BookBrowse Reviews We Have Been Harmonized by Kai Strittmatter

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We Have Been Harmonized

Life in China's Surveillance State

by Kai Strittmatter

We Have Been Harmonized by Kai  Strittmatter X
We Have Been Harmonized by Kai  Strittmatter
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    Sep 2020, 368 pages

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A deep dive into the surveillance systems shoring up Chinese totalitarianism that serves as an urgent warning for Western readers.

You'd be forgiven if, while reading We Have Been Harmonized, you momentarily mistook it for a modernized reboot of George Orwell's 1984. If it weren't for the intermittent interviews with Chinese executives, since-deleted essays from disappeared academics and quotes from locked up journalists jarring you back to reality, you might be lost in a ludicrous dystopian yarn, bordering on preposterous.

We Have Been Harmonized is the scariest thing I have ever read, far scarier than science fiction. What differentiates this book from nonfiction about past totalitarian regimes is that this is happening — and globalizing — right now. After setting this book down, you realize that we are one totalitarian turn away from becoming trapped by our own technological advances. If the Chinese Communist Party gets its way, the systems of repression and control covered in this book will be exported (at a profit, of course) to societies around the world. In fact, many of the technologies discussed already exist in your community. The Chinese Communist Party's goal is not just national harmonization, but hegemony. Today China; tomorrow the world.

Kai Strittmatter presents everyday reality in the most advanced surveillance fascist state in history. (The Chinese Communist Party is "communist" in name only. China's main ideology is nationalism.) Through well-referenced materials, extensive interviews with Chinese technology execs and artists, his writing features hints of desperation – as though he is shrieking through his journalistic prose: "Please, heed this warning!"

Chapter-by-chapter, We Have Been Harmonized breaks down how the People's Republic of China is honing its surveillance state to create unthinking, homogenous fascists out of its population. Topics include the efficacy of cheesy propaganda, the gamification of propaganda, facial- and voice-recognition cameras dotting the landscape to track citizens' movements, and the TikTok app putting bounties on wanted people for teens to pursue. The gamification of Stasi-like terror (see Beyond the Book) is perhaps most disconcerting. Citizens gain points in their Alibaba and TikTok-built apps by reading President Xi Jinping's political essays and tattling on neighbors for untrustworthy deeds. The scope of the book feels as overwhelming as the surveillance it covers at times. No stone is left unturned.

Tying all of these authoritarian themes together is the concept of "harmonization" — reshaping a population person-by-person into automatons that follow government rules without thought. Totalitarianism requires control over society to maintain itself. The Chinese Communist Party is seeking to go one step further — to secure control over every aspect of every individual's life, including what they think and what they can do. The Party has realized that Artificial Intelligence (AI), internet surveillance and gamification give it the tools they need to make people police themselves and each other, in perpetuity.

Certainly most in the West are familiar with 1984's screen in every room, and the more well-read have heard of the panopticon — the ultimate prison, where a guard can see into all cells at any time, inducing prisoners to behave because they "could" be watched at any given moment. Artificial intelligence and modern surveillance technologies take these concepts to a whole new level. In China, you are being watched at all times, and audited for your actions, interactions and loyalty. Not just by the state security apparatus, but by machines — cameras, phone trackers and AI. Also by your neighbors, family members and friends, who get bonus points for pointing out your shortcomings. If you perform poorly on the government's soon-to-be mandatory trustworthy tracker smartphone app, you are penalized — first with no access to the subways, then no flights, and eventually, imprisonment.

We Have Been Harmonized is intense. The chapters build on one another in a structured fashion, each furthering the case that the surveillance system in China is more advanced than what Orwell could have imagined. The book is systematic and comprehensive in its review, and does not come across as sensationalist or shrill. It offers up just the bare-bone facts, from a journalistic perspective. At times it reads a bit like a government white paper — emotionless. However, this gives the writing more legitimacy than many contemporary nonfiction books.

Regardless of one's political affiliation, this is the wake-up call that everyone in the West needs to hear. If you value free thought, civil rights, identity politics, religious freedom, freedom of expression or a civil society built on trust, you should be afraid of the People's Republic of China becoming the next world superpower. None of those things are allowed to exist in the People's Republic of China. Artificial intelligence, surveillance technology and propaganda ensure that they are never allowed to spontaneously emerge again. Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are almost there — a perfectly harmonized society. Safe, secure, wealthy and under one political party's absolute control.

Today the People's Republic of China exports the world's manufactured goods. Tomorrow, its AI-enhanced software and totalitarianism may be surveilling and controlling your life.

- Stephen Mrozek

This review is from the We Have Been Harmonized. It first ran in the September 16, 2020 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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