Excerpt from We Have Been Harmonized by Kai Strittmatter, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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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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  • First Published:
    Sep 2020, 368 pages

    Oct 2021, 320 pages


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With one foot, then, Xi is taking a huge step backward into the past. Leninism is in his bones. And so is the thirst for power. Some compare him to Mao Zedong, but this comparison falls at the first hurdle: Mao was the eternal rebel, who thrived in chaos. In many respects Xi Jinping, who has a fetish for control and stability, is the antithesis of Mao. Xi is no revolutionary; he's a technocrat, albeit one who navigates the labyrinth of the Party apparatus with tremendous agility.

But one experiment from Mao's legacy is currently making a comeback: the CCP is once again practicing total mind-control, once again trying to produce "new men." Only this time, the Party believes that—at the second attempt—its chances are much better: China's dictatorship is updating itself with the tools of the 21st century. Because, with the other foot, Xi is taking a giant step into the future, to a place many dictatorships have sought, but none have yet found. The days when the Party eyed the internet with fear and anxiety are long gone. The regime has not only lost its fear; it has learned to love new technologies. China is staking more than any other country on information technology. The Party believes it can use big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to create steering mechanisms that will catapult its economy into the future and make its apparatus crisis-proof.

A central component of this new China, for example, will be the "Social Credit System," which from 2020 is intended to record every action and transaction by each Chinese citizen in real time and to respond to the sum of an individual's economic, social, and moral behavior with rewards and penalties. In this vision, omnipresent algorithms create economically productive, socially harmonized and politically compliant subjects, who will ultimately censor and sanction themselves at every turn. In the old days, the Party demanded fanatical belief; now, mute complicity will suffice. If the plans of Xi and the Party are successful, it will mean the return of totalitarianism dressed in digital garb. And for autocrats all over the world, that will provide a short-cut to the future: a new operating system that they can order in from China, probably even with a maintenance agreement.

Xi's one-man rule comes with its own risks. A system that was until recently surprisingly adaptable is being made rigid once more, unreceptive to criticism and new ideas. His rule has created enemies and desires for revenge within his own ranks. Xi is aware of the problems. That is partly why he is giving his people the dream of China becoming the superpower that it was always supposed to be. He is also reintroducing an ideological enemy: the West. Of all the ways to unite the nation, nationalism is the cheapest. It's also the one that should cause the West most concern, because something else is also now a thing of the past: the idea of restraint in foreign policy. Xi Jinping has a message for the world: China is retaking its position at the head of the world's nations. And the Party media cheer: Make way, West! Make way, capitalism and democracy! Here comes zhongguo fang'an, the "Chinese solution."

In fact, the coronavirus crisis exhibited the two narratives side by side as if in a magnifying glass: Is China the state unparalleled in mobilizing masses and resources for the common good, governed by a meritocracy drilled for efficiency? Or is it an internally brittle regime whose true nature was revealed once again here in the city of Wuhan: a state that, in the first decisive weeks, sacrificed without hesitation the welfare of its citizens to the Party's claim to power, with catastrophic consequences for both China and the world? Administered by bureaucrats in Hubei province who turned out to be as irresponsible as they were clueless. Dominated by a Communist Party which, today more than ever, is characterized by an excessive desire for control and secrecy. A regime which, in the face of crises, reflexively moves to cover up things, thereby recklessly encouraging the spread of the disease, particularly in the critical initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak.

Excerpted from We Have Been Harmonized by Kai Strittmatter. Copyright © 2020 by Kai Strittmatter. Excerpted by permission of Custom House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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