Today's Top Picks

We Are Not FreeClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Traci Chee

Summary

From New York Times best-selling and acclaimed author Traci Chee comes We Are Not Free, the collective account of a tight-knit group of young Nisei, second-generation Japanese American citizens, whose lives are irrevocably changed by the mass U.S. incarcerations of World War II.

Fourteen teens who have grown up together in Japantown, San Francisco.

Fourteen teens who form a community and a family, as interconnected as they are conflicted.

Fourteen teens whose lives are turned upside down when over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry are removed from their homes and forced into desolate incarceration camps.

In a world that seems determined to hate them, these young Nisei must rally together as racism and injustice threaten to pull them apart.

BookBrowse Review

Author Traci Chee is best known for her young adult fantasy trilogy, The Reader series. We Are Not Free is a complete departure from that genre, with a setting and characters close to her heart and history. In this novel, which begins in 1942, 14 Japanese American teenagers are ripped from their lives in San Francisco and relocated to detention camps scattered across the western United States. Chee draws on the experiences of her own grandparents to recreate events and bring to vivid life characters with a wide range of personalities and versions of the broken American dream.

The novel employs 14 points of view — eight boys and six girls. Chee is up to the challenge of keeping the voices distinct. There is the artistic Minnow and his solid-as-a-rock older brother Mas, hyperactive Twitchy, angry poet Tommy, musical Yum-Yum, blonde-wigged Bette. These 14 points of view also permit the author to explore a variety of possible outcomes for the teens. Initially, all are temporarily relocated from their homes in a tight-knit San Francisco neighborhood to the nearby Tanforan racetrack, where they are housed in horse stalls. The next three years find them scattered around the country, and even abroad, yet still faithfully keeping in touch.

From Tanforan, the teens and their families are sent to barracks at the Topaz Detention Center in central Utah. Young people at Topaz attend school and play sports, but the barbed wire surrounding the camp never allows them to forget that they are incarcerated. One man is shot for standing too close to the fence, a scene Chee describes in heartbreaking detail. Since some of the teens at Topaz are of age to enlist and are U.S. citizens, they are given the option of volunteering to join the armed forces — with an all-Japanese unit. Mas and Twitchy join up, are sent for training, and soon are posting letters from the Western front — Italy, France, always places where the fighting is the most fierce and deadly. One of these young men returns to his loved ones. Another, though fortunate to have a friend nearby in his final moments, does not.

An alternative destination arises from a questionnaire given to the residents of Topaz and other detention centers relating to citizenship. Nisei — the Japanese language term for young people born in the United States to parents from Japan — were U.S. citizens. Issei — the term for immigrants born in Japan — were legally denied American citizenship. On the questionnaire, detainees were asked whether they would renounce allegiance to any country or government other than the United States. For Issei, answering "yes" rendered them stateless. In We Are Not Free, the Katsumoto family is disheartened by the questionnaire. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mr. Katsumoto, a grocer, had placed "We Are American" posters in the windows of his San Francisco shop. His children, Stan and Mary, were model American students. The question breaks his trust in his chosen homeland.

Tommy Harano and his family are in a similar situation. Tommy longs for his parents to see him, love him, accept him as he is, but they only want him to conform to their perception of what a good, traditional Japanese son should be. He renounces the United States and gains their approval. Some of the adults who answer "no" to the controversial question consider returning to Japan, a country at war, a country they have not seen for decades. In the meantime, families like the Katsumotos and the Haranos are sent from Topaz to another detention center, Tule Lake, on the northern border of California. And, from Tule Lake, the teens continue to correspond with their friends in Utah and Europe.

There was yet another alternative, which Traci Chee explores with two of her young characters. Nisei deemed "loyal" by the United States have the option of taking a job in the Midwest or on the East Coast — far from California and its relative proximity to Japan. Bette (she of the blonde wig) and quietly rebellious Shigeo leave their families in Topaz and find apartments and jobs in Chicago and New York City for the duration of World War II — as always, consistently keeping in touch with their friends.

