We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State by Kai Strittmatter. Published by Custom House, 2020, 345 pages. ISBN-10: 0063027305; ISBN-13: 978-0063027305. Available on Amazon.
Walking around my neighborhood in China over the past year, I noticed a growing abundance of security cameras. At one of the nearby subway stops I counted 14 cameras on one platform. Recently in my housing complex I watched workers pull roll after roll of cable through underground conduits to link up multiple video cameras installed at every entrance. These random observations have me wondering what is being done with all this surveillance footage? When I came across a new book, I thought it might provide some answers.
Kai Strittmatter, the author of We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State, studied Sinology and journalism in Munich; Xian, China; and Taipei, Taiwan starting in the 1980s. He then worked as a journalist for Germany’s national newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung for more than a decade. He was based in Beijing, China from 1997 to 2005 and again from 2012 to 2018. He is now a member of the advisory board at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin. MERICS is the largest European research institute focusing on contemporary Chinese studies. The author lives in Copenhagen where he works as a foreign correspondent for Süddeutsche Zeitung for the Scandinavian countries.
The word “harmonized” in the book’s title has special meaning in China, which has developed over the past 15 years. In the mid-2000s China’s leaders (Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao) started a discussion about a harmonious society partially in response to growing income equalities in Chinese society. While the general reaction was initially positive, in succeeding years “harmonious society” became a euphemism for social stability at all costs. It was also used to justify tight control of information on the internet. Eventually “harmonized” became a verb (to be harmonized) describing the censorship or deletion of posts on social media that contained unacceptable content. Today the phrase “被和谐了” (having been harmonized) means someone has been censored for something they said or posted. The author states, “In China there is no repression; there is simply ‘stability maintenance’ (weiwen) and a ‘harmonious society’ (hexie shehui). Harmony is when ordinary people don’t make a fuss” (p. 20).1
The book is laid out in three sections:
- The first section explores what the author calls classic mechanisms of dictatorships and how these disconnect citizens from truth and reality.
- The second section describes how dictatorship has been reinvented in China with the help of big data and AI capabilities.
- The third section asks whether China’s efforts will work and the implications for Europe, the USA, and the rest of the world.
In the early pages of the book the author lays out the current direction of China’s development and the challenges this presents to the rest of the world:
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. (p. 1)
Having spent extensive time in China and being fluent in Chinese, the author gives an abundance of examples of where the Party and government in China are using 21st century information technology in new ways to achieve control and manipulation. After celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding in July this year, in 2024 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will become the longest-reigning Communist party in world history. The CCP has already laid out long-term plans to 2049 when the People’s Republic of China will celebrate its 100th anniversary. How the CCP sees itself and its role in China has been clearly stated by President Xi as “It doesn’t matter whether it is the government, the military, the people, or the schools; east, west, north, south, or the center—the Party rules everything” (p. 130).
The ongoing development of IT technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence (AI), and facial recognition have given the Chinese authorities new tools to incorporate into their rule and control. This merged system of traditional authoritarian methods and goals with new IT capabilities has been termed “Digital Leninism”2 by another MERICS researcher. This book gives multiple examples of this merged system at work in the lives of individual Chinese citizens. Coming from a European perspective where the regulation of personal information on the internet is the most developed and protected, the author brings a keen sensitivity to the balance between freedom of speech, personal information use, and government laws and regulation.
The author also explains the evolving Social Credit System3 which has the ultimate goal to create “economically productive, socially harmonized and politically compliant subjects, who will ultimately censor and sanction themselves at every turn” (p. 7). The Chinese State Council plan for setting up this system envisioned “[t]he trustworthy will be allowed to roam everywhere under heaven, but the discredited will find it hard to take a single step” (p. 215).
Anyone worrying about the use and abuse of these systems will often think of comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. These references and comparisons are scattered throughout the book. The author gives examples of how these controls impact individual lives. In China on planes and trains it is now common to hear announcements about following laws and regulations or having your social credit impacted and possibly be excluded from being able to travel. Individual Party members’ study of Xi Jinping thought can now be monitored in real time from an app installed on their cellphone. In order to contain Covid-19, the use of geolocation and QR codes in cellphone health kit apps has taken monitoring and control of social mobility to a new level.
In addition to understanding the author’s analysis and examples, it is important to balance his concerns against the views of average Chinese citizens. Despite aspects that concern and even alarm Western observers, most Chinese citizens are generally positive and supportive of overall changes in recent years. Chinese friends recognize that controls on information have increased in recent years but balance that against other positive aspects of China’s development that may have greater impact on their day-to-day life. For example, most Chinese I talk to are supportive of the Social Credit System as a means of protecting them from untrustworthy individuals and companies. The author quotes one Chinese administrator as saying, “There has never been such a system in the history of humankind. And it still doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. We’re the first. It’s exciting” (p. 233). Those who are not so excited are generally those deeply involved in IT technology who understand the potentials for abuse. For Chinese friends not involved in human rights, various NGO concerns, or religious affairs, they will probably react with confusion if you raise some of the concerns in this book.
In addition to pointing out the challenges within China, a major concern raised is the implications that result from China’s development of greater control and spill over to countries around the world. The author states it as:
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. (pp. 7–8)
In addition to perfecting the technology and operating system, China is also promoting its view of the world in an aggressive way. The United Front Works Department (UFWD) is one of the major CCP organizations and is involved in this global outreach. The UFWD has been called the Party’s secret weapon.4 The UFWD is also responsible for the oversight of religious affairs and has absorbed the government Religious Affairs Bureau since 2018.5 The author notes that China has already exported information control technologies to 102 countries (p. 322). After the book’s publication and related to the Covid-19 pandemic many of these trends have been accelerated.6
This well-researched and documented book should be of interest to anyone living in China or working with mainland Chinese anywhere around the world. It provides a good overview of many of the tools of influence and control wielded by the government and Party in China today. Sometimes these tools are also used in the control and management of Christian churches in China. As China becomes more ideological in its orientation, alternative systems of truth such as Christianity become a threat that are managed and harmonized with the same tools applied to other threats.
The author has provided a good overview of the mindset of today’s Chinese leaders and the direction they want to pursue both domestically and internationally. Near the end he asks a question that echoes his concerns at the start:
For the time being, though, the rule of the CCP is in no danger. There is no reason to doubt the Party’s ability to create the most perfect surveillance state the world has ever seen over the next few years. But the question remains: in the end, will this be a state capable of overtaking the West and sprinting ahead to lead the world? (p. 274)
- All page numbers are to the Kindle edition of We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State by Kai Strittmatter. Custom House, 2020.
- See “’Digital Leninism’” by Joann Pittman, ChinaSource Blog, November 27, 2017, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/digital-leninism/.
- For more information see: “The Nitty Gritty of China’s Social Credit System” by Jackson Wu, ChinaSource Blog, March 20,2019, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/the-nitty-gritty-of-chinas-social-credit-system/.
- See “Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping” by Anne-Marie Brady, Wilson Center, September 18, 2017, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/magic-weapons-chinas-political-influence-activities-under-xi-jinping.
- For more information see: “Goodbye, SARA” by Joann Pittman, ChinaSource Blog, April 2, 2018, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/goodbye-sara/.
- For a scholarly review of recent trends see the article “Surveillance, Security, and Liberal Democracy in the Post-COVID World” at https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-organization/article/surveillance-security-and-liberal-democracy-in-the-postcovid-world/15CDF2C062ADCAAD6B5D224630F62B1D#.
Image credit: Surveillance by Harald Groven via Flickr.
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