between 2010 and 2019. Yet, at the same time, one of your interviewees suggests that ‘many people [in China] can’t grasp the concept of privacy’. Can you speak about this rise in thinking about privacy, security, and surveillance and whether you found any discontinuities between China and the other spaces to which you travelled in your research for the book?
Josh Chin: It’s funny reading that quote now. One realisation we came to in writing the book and talking with readers about it afterwards is that a lot of people everywhere, not just in China, have trouble grasping the concept of privacy. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say almost everyone has a hard time defining privacy and, by extension, figuring out when, how, and how vigorously to defend it.
In the United States, there’s a fascinating body of research that shows consistent contradictions between what Americans say about the value of privacy and the value they ascribe to it in real life. The obvious example here is how easily the United States embraced the efflorescence of state surveillance after 9/11. But there are countless other examples, especially in the current era when it’s no secret that social media platforms are sharing our data regularly with the government, yet we continue to use them more or less as we did before.
The conversation about privacy is especially fascinating in China because of how quickly it’s evolving. When we started looking at digital surveillance, it was really only intellectual elites—the sort of people whose work you’d expect to be captured by an Ngram search—who would actively engage with our questions about privacy protection. Most people we talked to, even relatively savvy middle-class folks living in rich cities like Beijing and Hangzhou, didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. They didn’t have a real reason to. That is, until Covid zero.
When the Omicron variant hit Shanghai in 2022 and the Chinese Communist Party started using its surveillance technology to track residents and enforce lockdowns, a lightbulb seemed to flicker on for a lot of people. Suddenly, members of the Han majority were experiencing the sharp end of surveillance. You started to see more public pushback against tracking tools like facial recognition—to the point where the government recently came out with draft rules restricting its use. None of those rules will ultimately apply to the government itself, but the fact that Chinese leaders feel the need to be seen as restricting a core surveillance tool is a testament to the degree of public suspicion. Where things go from here is very difficult to say, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that a significant percentage of the population in wealthy Chinese cities is far more attuned to privacy than before the pandemic.
DB: You argue in the book that Chinese technology companies are building on a model of ‘surveillance capitalism’ pioneered by companies like Facebook and Google—a model of capital accumulation that in Shoshana Zuboff’s conceptualisation focuses on harvesting behavioural data to build prediction products—but that Chinese companies are using it in ways that are both similar and different. The most prominent of these differences is the exceptional relationship they have with state security. Another important difference is in the way Chinese platforms are integrated across many domains of the economy as super-apps. So, for instance, Alibaba and Tencent have access to the same kinds of consumer data as Amazon, but they also know where ‘users spend time, who their relatives and friends are, what movies they like, how much electricity they use, and what they like to do on vacation’ (p. 107). Do you feel that Chinese companies are less focused on eliciting desire through the attention economy and advertising than US-based platforms, and more focused on intensifying convenience and control? To what extent is population management part of the business model of mainstream technology companies in China?
JC: It comes down to environment and incentives. Alibaba, Tencent, and almost any other private Chinese tech company you can think of take Silicon Valley as their inspiration. And the core mission that drives them is the same one that drives your Googles and Facebooks: upend established ways of doing things (ideally, but not necessarily, for the better) to accumulate mountains of money. But China is not California.
Part of the reason Chinese tech companies ended up prioritising all-in-one convenience, versus a narrow focus on attention, is in part because daily life in China used to be so inconvenient. Everything was done in cash, and the bureaucracy was maddening. Something as basic as paying your electricity bill meant dragging yourself to the post office and standing in line for an hour. If you’re an internet company competing for users, one of the biggest value propositions you can offer is removing that friction from people’s lives by giving them a platform where they can do everything with a couple of button clicks.
That approach became even more entrenched once companies developed the ability to do sophisticated behavioural analysis with those data. No successful tech company is allowed to exist in China for long without proving its utility to the Communist Party. Once Alibaba and Tencent realised they could sell their data as a behavioural crystal ball to government officials, that became a core part of the business model. And in a country where the domestic security budget rivals the budget for the military, it’s a lucrative business to be in, even if you strip out the political necessity.