Some novels are plot-driven, others character-driven; We Are Not Free is situation driven. For teen readers already familiar with Farewell to Manzanar, They Called Us Enemy, and Baseball Saved Us, Traci Chee offers a wider, multifaceted picture of this shameful episode in America's past with a more individual focus.

Book reviewed by Catherine M Andronik

Beyond the Book:
The U.S. 442nd Infantry Regiment

442nd Regiment with German POWsIn Traci Chee's young adult historical novel We Are Not Free, which follows 14 Japanese American teens from San Francisco through World War II, two young men in Topaz detention camp, Mas and Twitchy, decide to volunteer for the army. Japanese American men were unable to serve until early 1943; the American government had considered them enemy aliens since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Director of the Office of War Information Elmer Davis urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to reverse the ban on soldiers of Japanese descent in a 1942 letter, in part for propaganda reasons, but also because he believed most Japanese Americans were loyal citizens and deserved to serve if they wished.

But once they enlisted, Japanese American soldiers were not incorporated into other units; they were segregated in the 442nd Regiment. The unit was made largely of Japanese Americans from Hawaii, supplemented by over 2,000 men from the mainland detention camps. Among the 442nd's recruits was Daniel Inouye (1912-2012), former Senator from Hawaii.

In the chapter narrated by the character Twitchy, readers march with the Regiment to battlesites like Livorno, where the young Japanese Americans were lauded by their superiors: "They were superb! They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit. Everybody wanted them," said General George Marshall. Sent to France, the Regiment arrived in the Vosges Mountains in late October 1944. They anticipated a short break — but then word came that the First Battalion, made up largely of men from Texas, was in trouble. The Americans had been gaining ground against the Germans, but the battalion became separated from their fellow combatants and were soon surrounded and overwhelmingly outnumbered by German forces. A fighter squadron managed to airdrop supplies, but ground troops could not reach them. Soldiers later heard that Adolf Hitler himself had sworn that this was a battle he would not lose, no matter how many Germans died. After days of fierce fighting and high casualties, the Japanese American soldiers, outnumbered four to one, pushed through the enemy lines and rescued the "Lost Battalion," over 200 American soldiers.

Altogether, throughout the war, the 442nd Regiment lost 600 young men. For its size (18,000 soldiers), it was the most decorated unit in the history of the United States with 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor, and seven Presidential Unit Citations. The Medals of Honor were bestowed in a ceremony in 2000 by President Clinton, who said of the 442nd soldiers: "They risked their lives above and beyond the call of duty. And in so doing they did more than defend America. In the face of painful prejudice they helped define America at its best."

The 442nd Regiment with German POWs, courtesy of Sons and Daughters of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team

The Standardization of Demoralization ProceduresClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Jennifer Hofmann

Summary

On November 9, 1989, Bernd Zeiger, a Stasi officer in the twilight of his career, is deteriorating from a mysterious illness. Alarmed by the disappearance of Lara, a young waitress at his regular café with whom he is obsessed, he chases a series of clues throughout Berlin. The details of Lara's vanishing trigger flashbacks to his entanglement with Johannes Held, a physicist who, twenty-five years earlier, infiltrated an American research institute dedicated to weaponizing the paranormal.

Now, on the day the Berlin Wall falls and Zeiger's mind begins to crumble, his past transgressions have come back to haunt him. Who is the real Lara, what happened to her, and what is her connection to these events? As the surveiller becomes the surveilled, all will be revealed, with shocking consequences. Set in the final, turbulent days of the Cold War, The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures blends the high-wire espionage of John le Carré with the brilliant absurdist humor of Milan Kundera to evoke the dehumanizing forces that turned neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. Jennifer Hofmann's debut is an affecting, layered investigation of conscience and country.

