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“Digital Leninism”

In the early days of the People’s Republic of China, one of the Party’s goals was establishing its control over every nook and cranny of Chinese society. At the neighborhood level, they deputized grannies, or “Marxist Mamas” to keep tabs on what everyone was up to. Who was visiting? Were there unauthorized gatherings? Were couples fighting? Were children behaving? All of this was observed and reported to local Party authorities. Even today, this mechanism is revived when a big event is held, such as the Olympics, or an important government meeting. Suddenly the streets are lined with grandmas and grandpas sporting red arm bands, and government-issued t-shirts that read “VOLUNTEER”, and government-issued thermoses.

But this is the 21st century, and thus the Party has gotten more sophisticated, using cutting-edge technology in their efforts to re-establish and maintain control over every aspect of Chinese society and life. In the run up to and during the recent Party Congress meetings in China, there were numerous stories published about what this new technological surveillance system looks like and how it is employed. Some of the stories were downright spooky!

In September, China scholar Stanley Lubman, writing in China File, took a deep dive into the new social credit system that is being rolled out as a means of collecting information on citizens.

The Chinese Party-state is building a social credit system for collecting information about all of its citizens by police, courts, and other institutions. This enables the government to reach into society to a degree unprecedented in history.

According to recent reports, the system is already being used by police and other agencies to employ facial recognition as well as other data to locate criminal suspects and persons engaged in illegal conduct.

TIME reported on the creation of a database of citizen’s voices:

The Chinese government has collected tens of thousands of “voice pattern” samples from targeted citizens and is inputting them into a national voice biometric database, according to a Human Rights Watch report published Monday. The idea is that an automated system, thought to still be in development, will use the database to pick out individual voices in telephone and other conversations, boosting the government’s already expansive surveillance capabilities.

The BBC wrote about how the government controls mass communication to control the way people think and behave. The methods include the so-called “Great Firewall,” which limits access to the internet outside of China, monitoring of social media platforms such as WeChat, maintaining a tight grip on the press, strict censoring of entertainment content, and the construction of a cult of personality around President Xi Jinping.

Sebastian Heilmann, President of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin has coined the term “Digital Leninism” to describe this growing high-tech surveillance regime. He described this recently in a talk titled, “Leninism Upgraded: Restoration and Innovation Under Xi Jinping,”

Under Xi’s leadership, China is building a system of “digital Leninism” through new types of business and social regulation. With financial and communication activities increasingly taking place online, Chinese regulators aim at compiling encompassing “social credit” scores, a kind of big data-enabled rating system, for every market participant, thereby gaining access to detailed and regularly updated data profiles of all companies and citizens.

When I read that term for the first time, I said “Yes!” While Communism is the term to describe the social and political system as an end goal (the “withering away of the state”), Leninism refers to the means of achieving it. At the heart of Leninism is the belief that organization, discipline, and obedience are required in order to get to Communism. The state must employ any and all means (even state terror, if necessary) to bring the populace into submission.

Nick Frish, writing in Foreign Affairs reminds us that the Party remains today essentially a Leninist party:

Yet the secretive vanguard that sits atop Chinese politics remains recognizably Leninist today, as do the party, security, and propaganda organs that enforce its will. Although the newest members of the Standing Committee are more likely to tweak interest rates or adjust soy imports than to order the liquidation of landlords, the party’s sense of destiny, of an absolute right to reach down and change the course of China's history, is intact. Its rejection of liberal democracy is born not only of Chinese chauvinism but also of a Leninist contempt for bourgeois niceties such as the rule of law, freedom of conscience, and individual dignity. In the party’s eyes, this ideology is a tool: like railways or the military, it has been successfully Sinified and now serves China better than it ever did the Soviet Union.

In other words, the fact that the Party is reverting to a focus on control and obedience should not surprise us. And its ability to harness the latest technologies is a testament to its ability to adapt.

Welcome to the world of “digital Leninism!”

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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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