China's digital nightmare
How China's authoritarian rulers exploit digital technology to consolidate their power
It seems like just yesterday that China — best understood in its own eyes as the center of the universe — was a magnet for embarrassing Sino-envy from Western analysts gushing over its efficiency, its environmentalism, and its dedication to global markets. But reality is setting in, shattering one of the West's most dangerous illusions: that China was anywhere close to adopting the Western norms and values that "count."
In fact, we should all be afraid of China — very afraid.
Sure, Beijing has embraced everything from Marxism to crony capitalism to the latest and greatest technology. But it has turned all those things to what's now a naked, headlong pursuit of a society unfree to an unprecedented degree.
You've probably heard by now of China's new social credit system, which makes it harder for rule breakers to access money, transportation, and other essentials. (Yes, it's just like that episode of Black Mirror, only real.) But it gets much worse.
How much worse? Government workers are now being equipped with brainbots that harvest and report on their innermost feelings. The "lightweight, wireless sensors," as the South China Morning Post has observed, "constantly monitor the wearer's brainwaves and stream the data to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety, or rage."
This is extraordinarily unsettling.
Meanwhile, the absolute rule of Xi Jinping has brought China's world-class tech firms to heel, using the popular WeChat app as a surveillance and enforcement online and off. Prisoners, ethnic minorities, and beleaguered activists are guinea pigs for the new regime in all its totalitarian power. From facial recognition to mandatory smartphone uploads, China's government is proving that digital technology has little attachment to the shiny happy liberal view of science and social progress.
China is also proving that absolutely nothing can stand in its way. While Americans mire themselves in debates over whether a Chinese-styled prom dress counts as racist appropriation, China's scientists and armed forces are winning the race to deploy satellites equipped with "unhackable" quantum internet technology. In another feat with clear military applications, a Chinese drone company has set the world record for simultaneous unmanned flights — 1,374, to be precise.
While the Western approach to digital life is yielding widespread social stagnation and despair, China is taking advantage in other ways. Its gangs have established a new model of global drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere, laundering money in Vancouver's cornered market back into factories in the homeland. Even the popular Western cartoon character Peppa Pig has been banned, targeted for her role in Chinese memes associated with insufficiently striving and conformist Chinese youths.
And what can we do? Not much. Our elites have barely adjusted to the unfolding shock that the internet can't be stopped from organizing deplorable people churning out deplorable content — and moving dangerous habits and ideas into the real political world.
While the Western establishment decries China's digital dystopia, it simultaneously drifts ever closer to adopting a "China lite" approach to online policing, one in which government-approved algorithms suppress officially unacceptable speech and images around the clock, forever.
Most sobering of all, none of this baleful news can be pinned on the presidency of Donald Trump. Western elites, and the idealistic managerial and interpretive class they employ, stubbornly insist that democracy dies in darkness. This year, China has thrown a stark and unforgiving light on a much more horrific possibility: No matter who or how we regulate, democracy dies in digital.