From predatory boardroom practices to draconian public health measures, Orwellian technologies, state-corporate partnerships on censorship and surveillance, Digital ID’s to social credit scores, China’s ways are quietly going global.
PHOTO: Qilai Shen
We may prefer to forget that China operated as the model for the pandemic response in the entire Western world. This is a country whose president Xi Jinping has “embarked on the most intense repression” of its citizens since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and which is described by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth as representing the biggest threat to human rights in the world.
This is a country where you can get arrested simply for sending a text criticizing the government; where tens of thousands of people are disappeared by the authorities and detained in secret locations without trial under circumstances that amount to nothing other than state-sponsored kidnappings. And this is the country that we in the West chose to emulate in a crisis. We copied their lockdowns, we copied their violation of medical ethics, and we copied the technology they used to enforce them both.
Small wonder that we are currently witnessing several public inquiries into the handling of the pandemic that can be more or less summed up by: “what were we thinking?” Policies that hitherto had seemed inconceivable such as lockdowns that put whole societies under house arrest, the violation of informed consent that had been the cornerstone of the doctor-patient relationship in the West since Nuremberg, and the rollout of biomedical passes that determined people’s right to access certain freedoms and services, became not only normalized but – for a while – irrefutable. And those who had any questions were shamed, marginalized and censored.
China’s Zero-Covid policy under Xi Jinping is nothing short of terrifying. It has resulted in parts of the country enduring a truly Orwellian existence, locked in their homes for months on end or sent off to Covid camps simply for having traveled in the same bus as a Covid positive person.
To get some idea of the level of paranoia, when one woman tested positive for Covid after visiting Shanghai’s Disneyland, 706 of her so-called ‘close contacts’ and 141 ‘secondary contacts’ were tested by the following Monday, with a total of 67,715 people tested, according to China Daily. All from one positive test.
Authorities can change your QR code from green to red simply for not having the mandatory Covid tests which expires every 48 hours and costs 50 dollars per month. This Halloween, a Chinese woman dressed up as a red ‘positive’ QR code was voted the scariest costume of the year by Chinese netizens.
Those who work in the human rights field become habituated to the ho-hum attitude of the international community to on-going abuses. We watch as human rights remains almost exclusively an opposition party issue, with only those not currently in power willing to speak with any force on the subject. This is especially true when it comes to human rights in China for one simple reason. Economics. There may be an award for a prominent Chinese dissident here, a phrase or two of tough-sounding language there, but the idea of putting ethics over and profit never seems to get much thrift.
The approach of Western democracies, exemplified during the Clinton presidency, entails shaking a finger at the CCP with one hand while shaking on business deals with the other. Coarse business interests are dressed up in the reassuring fabric of moral ventures as doing business with China is positioned as an opportunity to educate them on democratic principles, liberal ethics and best practices. Not only could everyone make a buck but they could feel virtuous doing so.
The argument goes something like this. The more we do business with China, the more China will mirror our industry standards. The more we open our universities to Chinese influence, the more they will come to value our knowledge and culture. In short, the more we welcome China into the international community, the more China will become like us.
The hard truth is that the opposite has taken place. China has not become more like us. We have become more like China.
TECHNOLOGY AS A TOOL OF STATE CONTROL
China was the first country to use tracking mechanisms through mobile phones and social mediaApps such as Wechat and Alipay to monitor people’s movements during the pandemic. This then developed into a national health QR code system which was adopted by several Western countries during Covid.
China has a long history of applying technologies to limit individual freedoms, and these technologies continue to be traded to foreign countries, including democracies. During the Covid lockdowns of 2020, Australia gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first Western country to use facial recognition technology as a containment measure against its own citizens; the same technology that the Chinese government uses to control the persecuted Uighur minority in Xinjiang.
Kai Strittmatter who worked in China as a German news correspondent, writes in his book, We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State: ‘In 2019, a study by the Open Technology Fund identified 102 countries to which China had exported information-control technologies.’ Samantha Hoffman, fellow at Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Centre put it mildly when she said: “I think we don’t even quite understand the full scale of the problem that we are dealing with when it comes to Chinese surveillance technology when it is exported.”