BookBrowse Review

The title of Jennifer Hofmann's perceptive debut novel with its bureaucratese strongly suggests a satire in the vein of Kafka or Dostoevsky, and there are certainly elements of humor and incisive critique within its pages. The protagonist is a surveillance agent for East Germany's secret police, the Stasi, and the opening scenes involve torture and references to a missing woman — lining up the tropes for a propulsive spy thriller. But The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures defies easy categorization and the reader's expectations to provide a nuanced portrayal of aging and the hollow feelings of loneliness and futility that may come along with it.

It is 1989 and Bernd Zeiger, at 60 years old, has been largely relegated to the sidelines by the Stasi's top brass. In his glory days, Zeiger wrote a handbook outlining the most effective practices for cultivating psychological distress, used by the secret police to control the population of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and to extract information from dissidents and other suspected enemies of the state. Now, his days consist of supervising younger agents, contending with the symptoms of a mysterious illness, and eating lunch at the same cafe day in and day out. But when his favorite waitress, Lara, goes missing, Zeiger becomes determined to find out what happened to her. In the process, he recalls his brief association with Johannes Held, a physicist whose torture by the Stasi Zeiger oversaw in the 1960s.

Held's bizarre story is recounted in full in a flashback — he was sent by the GDR to take part in an experiment centered around teleportation conducted in the Arizona desert and then tortured upon his return by Stasi agents certain he knew more about this phenomenon than he was letting on. His experience in the desert is intriguing, unsettling and vividly depicted, but with the unfortunate consequence that Zeiger's story may strike readers as somewhat lackluster in comparison.

Zeiger is (for the most part) a sympathetic protagonist, as he has committed his heart, soul and life to the GDR, only to be cast aside as irrelevant. His personality (or lack thereof) and patterns of behavior seem designed to lampoon communists for their rigidity, uniformity and slavish adherence to authority; Zeiger's tie collection is a "meticulous gradation of browns and grays," except for one novelty tie featuring "a pattern of small beer mugs," given to him as a gift. Zeiger finds its whimsy grotesque: "It was a vulgar tie, hedonistic, self-righteous, Bavarian, one that created in him the same level of discomfort he experienced viewing indecent films." Yet later the government decides to ban the color gray among its ranks — it is determined to be "the sustenance of skeptics, not of socialist good cheer" — and Zeiger and his colleagues are expected to pivot on a dime to brightly colored clothing. The absurdity is funny, though this particular brand of anti-communist humor is not terribly original.

Hofmann's descriptive writing, however, is consistently unconventional and delightfully strange. One character is described as "a colossal boy with a colossal set of cheekbones and piscine eyes, features reminiscent of circus performers with pituitary problems." She also presents a realistic rendering of the malaise that accompanies feelings of redundancy. Zeiger has served for decades as a faithful instrument of the Party at the expense of any close relationships, dreams or interests of his own. With his career quickly waning, he is left only with his memories, many of which are profoundly disturbing. And if his illness is as serious as he believes it to be, he is in the midst of dying alone.

In the final pages of the novel, Hofmann offers a more nuanced critique of communism, or at least the GDR's version, that coincides with Zeiger's experience of a dramatic psychological spiraling. Zeiger questions a mental hospital doctor, hoping to learn the details of Johannes Held's whereabouts, and she asks him if he believes teleportation is real, leading to the following exchange:

'It would be a threat to national security.'
'So are cartoons, Herr Zeiger. What does it mean to you?'
'It would be a momentous contribution to science.'
'But to you. What does it stir in your soul?'
'Hope,' he admitted.
'That could be a symptom,' she said.
'Of what?'
'Psychosis. Magical thinking.'

In the GDR, hope, or any form of yearning for something other than the present state of things, is not only discouraged, it's a symptom of psychosis. Hofmann also expertly ties together the disparate threads — the missing waitress, Zeiger's illness, the teleportation experiment and the torture of Johannes Held — into a polished finished product. A genre hybrid with a mystery at its core, the novel is not perfect but it's an enigma well worth puzzling over for the quality of the writing alone.

