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China’s protests are testing the surveillance state

Protests in China might force the government to back down from its extreme Covid-19 restrictions and ramp up its extreme surveillance.

Protesters march along a street in Beijing on November 28 during a protest against China’s harsh Covid-19 restrictions, and a rally for the victims of a deadly fire.
Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images
Amanda Lewellyn is a tech-focused Today, Explained producer.

People in China have been living under extreme anti-Covid lockdowns as part of the country’s “zero-Covid” policy for the past three years. But after a wave of protests, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears ready to loosen some of those restrictions.

In late November, protests broke out in Urumqi, a city in the Xinjiang province, after an apartment fire there killed 10 people. Residents believe that fire trucks were obstructed by fences, tents, and other barriers normally used for Covid-19 precautions, leading to a multi-hour delay in extinguishing the blazes. The region had been under strict lockdown for more than 100 days at that point, and the fire proved to be a breaking point for many people who live there — and alongside other Covid-related incidents, helped galvanize protests in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, and elsewhere across China.

As Wall Street Journal deputy China bureau chief Josh Chin told Today, Explained, the protests highlighted a weakness of the massive surveillance state that the CCP has built online. Images and videos of the Urumqi fire spread across China on social media faster than censors could respond, allowing the protests to grow into possibly the largest show of defiance toward the Chinese government since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. And while the protests were overwhelmingly about ending the lockdowns, we also heard some calls for an end to President Xi Jinping’s surveillance state. One of the most striking images of the protests has been one of demonstrators holding up blank pieces of paper, a symbol of Chinese censorship.

But it’s not likely to spell the end of surveillance in China. The government is already leveraging the vast amounts of information it’s collected on its citizens — including cell phone location data — to crack down on those who participated in the protests.

Below is an excerpt of the conversation between Chin and Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to Today, Explained wherever you get podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Sean Rameswaram

Despite living in a surveillance state, these protests found a path through.

Josh Chin

Yeah, that is absolutely one of the most noteworthy elements of this: that this is happening at a time when the Chinese government has unprecedented levels of control as a result of their use of technology. And I think it says a couple of things.

One, you know, it’s an amazingly powerful statement about the levels of frustration and also the bravery of protesters that they know that they are subject to surveillance — they know the government can know basically anything about them and is motivated to track them down — and yet they still came out and protested. I keep thinking about the state of mind you have to be in to be living inside a surveillance state and still go to the streets.

And then the second thing is: it does show that there are some flaws in the surveillance state. It’s not a perfect surveillance state yet. It’s still under construction. And so when people move quickly enough or with enough emotion or anger, outrage, it can actually overwhelm that system, at least for a period of time.

Sean Rameswaram

You said that the government hasn’t perfected its surveillance state yet. Does that mean that they may use these protests as a test of their surveillance state and then make improvements?

Josh Chin

Yeah, I think so. The surveillance state in China borrows a lot from Silicon Valley: a lot of its techniques, a lot of its technology. You know, no one does surveillance in a more sophisticated way than Google.

Sean Rameswaram

You mean the email client I have opened twice now with this laptop that’s running in the background of everything I do? You mean that thing?

Josh Chin

Yeah. The one that reads all of your emails and tries to sell you things based on what it knows about your behavior. Exactly. And like Google, like any other Silicon Valley company, the Communist Party likes to iterate its systems. It’s constantly updating them and training them to be better.

Sean Rameswaram

What’s the origin story of the Chinese surveillance state?

Josh Chin

The origin of the surveillance state actually goes way back, all the way to the ’50s. [Chinese Communist revolutionary] Mao Zedong, like a lot of other totalitarian leaders, had his own domestic spying apparatus. But then on top of that, you had a Chinese scientist [Qian Xuesen] who in the 1950s had spent most of his career as a brilliant missile scientist in the US — and he was chased back to China during the McCarthy era. The FBI suspected him of being a communist.

He had all these ideas that he’d actually picked up in the US, new theories about the way that information could be used to exert control. He initially used them as an engineering project — he helped build the Chinese missile system — but later, he started to apply them to society. He had this theory that if you could collect enough information and use the right tools, you could essentially engineer society the way you would a guided missile. These ideas really captured the minds of some people in the Communist Party. Over time, they became more and more popular.

Early days in China, before the arrival of the Internet, surveillance was kind of done by hand, the old-fashioned ways — the same way that the East Germans had pioneered. But China was really interesting in that the Communist Party grasped very early on the power of the internet and of information technologies. And so they started building the foundations of this current system in the early 2000s, actually, with help from Western tech companies. Companies like Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks, which is now defunct, but it was a major Canadian telecom company. They all came to China and basically helped build systems for tracking and controlling the internet.