It is not only a question of authoritarian-style technologies creeping into liberal democracies but broader questions around how state-controlled technology is used to penetrate and manipulate personal data and condition citizen behaviour. John Danahar, a lecturer in the School of Law at NUI Galway, concerns himself with just such questions. Danahar has written about the concerning implications of the rise of an ‘algocracy’, where AI driven algorithms determine what is allowed and disallowed.
A hallmark of authoritarian regimes is the insistence on citizens proving their loyalty to the state over family or community. The CCP has always encouraged its citizens to become part of the state-surveillance apparatus by spying and informing on one another. As China has risen as a global power so has the general level of paranoia around national security. Authorities have worked to make it ever easier – and lucrative – to prove loyalty to the state by the willingness to inform on one’s own community. In 2018, China launched a website so that people could more easily report foreign spies and national security threats. This June, the Chinese state announced cash rewards of up to 20,000 USD for this information, as well as what they call “spiritual rewards” which amount to a certificate of appreciation from the state. All very Communist, all very Chinese. But not any more.
Just this week, New Zealand intelligence services announced their own citizen spying program that encourages people to view their loved ones as potential terrorists.
We do not yet live in a fully dystopian world, but it is crystal clear that we are playing fast and loose with rule of law and civil liberties. It takes less than we think for the roots of authoritarianism to gain traction. The pandemic has revealed much to us, and one thing it has revealed most clearly is the startling fragility of the principles of our democracy. Because these principles do not depend merely on legal structures for their continued existence, but upon the persistence of mutual values and the vigilance of the people to preserve them. During the initial months of lockdown, for example, the voter analytics firm PredictWise harvested location data from tens of millions of US cellphones and used this data to assign a “Covid-19 decree violation” score. People who were “on the go more often than their neighbors” were given a high Covid-19 decree violation score while those who mostly or always stayed at home were given a low Covid-19 decree violation score.
Although China’s social credit system appears not to be as pervasive, advanced, nor as pernicious as some have feared, the ultimate use of digitech to track and manipulate behaviour through incentives and punishments metered out through a digital Panopticon appears an inevitable outcome in country whose leadership is so heavily invested in penetrating the space between the individual and the state. The CCP has never seen its job as representing the people, the ideal attitude of government in a liberal democracy, but only ever to manage the people. As the technological infrastructure, data management and computational capabilities increase, it is likely only a matter of time before China has all of its people at the end of a digital leash. The reason that Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode Nosedive was so deeply creepy was not because it was so outlandish but because it was so imaginable.
While we are soul-searching the wisdom of our pandemic response, we would do well to encourage open and candid discussion about the threat to human rights that state-to-citizen algorithmic technologies present. The European Commission is presently deliberating on the AI Act that aims to regulate the more dystopian uses of AI technology, and which is expected to conclude some time in 2023. Although such legislation is clearly a positive step, market forces are more likely to win out against the average citizen in attempts to regulate for both public protection and industry innovation. Human Rights Watch in a recent report, has called for a more rigorous document that ensures that human rights are built into the procurement, design and modification of AI, assessed in post-deployment, and are stricter in terms of transparency, oversight and pressure for product compliance that includes a mechanism of public appeal to manage violations and misuse. The draft document states that AI systems used for general purpose social scoring should be prohibited. However, Bologna and Rome have already become the first Western cities to implement a government sponsored social credit system through a smart wallet where individuals are given a score linked to their compliance with certain behaviours such as recycling. At the moment, the app is optional. We shall see.
Banks are also getting in on carbon tracking. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia has launched a feature that ‘…will allow a select group of retail customers to view their carbon footprint via the CommBank app and offset their previous month’s transactions by purchasing carbon credits.’ This feature is set to become ‘available’ to all retail customers by next year. So when does the feature turn from ‘available’ to ‘indispensable’ in order to participate in society?
Legal mechanisms to protect us from the misuse of powerful intrusive technologies are running far behind the development and application of the technologies themselves. In Australia, for example, the facial recognition trial by local authorities “took place despite the fact that the enabling legislation for the national database has not yet been passed,” as media scholar, Mark Andrejevic, points out. For those invested in the advancement of such technologies, this legal protection lag is less a problem than a golden opportunity.