Book reviewed by Lisa Butts

Beyond the Book:
Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Prison

The site of Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Prison in 2011 At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four occupation zones governed by France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1949, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), also referred to as East Germany, was formed as a communist state in the Soviet territory. The most notorious apparatus of the GDR's repressive government was the Ministry for State Security, aka the Stasi. The Stasi was the government's intelligence division/secret police, and throughout the GDR's 41 years of existence, it was known for its surveillance, torture and murder of dissidents (and suspected dissidents).

In 1951, the Stasi took ownership of a building in northeastern Berlin that had previously served as a Soviet detainment facility and began to use it as a prison for their purposes. In Jennifer Hofmann's novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, the protagonist, a Stasi agent, recalls witnessing the brutal beating of a suspected dissident in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Prison, an incident that stayed with him for years and caused him to question his loyalty to the GDR cause. Over the course of the 1950s, over 11,000 people were remanded to Berlin-Hohenschönhausen by the Stasi, where they were subjected to all manner of human rights abuses, including brutal interrogation techniques. Many were imprisoned for the crime of trying to make their way past the Berlin Wall or otherwise escape the GDR.

Prisoners at Berlin-Hohenschönhausen were kept in solitary confinement 24/7, and were deprived of sleep, showers and medical care. There were some two-person cells, but the prisoners understood that any cellmate could potentially be a Stasi plant, adding another layer of psychological unease. One former prisoner, who broke both legs after falling off a train attempting to flee the country, recalls being tossed into a cell that was three-quarters full of water and left there for three days, unable to sleep or even sit down. He was beaten and told his execution was imminent. While in operation, the prison was kept secret; it was located in a restricted military area and it was not marked on maps. The prisoner cells were predominantly in the building's basement, and lights were kept on constantly so that the inmates never knew if it was day or night.

The prison was closed on October 3, 1990 after the reunification of Germany. In 1994, it reopened as a memorial site. Today, tours are given that include the testimonies of former prisoners — sometimes in person, sometimes via audio/visual technology. The memorial, which sees 400,000 visitors annually, features photographs and artifacts from its disturbing history, such as inmates' letters and clothing. The audio/visual component of the interactive tour puts the visitor in the position of being a prisoner, complete with interrogations. One former prisoner turned tour guide remarked to German media outlet Deutsche Welle, "It is important to me, that those times are not played down. You need to know that this happened so that you can make sure it is never allowed to happen again." The memorial is located just a few miles from the Stasi Museum, the site of the Ministry's former headquarters, kept more or less intact and also open for guided tours.

The site of Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Prison in 2011, by Nstannik (CC BY-SA 3.0)

His Only WifeClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Peace Adzo Medie

Summary

Afi Tekple is a young seamstress whose life is narrowing rapidly. She lives in a small town in Ghana with her widowed mother, spending much of her time in her uncle Pious's house with his many wives and children. Then one day she is offered a life-changing opportunity—a proposal of marriage from the wealthy family of Elikem Ganyo, a man she doesn't truly know. She acquiesces, but soon realizes that Elikem is not quite the catch he seemed. He sends a stand-in to his own wedding, and only weeks after Afi is married and installed in a plush apartment in the capital city of Accra does she meet her new husband. It turns out that he is in love with another woman, whom his family disapproves of; Afi is supposed to win him back on their behalf. But it is Accra that eventually wins Afi's heart and gives her a life of independence that she never could have imagined for herself.

A brilliant scholar and a fierce advocate for women's rights, author Peace Adzo Medie infuses her debut novel with intelligence and humor. For readers of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Candice Carty-Williams, His Only Wife is the story of an indomitable and relatable heroine that illuminates what it means to be a woman in a rapidly changing world.

