….If China were to replace the United States in the role of global leader, then its internal reality would shape the outside world, just like that of Britain did and that of America still does. And right now, the internal reality in question is not pretty at all. In fact, China is in the process of transfer from the relatively mild authoritarianism (well, “mild” in comparison to Mao’s time) it has had since Deng Xiaoping to a new model that comes disturbingly close to the very definition of totalitarianism.
A key feature that differs a totalitarian model from an authoritarian one is that under totalitarianism it is not enough for citizens to just mind their own business and refrain from political opposition to the regime. Instead of being satisfied with their political complacency, a totalitarian regime demands strict adherence to its rules and ideas in people’s everyday lives, including in the matters that have nothing to do with politics. In effect, it seeks to control everyone’s every step.
This is precisely what the Chinese ruling regime is now working to achieve. Modern digital technologies offer it a possibility to build an actual dystopia in the sense until now only described in the science fiction—something totalitarian regimes of the past could not do for practical reasons. A new Chinese system relying on total surveillance and big data to notice and assess everyday actions of the citizens is set to become fully operational in 2020. It is already functioning, however. In just one of its manifestations, twenty-three million Chinese citizens have been banned from buying travel tickets for various actions in their lives that the system frowns upon…..
Given the planned expansion of the total surveillance and behavior control system to all of China, the Beijing regime’s actions in Xinjiang might turn out to be a pilot project with potential for some degree of application beyond that unfortunate province. After all, the Chinese authorities already practice enforced disappearances, while simultaneously intensifying their crackdown on the human rights.
All these techniques of statecraft are really not something one would like to see becoming more widespread in the world. And yet, that would probably happen if China were to become the world’s preeminent great power.
In fact, this process has already started. In Cambodia, for instance, China’s influence empowers suppression of democracy by the local authoritarian regime. China’s surveillance practices are spreading beyond its borders. Among examples of this process is Zimbabwe’s decision to install Chinese-provided facial recognition and monitoring system throughout the country. Tanzania has adopted cybersecurity legislation that restricts freedom of internet content, resembling China’s model and helped by its technical assistance. So has Uganda. In Pakistan, a Chinese-run surveillance system has been established along the route of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
As stated in the Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2018 report, Chinese firms “provided high-tech tools of surveillance to governments that lack respect for human rights.” Freedom House counted eighteen countries where Chinese firms “are combining advances in artificial intelligence and facial recognition to create systems capable of identifying threats to ‘public order.’” Representatives from thirty-six nations attended seminars where Chinese officials were sharing their information management know-how. The notion of the internationally spreading Chinese “techno-dystopian” model, mentioned in the report, is now entering the wider public discourse.
If China were to lead the world, then democracy would be hard-pressed to remain the mainstream form of political regime it has been for the last century…..
David Batashvili is an international relations analyst. He previously worked at the National Security Council of Georgia and is currently a research fellow with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.
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