DIGITAL ID – A STEPPING STONE TO A NEW TECHNOCRACY?
Perhaps that is the idea.The looming inevitability of Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) that only a few months ago was dismissed as a conspiracy theory, raises genuine concerns about a specific kind of social credit system that directly controls what people can and cannot do with their money in ways never before envisioned.
The pace of the development of CBDC so outstrips the pace of serious public discourse as to appear driven by some kind of divine will. Cash is already being phased out as an optional payment method in certain regions like Scandinavia. In the wink of an eye, Deutsche Bank has become the first Western bank to announce that it will go cashless and just last week the German Finance Ministry proposed limiting cash payments to 5,000 euros. Meanwhile, banks and Big Tech in the European Union are collaborating to develop digital smart wallets, set to be operational as early as September 2023.
In the United Kingdom, a government CBDC “taskforce” has been set up ostensibly “…to coordinate the exploration of a potential UK CBDC”. This language belies both extent and intent, since the UK is one of 8 countries on the Digital Identity Working Group (DIWG) of the Digital Government Exchange (DGX) tasked with assisting with the digital wallet transition. All of these developments are taking place at a pace so fast that it is hard to keep up with. Perhaps that is the idea.
Although CBDC’s have not yet been formerly established nationwide, China’s digital RMB was the first digital currency to be issued by a major economy. China is poised to become a lead player in this revolution. Hong Kong and Singapore are not far behind, with Japan, Korea, and Australia well into the R&D stage.
CBDC’s will involve linking personal finances to digital currency and this will not be possible without universal Digital ID, which is why Digital ID and CBDC’s are being marketed in tandem. China announced in March that it will introduce Digital ID cards this year, based on its existing national ID card. Countries that already have a national ID card system such as India and China, will have fewer obstacles to the application of Digital ID, since the population have already been conditioned to its use.
In Western countries more sensitive to the over-reach of technocrats, Digital ID is a much tougher sell, although the experiment with digital health passes during the Covid pandemic has helped to smooth the way. Every week it seems we hear somewhere else announcing plans to adopt Digital ID – for our own benefit, of course.
Austria, which imposed some of the most authoritarian Covid measures on its people, has introduced its first digital ID in the form of a drivers’ license app, ostensibly to help prevent identify theft, while the Canadian province of Saskatchewan will provide digital IDs to residents ‘to enable them enjoy more public services’. Citizens are not yet being forced to subscribe to digital ID, but life can be made increasingly difficult – and practically impossible – without it. In Japan, for example, those reluctant to sign up for digital IDs are being told they risk losing their public health insurance.
CBDC is regularly presented in a development narrative that speaks about the individual’s ‘right’ to digital ID as if it is somehow an instrument for social justice. We see people protesting their rights all over the place; most commonly these days the right to affordable food and energy. We do not see people taking to the streets to protest the ‘right’ to digital ID. On the other hand, an online petition against the enforcement of Digital ID currently circulating in Japan has gathered over 100,000 signatures in a matter of days, calling for continued use of the current health cards. And a modest but growing ‘cash only’ movement has already begun in establishments across the UK.
Both digital ID and Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) are being lauded in the West as tools of convenience and security, fitting snugly with the UN Sustainable Development Goal that calls for ‘legal identity for all’ by 2030. The UK’s latest unelected Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, is a big fan. Here he is telling us how banks across the world are working together to ensure that we the people can benefit from CBDC. Because if there is one thing we learned from 2008 it is that banks have our best interests at heart. No wonder he’s smiling.
In the UK, universal Digital ID, which remember is essential to the successful enforcement of digital banking, is presently caught up in the pesky red tape of parliamentary procedure.
Hannah Rutter, Deputy Director for Digital Identity at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) spoke at an OIX (Open Identity Exchange) Conference titled: Are you ready for Digital ID?
Apparently, the answer is…..not quite. A few days after the conference, the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill was paused in parliament. The bill is required as a matter of law to underpin the so-called ‘trust frameworks’ – basically the rules and regulations that the Digital ID industry will be required to follow – as well as the certification process.
“Tell them how digital identity is going to support growth,” said Rutter. “Tell them how it’s going to support the rights of individuals and protect them, that we’re not creating ID cards, we’re creating a system where people will be able to have control over their data and be able to use it to make things easier for them while they have control.”
