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Facial Recognition And Beyond: Journalist Ventures Inside China's 'Surveillance State'


Security cameras and facial recognition technology are on the rise in China. In 2018, People's Daily, the media mouthpiece of China's ruling Communist Party, claimed on English-language Twitter that the country's facial recognition system was capable of scanning the faces of China's 1.4 billion citizens in just one second.

German journalist Kai Strittmatter speaks fluent Mandarin and has studied China for more than 30 years. He says it's not clear whether or not the Chinese government is capable of using facial recognition software in the way it claims. But he adds, on a certain level, the veracity of the claim isn't important.

"It doesn't even matter whether it's true or not, as long as people believe it," he says. "What the Communist Party is doing with all this high-tech surveillance technology now is they're trying to internalize control. ... Once you believe it's true, it's like you don't even need the policemen at the corner anymore, because you're becoming your own policeman."

Strittmatter's new book, We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China's Surveillance State, examines the role of surveillance in China's authoritarian state. He warns that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, has embraced an ideological rigidity unknown since the days of Mao Zedong.

"Most people I spoke to, even party members and people inside party institutions, they thought that maybe Xi Jinping would start with reforms more in the liberal kind of way," Strittmatter says. "Everybody was completely surprised by how it turned out. ... It's really a new kind of regime and state that we haven't seen before."

Strittmatter says the Chinese state has amassed an astonishing amount of data about its citizens, which it uses to punish people for even minor deviations from expected norms.

"People sometimes ask me, 'Do we need to fear China?' " Strittmatter says. "My answer really is, in the end, we don't need to fear China. What we need to fear — if we need to fear anything — is actually ourselves. It's our fatalism, our resignation. We need to get up and we need to fight for our values and for our system, because I do believe it's still the best we've got."

Interview Highlights

On China becoming a leader in artificial intelligence and data collection

On the one hand, you have a guy [Xi] who is reintroducing repression on a scale that we haven't seen since Mao Zedong. So he's basically with one foot going back into the past, but with his other foot, he's going far, far into the future and really embracing all this new information technology and artificial intelligence and big data, like, I would say, no other government on the planet actually does and certainly no other authoritarian government.

This is one of the remarkable things, right? I mean, we have been told for so many years and decades by these tech prophets that every kind of new technology would actually serve the cause of freedom and would undermine and subvert authoritarian rule. Well, the Chinese, they have shown us already for ... more than 20 years, that they're not only not afraid of those new technologies, but on the contrary, they have grown to love them. ...

The Communist Party doesn't see those new technologies as a danger to their rule. On the contrary, they have discovered or they think that actually these new technologies give them new instruments that will perfect their rule.

The Communist Party doesn't see those new technologies as a danger to their rule. On the contrary, they have discovered or they think that actually these new technologies give them new instruments that will perfect their rule, and it will make their rule crisis-proof, and now that's the same thing with artificial intelligence and big data.

On how the widespread use of the app WeChat allows the Chinese state to monitor citizens

There's this one app on every Chinese mobile phone that's called WeChat. And with WeChat basically you can live your whole life in WeChat. It started as a normal chat program like WhatsApp, but very soon it turned into a kind of Chinese Facebook. Then it became a Chinese Uber. You could get credit, you could apply for credit to your bank with it. You could use it as an ID. You could file your divorce papers through this app to the local court, and you can do all your financial transactions through this app. And that works with bar codes. And they've been using these bar codes for a long time already.

Nobody in China uses credit cards. ... Everybody does everything with their mobile phones. And so you come to the point that even street beggars use them and they will tell you, "It's so convenient." But at the same time, it's also amazingly convenient for state security. And every single one of your transactions will actually end up on one of the servers.

On how Chinese citizens feel the presence of the state through WeChat

Kai Strittmatter served as the China correspondent for more than a decade for <em>Süddeutsche Zeitung</em>, one of Germany's largest newspapers.
Lasse Bech Martinussen / HarperCollins
Kai Strittmatter served as the China correspondent for more than a decade for Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's largest newspapers.