Over time, China built what has become by far the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship. But it was always looking for ways to apply that level of digital tracking in the real world. In the 2010s, you had these major leaps in the evolution of AI that made it useful in the real world. Whereas before, facial recognition was really clunky and didn’t work that well — now it works quite well. So you have computers and machines that can identify someone in a crowd of 50,000 people in a matter of seconds. If they have enough cameras around your neighborhood, they can trace your movements, where you’ve been walking over the past week. So they have this amazing ability to track people at a really granular level.

The first, most complete version of a surveillance state was built in Xinjiang, where all these protests started. That was part of a campaign to track and analyze Uyghurs in the region who might pose a threat to the Communist Party. At the time, it was the only place in the country where everyone was subject to surveillance. In other parts of the country, it was limited to certain groups of people: ex-cons, drug dealers, the mentally ill.

With the Covid pandemic, that changed. Suddenly the government built these systems that were able to track the entire Chinese population in ways that were very similar to the way they tracked Uyghurs before. So they were able to adapt their systems and expand them. And they’re almost certainly doing that now with the protests, too.

Sean Rameswaram

And are North American companies still building the Chinese surveillance state infrastructure or has that become less fashionable?

Josh Chin

You had a really interesting development recently where for a long time, American companies were deeply involved in building the Chinese surveillance state — everything from the investment level all the way down to selling them the basic chips and hard drives that the Chinese companies needed. But recently, starting under the Trump administration actually, the US policy towards China started to get more confrontational.

At the same time, there was news about what was happening in Xinjiang to Uyghurs, with the surveillance state there. So now you have a really unique situation in the history of US-China relations — at least since Tiananmen Square — where human rights concerns are a really major force in the relationship. A lot of tech companies are pulling back or they’re being forced to pull back from their partnerships with Chinese surveillance companies. So they’re no longer directly building it the way that they had been in the past.

Sean Rameswaram

What is the thinking behind this surveillance state, Josh? Is it surveillance for the sake of surveillance or is it surveillance out of fear? Surveillance for the sake of control?

Josh Chin

I think it’s control. The Chinese Communist Party began as an underground movement, heavily persecuted and hunted in 20th-century China. As a result of being underground, of being a sort of guerrilla organization, it’s always been very paranoid. It was constantly looking for systems that allow it to identify threats, present or future.

Sean Rameswaram

Has Xi Jinping, in all his power and wisdom, been able to sell the surveillance state to the Chinese people as a positive thing? Or is it something that’s swept under the rug and never spoken about?

Josh Chin

Actually, he had done a really remarkable sales job up until very recently. In the earlier phases of the pandemic, after the Communist Party had rolled out this expanded surveillance state, we definitely talked to people who thought it was creepy and weird that suddenly government officials knew where they had traveled or who they’d been exposed to. But people were sitting in China reading the news, seeing death counts in New York City and London go through the roof. They were looking around and realized that [in] China, at the time, you could go outside. The hospitals weren’t being flooded with Covid patients. So they actually were happy with it. They felt like, whatever the inconveniences, this life-saving system was better than anyone else’s. I think a lot of Chinese people believed for a long time that the zero-Covid approach was the right approach and the use of surveillance to maintain it was justified.

You’re starting to see that really change now, where people are frustrated. Part of the issue is that omicron just spreads too fast. It spreads in a way that even China’s surveillance systems can’t really keep up with. So what the Communist Party started doing instead was using the technology to lock people inside their homes. You had these scenes in places like Shanghai — wealthy cities that had never really experienced the dark side of surveillance — where people are suddenly locked in their homes. They’re being watched by robot dogs and drones; really dark, sci-fi kind of scenarios. They are starting to feel something similar to what Uyghurs felt in Xinjiang: the hard edge of Communist Party control.

That’s gone on for some months now. And I think that’s basically what these protests are about, people are fed up with the control.

Sean Rameswaram

Do you think ultimately these protests will be a win for the Chinese surveillance state, in that, who knows, they tighten the infrastructure and make it stronger? Or a win for the people in China, who have realized their power?

Josh Chin

That is the big question. And it’s one I think is really hard to answer because we’re just in uncharted territory. What I would say is: the surveillance state has the higher ground. Unlike in the United States with Occupy or with protests other places — even in Russia — Chinese people have almost zero civil society to speak of. The Communist Party has been systematically dismantling it. There are very few NGOs, for example, nonprofit groups. There are very few robust religious communities, church communities, organizations outside the government that can help organize resistance. None of that exists in China. On purpose, it doesn’t exist. These protests are really raw, they’re disorganized, they’re a little chaotic. And I think that’s to the advantage of the Communist Party. It’s amazing that people gathered for these protests, but it’s also extremely hard for them to keep them going, to organize this into more of a movement.

But what has happened in China, which is a problem for the Communist Party, is that there’s been an immense loss of political trust. The Communist Party can certainly crack down with the tools it’s got. It can maintain control. But it has to figure out now how to regain that trust. Otherwise, it’s going to be in a scenario where it is constantly cracking down, and that may or may not be sustainable long-term.

Josh Chin is the Wall Street Journal’s deputy China bureau chief. He is also the co-author of Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control.