“Help us to spread that message because without that, my little team can’t get this through Parliament, and my little team can’t get this to the finish line.”
The language of rights, convenience, facility and safety cleverly guises something that no one understands or even asked for as an unquestionable and knowable good. Vast digital data matrices are being networked and advertised as welfare technologies with little public scrutiny of the obvious and necessary issues around access, privacy and potential for malfeasance. The ultimate issue, of course, is that of control – who will wield it and how? Digital ID industry wonks would like us to believe that control will lie with the consumer.
In the United Kingdom, CBDC is being introduced alongside and as an alternative to cash and bank deposits, but many believe that the goal is to phase out cash entirely. The immediate motivations for such a dramatic move are complex but are essentially aimed at offsetting a massive debt crisis that was created by the very banks that are set to enforce the solution. The slowdown of Western economies is in large part due to cautionary saving trends and reduced spending, and this could all be manipulated under CBDC. With their hands in your wallet, governments can more easily control societies in times of unrest and can prevent a run on the banks when confidence collapses. CBDC’s would also ensure that cryptocurrencies are brought under control. Business Mirror contributor, John Mangun: From the governments’ point of view public holding of cash must be eliminated or at least curtailed….Governments can forcefully make people spend their wealth where and when the government desires. When money is only available in electronic form, there is no way to hide from government confiscation.
Can you imagine a world where all of your finances, health and consumer choice data, together with your personal digital footprint from your browser history and your every movement and interaction, is matrixed into a centralized system where faceless powers, unanswerable to anyone, work to modify your on and offline behaviours through a digital nudge system of scores, perks, incentives and penalties? Perhaps not yet, but we can surely get a peek into some of the steps that our governments would need to take along the way.
In February 2022, the Trudeau government ordered Canadian banks to freeze $7.8 million (US$6.1 million) in just over 200 accounts under emergency powers. The accounts belong to key participants in the Winter 2021/22 Canadian truckers protest against the Covid regulations. pressured the online fundraising group GoFundMe to freeze millions of dollars in donations that had been given to the protest movement. After announcing its plans to redistribute the donations to charities of its choosing, the group walked back its decision after facing a potential fraud investigation.
Eight months before Trudeau used the Emergencies Act to seize the accounts of Canadian citizens, a branch of the Bank of China in Henan province announced that the peoples’ savings were not savings at all but merely ‘investment products’ and as such were not withdrawable. Some people upset by this tried to take their money out, with the provincial government responding by sending out military tanks in scenes reminiscent of Tiananmen Square.
Did Trudeau, who has publicly expressed his admiration for the “basic dictatorship” of the Chinese state, take this leaf directly out of China’s playbook?
Some legal scholars are warning that the kinds of patterns we are seeing emerging in liberal democracies that resonate with established patterns in the socio-political landscape of China, have the power to completely redefine the institution of citizenship as liberal democracies have come to know and understand it.
We may well be heading towards a future where individuals are no longer be treated as ‘republican citizens’- thinking, feeling agents of awareness with their own political consciousness but as ‘cybernetic citizens’ where the individual is reduced to a node of functions, holding value solely in terms of their compliance and utility to the State machine. In such a system, surveillance and control becomes not merely a tool of governance but the very basis for governance.
THE CENTRALIZATION OF POWER
Recently, the world looked on in quiet discomfort as Chinese president Xi Xinping orchestrated the removal of term limits, declined to put forward a successor and got himself conferred president for life. During the pandemic, however, Western governments bestowed upon themselves extraordinary powers that contradicted their constitutional limits. These same governments proceeded to then enact laws restricting the right of their citizens to protest how these government’s exercises these powers. This pattern of authoritarian creep has been repeated so much across the European continent in the past couple of years that the President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has warned, ‘This is a Europe in which the rule of law is at risk of disappearing’.
Possibly the most egregious example of a pandemic power grab was that of former Australian PM Scott Morrison, who used the “human biosecurity emergency” to secretly confer upon himself the powers of five ministries. In the name of public health, Morrison proceeded to unleash upon the country a lawless carte blanche that according to the New York Times allowed for ‘the prosecution of whistle-blowers, raids on journalists’ homes, suppression orders that keep court proceedings private, and a persistent rejection of public records requests.’
