Prominent critics of the Chinese Communist Party such as Guo Wengui, AKA Miles Kwok, have long foreseen its steps towards digital dictatorship
In recent weeks a sudden cultural shift appears to have taken root across China. Prominent cultural figures are in retreat and pledges of fealty to the nation’s leader and the country’s spiritual unity are on the rise.
The change in the zeitgeist was well surmised by Li Guangman (the pseudonymous name of a renowned left-wing political commentator, who stated that “a monumental change is taking place in China. The economic, financial, cultural and political spheres are undergoing a profound revolution…It marks a return [of power] from Capitalist cliques to the people . . . It is a return to the revolutionary spirit, to heroism, to courage and righteousness.”
This is certainly the type of message being promoted and amplified by Chinese state media. While this is not to say that President Xi seeks to replicate Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution – his own family suffered during the overhaul and he has been a vocal critic of the economic catastrophe it brought about – there is nevertheless a sense in the air of the dawn of a new cultural age.
The changes which President Xi is overseeing are in fact much more reminiscent of Deng Xiaoping “reform and reopening” initiatives of 1978. Under Xi the CCP is increasingly interfering not just in the private sector but in private life. Indeed, it is not just the business models of tech giants that are being overseen and legislated upon by the government these days, but the amount of time that children are allowed to spend playing video games.
To longstanding critics of the CCP, these trends come as no surprise. For exiled Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, AKA Miles Kwok, the CCP’s increased incursions into the management businesses and the private affairs of families, especially prominent families, has been years in the making. Mr Kwok has long warned that the party will ultimately seek total oversight over the private sphere and that it will utilize technology in order to do so.
The CCP’s attitude to the country’s most successful business people has been more evident in recent months by the treatment of Alibaba and Jack Ma. Ming Xia, a political science professor at City University in New York, says that President Xi would happily “manipulate and direct the anger among frustrated people at political targets he wants to destroy … He selectively targets some officials, business people, opinion leaders, stars [and] skillfully manipulates the popular mood . . . to please the impulse of some Chinese who are less successful [and] harbour hatred toward the rich.”
On the technology front, Mr Kwok’s warnings now seem all too prescient. Just in the last few weeks, the ruling party has enacted significant legislation surrounding the country’s data security, increasing its hold over huge volumes of data used to govern all regions of the country, order the economy as well as people’s lives.
These initiatives form a key component of President Xi’s goal to build what some analysts call a “techno-authoritarian superpower” in which citizens are surveilled and manipulated to an unprecedented degree through the agency of government-controlled cyber networks, monitoring systems and big data-run algorithms.
Such policies are often spoken of under the auspice of ‘digital sovereignty, which many commentators argue really masques a less than subtle intent on control over personal autonomy. Indeed, Xi’s data vision has always stressed control. In 2013, he said that “whoever controls data has the upper hand”. In 2014, the President again emphasized that control of information is an invaluable aspect of a country’s “soft power and competitiveness”.
Perhaps nothing could cement the reality of the CCP’s approach to information better than the fact that in 2020 data was officially classified as a “fifth factor of production” in the Chinese economy, alongside labour, land, capital and technology.
A proper analysis of the nature of the CCP’s digital ecosystem reveals that its shortcomings are built into ambitions. The installation of an estimated 415m surveillance cameras all over the country — with densities of over 8,000 cameras per square mile in cities such as Shenzhen, the southern manufacturing hub — makes China’s population by far the world’s most surveilled.
These surveillance cameras serve the ends of another technology the party is intent on leading the world in – the development of smart cities. In 2020, the country was estimated to have some 800 smart cities under construction or in planning — about half of the world’s total.
However, the CCP’s desired model still remains untested but is already beginning to resemble more of a dystopia than a paradigm of economic efficiency. Moreover, sentiment amongst the population regarding the party’s vision is becoming increasingly clear. Almost 90% of anonymous respondents to a survey in Beijing said they were opposed to the use of facial recognition technology in commercial areas.
Scott Kennedy, a China expert at Washington-based think-tank CSIS, put it starkly when stating that “the solution that [Xi Jinping] has settled on is Orwell.” He is not the only observer to compare the ruling party’s aspirations to a reality in which citizens are supervised by Big Brother.