BookBrowse Review

21-year-old Afi is a talented Ghanaian seamstress eager to study fashion design, but her life is upturned when her mother agrees to an arranged marriage with a virtual stranger, the son of a wealthy local businesswoman, on her behalf. Afi is whisked from her small town and placed in a luxury apartment in the capital of Accra. It soon becomes clear that Afi's husband Eli is already in love with someone else, a woman his family disapproves of, and that his family has set up his marriage to Afi to lure him away from her.

This "other woman" lingers on the periphery for almost the entire novel, and I thought this was a very clever narrative decision. It allows her, the rival who is never seen but whose presence is always felt, to remain as elusive to the reader as she is to Afi. It also emphasizes that the contention between her and Afi is born wholly from the influence of others, and not through any fault of their own.

There is clear critique here of the widespread practice of unofficial polygamy in Ghana. Afi and Eli's traditional wedding is recognized by their community but it is not legally binding in the same way a modern ceremony would be. Men having multiple wives in a non-legal capacity is commonplace, so Eli believes himself to be free to continue pursuing relationships elsewhere and thinks that Afi should accept this without question. Without ever adopting a judgmental tone, Medie highlights the ways in which the practice of locking women into moral contracts without proper legal protection or reciprocal opportunities upholds patriarchal structures, enforcing longstanding division between genders and classes.

Medie brings this West African nation's rich and complex culture to life on the page, showing the contrast between the traditional customs still upheld by many (particularly in more rural areas) and the increasingly cosmopolitan way of life spreading throughout the capital. This paves the way for the author to explore wealth disparity and how much emphasis is put on a family's standing within the wider community. Afi's relatively poor, widowed mother agrees to marry her daughter off for the prosperity and prestige it will bring them, and Afi feels the burden of this, trapped by her obligation to provide for her loved ones. Making it clear that money equals power within this society, Medie shows that it is only as Afi begins to gain her own financial security that she finds the confidence and means to defy those who seek to control her.

This arc that Afi follows throughout the novel is a pleasure to watch unfold as she transforms from a powerless, naïve girl who shyly submits to her husband to a bold and confident woman who stands defiant. It is particularly satisfying that her autonomy is ultimately won not through explosive drama but the cultivation of her own career, relationships and self-worth.

As Afi finds her voice and the story moves towards a somewhat inevitable conclusion, it becomes increasingly clear that our heroine is perhaps not so different from her supposed enemy. The implication that the two women have been pitted against each other precisely because they share a similar attitude of rebellion against the status quo is loaded with further thematic potential. It is here that the book may have benefited from a little more depth, when the "other woman" should arguably have been given her moment in the spotlight at last. Still, for its relatively understated approach, this is a propulsive novel that flips between easy-read escapism and meaningful social commentary with impressive ease.

Book reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

Beyond the Book:
Contemporary Ghanaian Women Writers

In her novel His Only Wife, Peace Adzo Medie captures the clash of tradition and modernity in present day Ghana. Medie belongs to a long line of talented women writers who show the country's rich culture and history to be bountiful sources of inspiration. Here are just a few of the most exciting Ghanaian women on the current literary scene.

Ama Ata Aidoo Ama Ata Aidoo was born in a Fanti village in 1942. Her father, the village chief, established the first school there and encouraged her to pursue education from a young age. Now a successful novelist, poet and playwright, she has served as Ghana's Minister for Education and founded the Mbaasem Foundation, an organization that actively supports African women writers. Her best-known works include Our Sister Killjoy and Changes: A Love Story. She was the subject of The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo, a documentary film directed by Yaba Badoe (see below).

Yaa Gyasi Yaa Gyasi was born in Mampong in 1989. Her family relocated to the United States when she was a child, and she was raised in Alabama. Her debut novel, Homegoing, was released to international acclaim and a host of major awards when she was just 26 years old. In 2019, Homegoing was named one of the BBC's "100 Novels That Shaped Our World." Transcendent Kingdom, released in the US in 2020, is her second novel.