If there is one thing that you learn when working in the field of human rights it is this; power, once taken by the State from the people, is rarely returned without a fight. Retired judge, Lord Jonathan Sumption, warned UK citizens back in 2020 of the naivety of believing otherwise. People thought ‘we can go from being less like China and more like the UK when it’s all over,’ he said, referring to the pandemic. ‘This is an illusion.’ His words have proved to be prophetic. The UK government has been pushing hard against citizen rights for the past year, placing into law legislation that will make it harder to hold the government to account, and is about to pass a bill that would ankle-tag protestors. Said Conservative MP, Charles Walker, “Those Chinese in their Embassy will be watching this very closely.”
Coincidentally, these laws are coming into force just as these countries are about to plunge into a Winter of food and fuel shortages; exactly the kind of conditions that breed popular unrest.
The Chinese state views its citizens as merely tools of collective national policy. It is getting harder, every day, to make the case that our own governments don’t view us the same way.
GOVERNMENT CENSORSHIP & PROPAGANDA
With its Great Firewall, China became famous for its unabashed surveillance, monitoring and censorship of the internet. In the Covid era, global Big Tech began colluding with government agencies to control what it calls ‘misinformation’. But let us be clear, when the government tells people what they can and cannot say or uses corporate media platforms to control speech, that is censorship. Youtube, Facebook, Google, Twitter have all participated; blocking, shadow-banning or de-platforming users that do not engage in right speak.
We are now all policed by a shadowy army of censors who are not required to reveal their identities, their credentials or even their reasons for the decisions they make about what is and what is not permissible. Even Paypal has got in on the act, threatening to fine its users 2,500 USD for spreading whatever it deems in its wisdom to be ‘misinformation’. When thousands of people closed their accounts in protest, Paypal withdrew the language from its terms and conditions, only to reinstate the same language one week later.
In California, this misinformation line is even being used against doctors. Governor Gavin Newsom last month signed legislation that would punish doctors that spread ‘medical misinformation’ about Covid. Considering the level of contradictions and inconsistencies in the health guidelines coming from government agencies over the past couple of years, not to mention the fact that expanding scientific knowledge means that what is not true today might well be true tomorrow, this law could quite easily create more harm than good. Do we really want the State having more control than doctors about what can and cannot be discussed with patients? As students of history will point out, the last time this was tried in the West, it didn’t go so well.
Since the pandemic, extraordinary measures have been enacted in hitherto liberal democracies to advance censorship, quash dissenting voices and authorize punitive measures against those who do not comply. Since the launch of the Trusted News Initiative at the start of the Covid era that coordinated the narratives of major media outlets, mainstream media has lost much of its journalistic integrity and public trust, ignoring, dismissing and marginalizing credible voices that present differing, and often valuable, perspectives. At the same time, government decision-making processes are becoming less and less transparent. Some progress has been made through freedom of information requests, but these are also under threat as certain British journalists are warning.
In the end, however, it will not be our laws that will protect us. The power of the law depends upon the will and vigilance of the people to ensure that their governments are held to account. As Jonathan Sumption puts it: ‘Our status as a free society doesn’t actually depend on our laws or our constitution. It depends on convention. It depends on a collective instinct as to the right way to behave.’
Chinese exceptionalism is leveraged as a logical extension of being a self-posited global power that gets to make the rules it wishes to follow. When faced with accusations of oppression, China often turns the West’s own arguments back upon itself. Foreign powers that point to the invasion and occupation of Tibet or to the Uighur genocide are offered lectures on colonialism in return. Those who point to internment of political dissidents without trial are sternly reminded of the squalid legal limbos faced by prisoners of Guantanamo Bay.
China was never interested in becoming like us, only in beating us at our own game. And it is quite possible that the Western powers never really cared whether China changed its ways or not, as long as the deals continued to be made. The 20th-century German jurist and theorist Carl Schmitt captured it perfectly when he said that what the West confronts “is not the threatening advance of alien civilizations but its own dark shadows”.
And those dark shadows are getting longer every day.