Chinese citizens, they've been used to that, they feel the presence of the state, they've been feeling the presence of the state for all their lives. You realize that sometimes when some of your texts are being censored, suddenly words or sentences are missing ... and they never reach the other party or you don't actually get part of the conversation that your friends send you. This is like something that many Chinese experience. ...

I had some friends [who were interested in politics], and I saw two of them getting arrested because of their WeChat records, because they had actually on WeChat, agreed with other people, with friends to go to a poetry reading where a poet in Beijing was supposed to read some poems supporting the students in Hong Kong in the struggle for democracy. And they never made it to the poetry reading. They were arrested on the way. And it was clearly because of their WeChat conversations.

On the point system citizens have in the city of Rongcheng, wherein they get points for good deeds and get docked points for dishonest deeds

It's actually really like right out of a picture book. Every citizen in Rongcheng starts with a score of 1,000 points. And then you can work your way up. You can get more points by doing really good things for society and you can fall down. ... If you have more than 1,050 points, you can be a AAA citizen and then you become a AA citizen if you fall lower, and C and D. If you're a D citizen, you're actually dishonest, and you have less than 599 points. ...

They say they want to create the honest citizen, the trustworthy citizen, and they want to punish the trust breakers. So, for example, you can earn points if you donate blood or bone marrow or if you give lessons to the neighbor's children that they need for school. I went to a neighborhood where one lady got five points because she actually provided one of her basement rooms for the local choir that sang revolutionary songs. ...

At the same time, you get punished for the things that you're not supposed to do, and you can get punished for jaywalking. You can get punished for downloading pirated stuff. You can get punished for letting your dog [poop] on the lawn in front of the neighborhood, for all these kinds of things. So many of these things would be actually actions that we also consider them not to be good actions and maybe worthy of being punished. But of course, then it goes much further, and it also becomes political. And you can also become punished because you endanger the social harmony on the Internet, for example.

On the potential consequences if your score drops too low in the point system

What we have to actually say is that they're introducing the system step by step. Now, it's not yet a nationwide system, and we'll have to see how it develops in the next couple of years. But one thing is already nationwide, and that's the system of blacklists. If you're blacklisted because your social credit is down, then actually you already get sanctioned. For example, you're no longer allowed to take a plane. You're no longer able to buy plane tickets. You're no longer allowed to take a high-speed railway. You're no longer allowed, for example, in expensive hotels. Your children are no longer allowed to go to expensive good schools and things like this. And this is something that's already happening. This is one part of the system that is already active. In 2018, there were more than 17 million people being banned from flying because of the system.

On how cities will implement public shaming

You have these billboard systems and cameras and artificial intelligence cameras when you jaywalk, still already while you are still in the middle of the road, your face appears on the huge billboard for everybody to see.

In Shenzhen, for example, in the south or in Shenyang, in the northeast, you have these billboard systems and cameras and artificial intelligence cameras when you jaywalk, still already while you are still in the middle of the road, your face appears on the huge billboard for everybody to see. And next to your face, your name appears, your ID number, part of it is [censored]. ... But the whole point is, "We know who you are. This is you and you are actually hurting society this moment right now." So public shaming is a big part of it.

On public opinion about these systems

One lesson I learned is that propaganda works, censorship works. It really does work. And people actually believe a lot of the things that they hear, because they don't have any other information. Also because there is no public debate on many of these things. There is no tradition of public debate on privacy, data protection and things like this, and the arguments of the government are basically twofold: One is ... convenience. It makes your life so convenient. And the second thing is ... it makes our life safer. This is especially what they use for the facial recognition and the cameras, and we actually make your life safe and secure. And you can go through the city, you can leave your handbag now in a bus and in a subway train, and nobody will dare take it, and they're right, probably. And many people buy that, and they like that.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.