Ayesha Harruna Attah Ayesha Harruna Attah was born in the Ghanaian capital of Accra in 1983. A literary magazine run by her parents and Toni Morrison's work served as early inspirations for her, and she currently has four novels to her name, including Harmattan Rain and The Deep Blue Between. Outside of her many writerly achievements, which include an MFA in creative writing from NYU and being named the 2014 Africa Centre Artists in Residency Award Laureate, Attah spent several years studying biochemistry.

Yaba Badoe Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian-British filmmaker and author, born in Tamale, the capital city of Ghana's Northern Region, in 1955 and now based in London. Badoe's varied career has taken her across the globe, studying at Cambridge, working as a civil servant in Ghana, and teaching in both Spain and Jamaica. Her documentaries are critically lauded. Her fiction includes a novel for adults, True Murder, short works in anthologies and three books for young readers.

Elizabeth-Irene Baitie Elizabeth-Irene Baitie writes predominantly for children and young adults. Born in 1970, she had a passion for storytelling from an early age but veered towards science throughout her education. After studying in both Ghana and the UK, she opened her own medical laboratory, of which she is the director. She has still found time to write several books thus far, including A Saint in Brown Sandals and The Lion's Whisper, picking up several major awards along the way.

Lesley Lokko Lesley Lokko was born in 1964 to a Ghanaian father and a Scottish mother, and much of her childhood was spent in Accra. A fully trained architect, she has worked as a teacher in countries across the globe and even established the first dedicated postgraduate architectural school in Africa. This hasn't stopped her from enjoying a prolific writing career, with eight novels currently in publication, including Little White Lies and Sundowners.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim Nana Oforiatta Ayim was already a respected and multi-award-winning art historian and filmmaker when she published her debut novel The God Child with Bloomsbury in 2019 – adding yet another string to her bow. Drawing on her own experience of being educated in Germany and the UK as a child, the novel sets out to examine "how families, and nations, overcome the limitations of the past through the cycles of generations."

Portia Arthur Portia Arthur was born in Kumasi in 1990. She studied publishing at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and later secured a job at the media house Pulse Ghana. While reporting a story, she was distressed to discover how high illiteracy was among children in her local community. This led her to set up "The Book Per Child Initiative," which provides young people with educational materials and creates reading groups. She also wrote her own children's book, Against the Odds, with the idea of using proceeds from book sales to assist young people with their tuition fees.



Photos:

Ama Ata Aidoo in The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo by Yaba Badoe, Fadoa Films 2014

Yaa Gyasi: © Peter Hurley/Vilcek Foundation, from Penguin Random House

Ayesha Harruna Attah at Politics and Prose Wharf, Washington, D.C., by Slowking4 (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Yaba Badoe at the 2015 Zanzibar International Film Festival, by Rashde Fidigo (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Elizabeth-Irene Baitie (cropped), by Alispaz (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lesley Lokko

Nana Oforiatta Ayim at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in 2015, by ThompsonArmah (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Portia Arthur, by Sistaginna (CC BY-SA 4.0)

We Have Been HarmonizedClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Kai Strittmatter

Summary

China's new drive for repression is being underpinned by unpre­cedented advances in technology: facial and voice recognition, GPS tracking, supercomputer databases, intercepted cell phone conver­sations, the monitoring of app use, and millions of high-resolution security cameras make it nearly impossible for a Chinese citizen to hide anything from authorities. Commercial transactions, including food deliveries and online purchases, are fed into vast databases, along with everything from biometric information to social media activities to methods of birth control. Cameras (so advanced that they can locate a single person within a stadium crowd of 60,000) scan for faces and walking patterns to track each individual's move­ment. In some schools, children's facial expressions are monitored to make sure they are paying attention at the right times. In a new Social Credit System, each citizen is given a score for good behavior; for those who rate poorly, punishments include being banned from flying or taking high-speed trains, exclusion from certain jobs, and preventing their children from attending better schools. And it gets worse: advanced surveillance has led to the imprisonment of more than a million Chinese citizens in western China alone, many held in draconian "reeducation" camps.