DB: Another important aspect of the book is that you show how Chinese surveillance systems travel transnationally and then investigate on the ground in Uganda what this looks like. What were some of the major continuities and discontinuities from the way surveillance systems worked in Uganda relative to China? Beyond the price point and logistical convenience of using Chinese systems, did you get a sense that Chinese technology was viewed by Ugandan authorities as better adapted to antidemocratic purposes?
JC: It’s important to keep in mind when talking about exports of surveillance technology that China isn’t the only country doing it. In Uganda, the Chinese company that eventually won the bid to build the country’s surveillance system, Huawei, was competing with Genetec, a Canadian firm. Uganda’s security forces had previously purchased spyware from an Israeli firm. There was nothing in the Chinese technology per se that made it better for suffocating political opposition.
The difference was in China’s sales approach. Before Huawei won the bid, the Chinese Embassy arranged for Ugandan police to travel to Beijing to get a firsthand look at how the Public Security Bureau used the technology to impose control on society. After Huawei won the bid, we discovered that Huawei employees had helped Ugandan security forces hack into the encrypted communications of a top opposition leader—seeming confirmation of the company’s reputation for no-holds-barred customer service.
So, there’s no doubt that China sells instruction in its approach to surveillance along with the surveillance systems themselves. The trick: there might not be another country on Earth that has the capacity to copy China’s model, which requires both an immense budget and a sprawling, relatively competent, and disciplined bureaucracy. Uganda certainly can’t match China in that respect. As a result, its application of state surveillance to political control turned out to be much messier. But in the end, it succeeded in helping keep Uganda’s leader, Yoweri Museveni, in power and, for Beijing, that’s probably all that matters.
DB: The reporting you have done on the situation in Xinjiang has shaped global understanding of the speed, scope, and scale of surveillance in that context. In the book, you show this by tracking the emergency response time of police to a test run of one of the thousands of ‘convenience police stations’. You show the overwhelming scale by drawing on Tahir Hamut’s observations of vans being loaded with detainees from his neighbourhood in Ürümqi day after day after day. Near the end of the book, you note that Xinjiang is a place where the surveillance appears to really work, while elsewhere in China it’s ‘riddled with blindspots’. What are some of the features of surveillance in Xinjiang that make it truly a limiting case of the surveillance state that is difficult to replicate elsewhere? Were the protests we saw across China in November 2022 in some ways against the spread of Xinjiang-style surveillance? Or do you see surveillance of ‘ideological diseases’ in Xinjiang as quite delinked from China’s pandemic controls?
JC: I’m so glad you brought up the November 2022 protests, because they’re essential to understanding the dynamics of state surveillance, in Xinjiang and in the rest of China as well.
Not long after I came home to Beijing after my first reporting trip to Xinjiang in 2017, I described what I’d seen there to a Han Chinese human-rights lawyer. Without skipping a beat, he said what was happening in Xinjiang was just a preview of what was coming for the rest of the country. I remember being sceptical at the time. It seemed like hyperbole from someone who’d maybe spent too much time confronting the extremes of Communist Party power. Fast-forward to January 2020 and the start of the pandemic. Suddenly, residential compounds are funnelling residents through a single entry point and checking IDs, just like the government did in Xinjiang. A few months later, everyone has to download a health code app that tracks their movement and rates them according to the infection risk they pose—a replica of the way the government tracked the spread of ‘ideological viruses’ among Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
The parallels became even more pronounced once the Omicron variant arrived and cities like Shanghai rolled out all the surveillance technology they had to keep people locked inside their apartments. Shanghai in the spring of 2022 was even more dystopian than Ürümqi in the totality of physical control imposed on an urban population.
But the differences became apparent eight months later. The protests that broke out that winter were astounding; we hadn’t seen people in China direct a collective middle finger at the Party like that since 1989. There was a limit to the state control people would accept and the Party had ploughed head-first into it. But that limit doesn’t exist in Xinjiang because the Party has succeeded in terrorising Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims into submission. They never had the numbers or the power to resist. It’s ironic that the 2022 protests started in Ürümqi with a deadly fire in an apartment building occupied by Uyghurs. Locals blamed pandemic controls for obstructing firefighters, but it later emerged that the crowds that filled the streets had been overwhelmingly dominated by Han Chinese. Uyghurs were too afraid to join, even though it was their friends and relatives who had burned.