5 January 2018

Where China leads, the rest of the world follows

Enrique Dans

A highly recommended article in The Wall Street Journal, “Twelve days in Xinjiang: how China’s surveillance state overwhelms daily life”, details the findings of a team the paper sent to Xinjiang, the vast province in the northwest of the country and home to a Muslim Uyghur majority that has been fighting for greater autonomy from Beijing over its affairs. In response, the Communist Party has deployed vast resources to monitor the population.

The piece make chilling reading: residents must register an exhaustive list of details with the authorities, including ethnicity, religious beliefs, whether, and to what degree they have attended religious education, the number of times a week they attend mosque, their employment, passport number, the number of trips and contacts abroad, age, marital status, property ownership, arrests, family members in detention, etc., and are also required to use biometric identification systems when buying goods or services, and are likely to be stopped and questioned by police at all times. The authorities have also deployed systems that scan faces and license plates of vehicles, and of course smartphones and other devices are routinely spied on. Something as basic as purchasing a knife requires that the seller, who is obliged to own a laser printing machine, use it to scan a QR code with the owner’s details.

This is pretty much life as George Orwell foresaw it in 1984, and shows how far the government has succeeded in creating an ironclad system of control in part based on monitoring digital data, and that has been taken advantage of by the online personal loans sector, which is unregulated. China is now a society in which everything, whether online or in the real world, is collected, analyzed and processed: if you walk down the street or drive your car, a camera will pick up your face or your license plate and it will identify you in less than three seconds, building a detailed map of your habits, your movements and associating them with your online activities, where a vast army has been tasked with eliminating all dissidence and reaffirming the beliefs and the guidelines lines set by the government.

China maybe an extreme case, but practically all Western societies, along with some Middle Eastern theocracies, are increasingly subject to surveillance technologies justified by the creation of a culture of fear, in turn justified by the fight against terrorism, child pornography or copyright protection. The problem is not so much the progressive implementation of these technologies, but the fact that are in the hands of governments that see no need for checks and balances. Technology no longer seems the basis on which to build a freer and more egalitarian system, but one that offers the powers that be the means to restrict any threat to their authority.

Xinjiang has been turned into a laboratory for thought control, a fascinating, if sinister, experiment. Understanding what life is like under such conditions as those imposed by Beijing, even accepting the political and ethnic tensions there, is fundamental to knowing where we want or do not want to go as a society. Growing numbers of democratically elected governments, convinced that our freedoms can only be protected in an environment free from certain threats, seem to be following the trend set by regimes such as China’s, in which we are constantly monitored. This all seems to be happening without any kind of social consensus, without any process of collective decision making, raising the concern that by the time we realize what is going on, it will be too late to do anything about it.

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