This digital totalitarianism has been made possible not only with the help of Chinese private tech companies, but the complic­ity of Western governments and corporations eager to gain access to China's huge market. And while governments debate trade wars and tariffs, the Chinese Communist Party and its local partners are aggressively stepping up their efforts to export their surveillance technology abroad—including to the United States.

We Have Been Harmonized is a terrifying portrait of life under unprecedented government surveillance—and a dire warning about what could happen anywhere under the pretense of national security.

BookBrowse Review

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

Book reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team

Beyond the Book:
Gamification and AI: Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass Go

As American political scientist Joseph Nye postulated in the 1980s, there are two ways to control people in geopolitics: hard power (i.e., coercion via violence) or soft power (i.e., enticement via incentive). Successful geopolitical strategy is often about knowing when to use soft power instead of force.

In We Have Been Harmonized, author Kai Strittmatter explains how the Chinese Communist Party has realized the potential to harness both soft and hard power to create absolute control over all aspects of its nationalized society. The Party is using information technology to enhance its security-state apparatus. Beyond camera surveillance — tracking people by gait, voice and face — and internet censorship — no images of Winnie the Pooh allowed! — the Chinese government has harmonized its population via two less-talked-about means: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and gamification. It is the combination of these two tools that has given the Chinese Communist Party a virtually unassailable lock on power.

Artificial intelligence is the use of computer-based machines to learn and adapt based on environmental factors and input. Computers mimic and frequently outstrip human learning capabilities in some cognitive domains. Mixed with cloud-computing and massive datasets, AI can often model and predict outcomes much faster and more accurately than humans (who are tainted by experiential and cognitive biases). Over the past decade, AI research in the United States and China has been at the forefront of state-backed funding. Competition over its development has been described as the modern-day space race, albeit this time Sino-American versus Soviet-American.

When it comes to control, AI represents the threat of force, or hard power. Combined with camera, location and voice surveillance, it epitomizes the panopticon. Unlike the panopticon, though, where prisoners behave as if the guard is watching them even though the guard cannot be watching at all times, through AI, people are being watched all the time. One's every move, interaction and discussion can be observed and analyzed. If not immediately, the data is saved for future analysis.

AI is already being used predictively in China to make calculated guesses about someone's intentions and actions before they occur — much as science fiction writer Philip K. Dick foreshadowed in his short story, "The Minority Report," where people are arrested for crimes they have not yet committed. China's successful response to stem COVID-19 accidentally demonstrated how far the surveillance state has come. As China closed down, there was little need for human contact tracers — the tracing could be done via AI. The Chinese government used its elaborate camera and mobile tracking system to follow a sick person's every move and identify every individual they came into contact with. Though great for COVID response, imagine what such a system might mean for someone harboring non-harmonious views of the Chinese Communist Party (i.e., they have the gall to mention there is an influenza disease spreading in Wuhan).

Not many Chinese citizens are allowed to entertain such views. Enter soft power — enticing people to think, believe or do what you want them to. The Chinese Communist Party proudly uses AI to ensure Party control coercively. As Strittmatter discovers, Chinese tech executives will proudly note that racial profiling is built into their surveillance systems (e.g., camera recognition software) for enhanced security. However, it is the use of soft power through gamification that has, arguably, most stabilized the Party's total power over society.

Gamification is the application of game-design techniques to non-game situations. It is often used in marketing and business to get people to buy things they otherwise might not. It uses aspects of competition and reward to entice people to participate willingly in an endeavor, ideally initiating a long-term habit (e.g., there is a reason you buy your coffee at the same café — reward points). Casinos have mastered the science of gamification, but the process is all around us: online schools (badges and certificates), Waze Maps (identify where the police are), movie reward cards (free popcorn), SkyMiles (free flights on dates no one wants to fly), Twitter (amassing "retweets") and Duolingo (compete with others while learning a language). Humans love winning and they are suckers for free stuff. It doesn't matter if the competition and the winnings are immaterial. Gamification uses our psychological shortcomings to entice us to do things.

