The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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We Have Been Harmonized
We Have Been Harmonized
Life in China's Surveillance State
by Kai Strittmatter

Hardcover (1 Sep 2020), 368 pages.
Publisher: Custom House
ISBN-13: 9780063027299

Hailed as a masterwork of reporting and analysis, and based on decades of research within China, We Have Been Harmonized, by award-winning correspondent Kai Strittmatter, offers a groundbreaking look at how the inter­net and high tech have allowed China to create the largest and most effective surveillance state in history.

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.

New China, New World
A Preface

The China we once knew no longer exists. The China that was with us for forty years--the China of "reform and opening up"--is making way for something new. It's time for us to start paying attention. Something is happening in China that the world has never seen before. A new country and a new regime are being born. And it's also time for us to take a look at ourselves. Are we ready? Because one thing is becoming increasingly clear: over the coming decades, the greatest challenge for our democracies and for Europe won't be Russia, it will be China. Within its borders, China is working to create the perfect surveillance state, and its engineers of the soul are again trying to craft the "new man" of whom Lenin, Stalin, and Mao once dreamed. And this China wants to shape the rest of the world in its own image.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has placed its leader, Xi Jinping, where no one has been since Mao Zedong. Right at the top. Nothing above him but the heavens. China has a "helmsman" once more. Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, and he rules over a China that is stronger than it has been for centuries. An ambitious nation, readying itself to become even stronger—economically, politically, and militarily. The West's self-destruction has fallen into this nation's lap like a gift from the gods. With 21st-century information technology and its radical new possibilities for control and manipulation, the regime has instruments of power to which no previous autocracy has ever had access. Xi and his party are reinventing dictatorship for the information age, in deliberate competition with the systems of the West. And this has huge implications for the world's democracies.

Even within China, the CCP's plans are ambitious, but one shouldn't underestimate the hold that an autocrat has over his subjects' minds. The state has the ability to erase not just lives, but minds, in order to reformat them. The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and the years that followed, provided a powerful demonstration of this fact. The date June 4, 2019, saw the 30th anniversary of the day the Chinese democracy movement was brutally crushed, and the Party has good reason to celebrate. In hindsight, its act of violence was a success—a greater success than anyone could have imagined at the time. The blood-letting gave the Party new life, as well as an opportunity to show what its mind-control apparatus could do, long before the advent of the digital age. Inside China, the memory of the massacre has practically been wiped out; the state-ordered amnesia is complete. And he who controls the past—the CCP understands this just as well as George Orwell did—also controls the future.

This is a message from the future, if things don't go so well. At the moment, things really aren't going well. That's why I wrote this book. It was born on the night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America, and was finished in the months that saw Xi Jinping "chosen by history," in the words of the journal of the Central Party School in Beijing, Qiushi (Seeking Truth). History is often a sluggish tide on which we float without ever being aware that it's moving. But that isn't the case right now: we are living through a time when the current of history seems almost physically tangible. Something is happening, to us and to China, and the two sides can no longer be separated.

The new age is one in which facts have been abolished; the Western world is suddenly mired in "fake news" and manipulated by "alternative facts." For me, though, there is nothing new about it. It's a life I've been living for twenty years, as a correspondent in Turkey (from 2005 to 2012), but above all in China. I studied in China in the 1980s, then worked there as a journalist from 1997 to 2005, and again from 2012 to 2018.

Government by lies is no doubt as old as the institution of government itself, yet we in the West are shocked by the return of autocrats and would-be autocrats to our midst, and with them the return of the shameless lie as an instrument of control. We had settled into the comfortable belief that these techniques and the political systems associated with them were obsolete. Autocrats everywhere are scenting an opportunity and joining hands with the populist agitators in our own countries. A perfect storm is brewing, for Europe and for democracies everywhere.

Full Excerpt

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.

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

Print Article Publisher's View   

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

The Sunday Times (UK)
Terrifying...This chilling book reveals just how far China has already gone in monitoring and controlling its citizens digitally...China is attempting a shift unprecedented in global politics. It wants to combine the powers of a strong authoritarian regime with cutting-edge technology to create the most sophisticated surveillance state in history. Kai Strittmatter's deeply researched and compellingly argued book makes the case that this is significant not just for China but for the world...A warning call.

The Observer (UK)
A remarkable book...The most accessible and best-informed account we have had to date of China's transition from what scholars such as Rebecca MacKinnon used to call 'networked authoritarianism' to what is now a form of networked totalitarianism...The more one reads, the more pressing one conclusion becomes: almost everything we thought we knew about contemporary China is wrong. And this has happened because the lenses through which we viewed this emerging superpower were distorted by arrogance, naivety, complacency, commercial greed and wishful thinking.

London Review of Books (UK)
Kai Strittmatter was for many years the Beijing correspondent for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and his excellent We Have Been Harmonised is an eye-opening account.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A highly relevant, frequently revelatory book...Strittmatter's accessible yet hard-hitting narrative will find an audience with policymakers and general readers alike. A frightening, vital wake-up call: The West ignores the rise of an Orwellian China at its peril.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Drawing on a wealth of experience in China, Strittmatter stuffs the book with telling details and incisive analysis. Even veteran China watchers will be impressed and enlightened.

Print Article Publisher's View  

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

Filed under Society and Politics

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