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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The Chinese have plenty of experience of rulers reinterpreting the world. Over 2,000 years ago, in 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang united the empire for the first time. His son ruled as emperor from 209 to 207 BC, with a feared and power-hungry imperial chancellor named Zhao Gao at his side. One day, in an audience with the emperor, the chancellor had a stag brought into the court. "Your majesty," he said, pointing to the beast: "A horse for you!"

The emperor was as taken aback as his ministers, and asked his chancellor to explain, if he pleased, how antlers could be growing out of a horse's skull. "If your majesty doesn't believe me," Zhao Gao replied, indicating the gathering of dignitaries around him, "then just ask your ministers." Some of the ministers were smart or scared enough to corroborate: "It really is a horse, your majesty." Of course, there were also those who stubbornly insisted that the animal standing in front of them was a stag. Later, the chancellor had them put in chains and executed. But he didn't stop there: whoever had remained silent in surprise or fear was also put to death. From then on, the stag was a horse. And a population had learned its lesson. Zhi lu wei ma—"to call a deer a horse"—is an expression in China to this day.

Western societies have grown comfortable in the certainties of the last few decades, and for the most part forgotten their experiences of the totalitarian systems of fascism and socialism. Thus the aspiring autocrat, equipped with an unscrupulous nature and a thirst for power, is always a step ahead of today's naive and unschooled democrats.

When it comes to authoritarian personalities and systems, though, the primary intention is not to deceive, but to intimidate. That's why the lies of autocrats are often shameless and outlandish. You may be a fan of Donald Trump or you may despise him, but there is no refuting what the whole world saw at his inauguration: a sparse gathering of onlookers on the National Mall, by reliable estimates about one-third of the crowd that had assembled for his predecessor's first inaugural address. Anyone watching, or reviewing the video and pictures taken of the event, would see that immediately. But the president, undeterred, has continued to vastly inflate the crowd size. Trump said there were a "million and a half people" in the audience. And his spokesperson even went so far to declare it "the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe." In this respect, Washington is no different from Ankara. In a full-fledged autocracy, they would bus in those adoring hundreds of thousands; but in both cases the autocrat ultimately doesn't care whether people believe him. He doesn't want to convince everyone—but he does want to subjugate everyone. One essential feature of power is that, however great it becomes, it is never completely sure of itself. This paranoia, the fear of losing power, is part of the powerful man's nature. It's why he feels compelled to subdue the masses again and again. Above all, the lie serves this purpose.

If China's ruling party insists to this day that its country is communist, and if it is once again forcing teachers, professors, civil servants, and businessmen to make public commitments to Marxism, it isn't because it seriously thinks the population still believes in Marx. In the Swiss legend of William Tell, all the peasants were forced to salute a hat placed on a post by the imperial governor, Hermann Gessler. Marxism is China's version of Gessler's Hat: it is the gesture of submission that matters. This is how the autocrat deploys his lies—and refusing to swallow them marks you out as an enemy and a target.

But intimidation is only half the story. It's just as important to sow confusion, to disrupt the rationality and reality that give people a frame of reference, to take the compass away from the nation and the world. If you're a liar and a cheat, there's no way for you to win in a world that is repelled by these things, a world that differentiates between truth and lies. So you have to make everyone else a liar and a cheat, too. Then you will at least be their liar.

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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