In the past, totalitarian states merely used coercion. Often, it was enough. The threat of bodily harm to oneself or one's family and friends tends to keep people in line. But as most regimes discover, eventually such a large groundswell of disenchantment can build that the state cannot threaten force on everyone at all times. Most authoritarian regimes fall apart when a certain threshold is reached, whereby the system is no longer legitimate, and force cannot be used to maintain power. The People's Republic of China narrowly avoided this fate on June 4, 1989, during the Tiananmen Square uprising.

Gamification helps to eliminate this threat. Whereas AI allows for constant surveillance and the removal of those who are not yet harmonized (i.e., toeing the party line), enticed participation in propaganda and community surveillance games actually changes how people behave and think, thereby, in theory at least, eventually reducing the need for surveillance at all. China has begun gamifying mobile apps – one of which is required for all Party members and the other for all citizens (starting in 2020).

The first app, Study (Xi) Strong Country, uses gamification for propaganda consumption. It had over 100 million users as of 2019. The app is filled with Communist writings and the essays of current leader-for-life, Xi Jinping. It logs how long people read these essays and canons, rewarding them with points. Users can also take comprehension quizzes to earn even more points. Of course, everything done on the app is logged by the state. People know this, so they participate and compete with one another to intake more propaganda and party-based rhetoric. Many of us have faked reading content for a boring class or workshop. However, this is a convenience no Party member can afford. They need to pass quizzes to show their loyalty. They need to have the app open for so long each day to demonstrate they are reading the materials. Eventually, using the app becomes habit and gamification keeps people competing more than they would otherwise.

The second app is an even more insidious use of gamification for totalitarian purposes. There are currently several different variations of it (one is called "Honest Shanghai"), depending on where you live in China; these are all beta tests for the planned national rollout. It's similar to a human version of Pokemon Go, where instead of trapping imaginary monsters on street corners, you find and report real people for being "untrustworthy." The app tracks your trustworthiness as well, using AI as well others' reporting. You start with a base score of 1,000. If your score goes too low — for behavior such as cutting in lines or hanging out with other people that have low scores — you get penalized. Except, these aren't just in-game penalties; there are real-life consequences. Some are mild — you are banned from public transport for a limited time; some are severe — you are not allowed to leave the country. Through the gamification of this app, citizens enforce Party-sanctioned behaviors on others and themselves. It becomes habit-forming. Eventually, people shouldn't even fathom doing something that would diminish their trustworthiness score.

Though there are real penalties for doing poorly in the game, the app still represents soft power. Most reactions to the app are not bewilderment at being required to participate, but rather excitement that other non-harmonious and untrustworthy people will be easily identified. They are willingly participating and surveilling themselves and others on behalf of the police. Instead of top-down, authoritarian enforcement, the Chinese Communist Party has used gamification to entice the population to use the wisdom of the crowd — often against its own interests.

This is a watershed moment in the world of surveillance. In the West, people must deal with free speech bumping into Twitter-shaming and "canceling" by those on the same side of the political aisle — e.g., J.K. Rowling and Noam Chomsky being ostracized by the left. Though such methods are controversial and perhaps annoying, they are not analogous to state-sponsored bullying. Being disliked by someone you've never met an ocean away on Twitter pales in comparison to being reported by your neighbors for not taking your recycling bin off the curb in a timely fashion and then penalized by the government. However, as the concept of privacy continually erodes among younger generations in the West, particularly through social media apps — several of which, including TikTok and WeChat, are connected to the Chinese Communist Party — it would not be surprising to see gamified citizenship apps rise in popularity here too.

- Stephen Mrozek - pseudonym for an American university professor who may wish to take their daughter to see the Great Wall one day

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