Every so often, I witness a scene in my neighborhood that’s all too common in New York City. A single car is double-parked on a narrow side street in front of a large apartment building. A blocked, frustrated driver—say, of a school bus full of frenetic children, or a delivery van on a tight schedule—angrily lays on the horn, sometimes for a full minute or more. Sometimes the guilty party sheepishly emerges to move their vehicle. But just as often they don’t.
If this were not Queens but Hangzhou, a city near China’s eastern coast, there would be no need for honking. In China’s “smart cities,” surveillance cameras immediately flag double-parked cars and run their plates to identify the owner. Local city managers, known as the Chengguan, then order such cars be moved via text message. Traffic can then resume flowing within minutes.
This is one positive element of China’s increasingly data-driven governance, analyzed by veteran reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin in Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control. Their presentation can make Hangzhou seem like a paradise of efficiency, even to Americans skeptical of government control. Given China’s extensive record of human-rights violations, it can be tempting to dismiss innovations like Hangzhou’s camera and AI-based technology as tools of oppression. But, as Chin and Lin point out, the story is more complicated: surveillance technology in places like Hangzhou actually has improved the lives of some Chinese citizens. But it’s telling that “Datatopia,” Chin and Lin’s chapter on the benefits of surveillance in Hangzhou, is also the book’s shortest.
The rest of Surveillance State is devoted to cataloging and analyzing the ways in which Chinese authorities use facial recognition, social media and consumer data, biometrics, and a vast network of cameras to subdue and, in the case of China’s Uyghur population, persecute its people. The book opens by recounting the story of Uyghur poet and filmmaker Tahir Hamut. Hamut describes how his family was brought to a police station to have their faces analyzed, their blood drawn, and their irises scanned. As Hamut watches other men in his town gradually being rounded up and sent elsewhere, he begins to realize that the police were surveilling his family to make it easier to locate and arrest him. Hamut takes to laying out a set of clothes every night before bed, in case the police suddenly arrive to take him away. He also starts exploring ways to help his family escape China.
Such horrors, especially those committed against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, have been well documented by journalists and academics. What Chin and Lin offer is a new perspective on the historical context of such surveillance. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is hardly the only state government to use technology for national-security purposes. Chin and Lin point out that in 2012, Barack Obama announced plans to harness big data. (The “Big Data Research and Development Initiative” invested $200 million across six federal agencies.) Where the CCP differs is in its profound belief in the capacity of technology to literally re-engineer society and re-program its people. This belief isn’t new. In its early days, the CCP used lower-tech methods such as extensive propaganda, forced indoctrination, and political campaigns like the Cultural Revolution; reeducation through labor wasn’t outlawed until 2013. (Xinjiang’s internment camps remain a glaring exception.)
As early as the mid-1950s, the CCP was already attempting to develop systems that could process large amounts of data in order to predict human behavior and solve societal problems. One of Surveillance State’s most fascinating chapters is “Man and Machine,” about the life and work of mathematician and physicist Qian Xuesen. Qian had been living in the United States for more than ten years, working at Caltech and on the Manhattan Project, when the CCP took over mainland China. After falling afoul of McCarthyism in 1950, Qian was kept under house arrest in his California home for five years. In 1955, the United States deported Qian and his family to China. Back in China, Qian helped create China’s nuclear-weapons program; he also delved deeper into cybernetics, the study of the relationship between information and control. Qian believed cybernetics could help reduce political corruption and resolve economic challenges. By 1989, Qian was arguing that “scientific development” needed to be more closely tied to social stability. Thirty years later, that is precisely what the CCP believes it is doing.