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China’s Paper Tiger Surveillance State

China’s Paper Tiger Surveillance State Credit: Flickr/Zach Stern

China is the quintessential surveillance state: cameras perch on every street corner and bots monitor every corner of the internet. Chinese officials believe these measures will enable them to anticipate and preempt threats to the regime. But might Beijing’s growing reliance on surveillance actually weaken the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s hold on power?

China’s surveillance network is expansive and pervasive. Chongqing, for example, holds the dubious distinction of being the “most surveilled city in the world,” with roughly one camera for every six of its 30 million residents. Facial recognition systems identify those captured on camera, instantly recording their ethnicity and party membership. The state wastes no opportunity to gather biometric data, weaponizing it against Uyghurs and others suspected of disloyalty. And on WeChat – the Chinese equivalent of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Apple Pay combined – government monitors are ever-present. At the cutting edge, Chinese officials are testing artificial intelligence-powered analytics, which purport to predict unrest before it occurs.

CCP officials assume that this web of data and analysis will safeguard the regime. Western analysts share this view: Anna Mitchell and Larry Diamond claim that China “is perfecting a vast network of digital espionage as a means of social control.” For many observers, it’s not just repression within China that sets off alarm bells. China’s exports of surveillance technology, warns Ross Andersen in The Atlantic, “could prevent billions of people, across large swaths of the globe, from ever securing any measure of political freedom.” Worrying trends, indeed.

The prevailing theory that mass surveillance will reinforce the CCP’s hold on power has intuitive appeal. But evidence from history and social science provides an equally compelling, if less obvious, case: that Chinese leaders’ monitoring of their own citizens will backfire. While we cannot predict which theory will prove true, Western policymakers should not take China’s long-term internal stability for granted. Every revolution seems surprising in the moment but inevitable in hindsight.

Limited surveys and reporting suggest that Chinese citizens are content with the status quo, but neither the CCP nor Western observers should grant them automatic credence. Under China’s overwhelming surveillance, citizens avoid political discussions or feign support for their government while hiding their true preferences.

Every authoritarian regime faces the same dilemma: fail to surveil citizens and they may organize an uprising, surveil citizens too closely and they will conceal their beliefs such that any uprising comes as a shock. But there exists an optimal balance: surveillance which is frequent, but not constant. At this level of scrutiny, would-be revolutionaries struggle to organize. Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, reveal their true beliefs when they mistakenly assume they are not being watched, granting state intelligence services a window into public opinion. The CCP has overshot this balance. China’s surveillance is so ubiquitous that citizens self-censor even in intimate conversations and private venues.

Xi Jinping’s harsher restrictions on speech further incentivize Chinese citizens to conceal their views. The Chinese state previously permitted limited dissent in surveilled public spaces, recognizing the insight into public opinion that such dissent provides. In recent years, however, surveillance has become synonymous with repression. The regime now punishes citizens for infractions as trivial as poking fun at Xi’s resemblance to Winnie the Pooh or posting uncaptioned photos of forbidden religious gatherings. By making surveillance both more prevalent and more punitive, Chinese leaders are inadvertently surrendering access to the information they need to forestall protests, detain dissidents, and preemptively resolve grievances.

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Even if China’s surveillance apparatus provided a lucid understanding of public opinion, however, China’s predictive tools would likely still fail to anticipate any imminent revolution.

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In a seminal article, political scientist Timur Kuran explains why the collapse of “seemingly unshakable regimes” in Eastern Europe surprised nearly everyone, including the revolutionaries themselves. Until 1989, only the most committed dissidents openly voiced their disdain for communist rule. Some citizens were content, but many harbored private doubts and feared rebellion would be met by failure and retribution. When Moscow signaled disinterest in its European satellites, a few fence-sitters publicly joined the opposition. The domino effect had begun. Seeking safety in numbers, each dissatisfied individual ultimately added his voice to the chorus calling for the fall of the regime. Crucially, neither the regime nor the dissidents could have known what threshold of public participation would trigger the domino effect. Despite the latest repressive technology, China’s regime is in no better a position to discern this threshold than was Poland’s, East Germany’s, or Romania’s in 1989.

Complicating matters further, revolution may be a chaotic system, such that even slight changes have dramatic consequences. Revolutions are often triggered by seemingly inconsequential events occurring at moments of political, social, or economic strife. Would the Arab Spring have occurred if a young Tunisian street vendor had not self-immolated in protest? Perhaps not. When minor events have a major impact, surveillance must achieve true omniscience, observing every detail, before the predictive tools that rely on its data can be trusted. In a chaotic system, Chinese officials equipped with a high-powered AI algorithm have no more foresight than a fortune-teller peering into a crystal ball.

The inability to predict revolution poses an existential threat to the CCP. Surveillance and high-tech analytics offer an enticing, but ultimately illusory solution. Rather than preserving CCP rule, surveillance is likely to foster overconfidence among CCP officials. China currently spends more on internal security than its military, even as it expands its global presence. Leaders in Beijing may view AI and anticipatory policing as a way to slash costs, but party leaders reallocate resources at their own risk.

Of course, there are ample indications that China will remain stable. Steady and dramatic poverty alleviation and GDP growth provide citizens with pragmatic reasons to support the CCP. “Patriotic education” aims to instill students with an ideological allegiance to the party. And China’s new social credit system may turn compliance with government policies into an addictive game. These trends are far from decisive, however. Future political missteps, economic disappointment, or international tumult might dramatically shift public opinion. If and when that happens, China’s surveillance may leave the state less prepared to address the consequences –whether isolated protests or wholesale revolution.

If history is any guide, Beijing’s reaction to unrest will be rapid and violent; the CCP forcibly suppressed protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. However, repression is as likely to galvanize protesters as to demobilize them. And even if tanks in the street do halt a nascent protest movement, Western governments will face difficult decision-points: Tolerate violence? Encourage protesters? Cut diplomatic ties?

Western policymakers can prepare for the possibility of upheaval in China while recognizing their inability to make predictions. They should not expect to wait out CCP rule. Nor should they taunt Chinese leaders with the possibility of regime change; as one of us wrote in February, such rhetoric is likely to backfire.

Instead, American leaders must cooperate with Beijing on areas of mutual concern, push back on external aggression and internal abuses, and prepare for a transition of power – however unlikely it may seem at present. They must strengthen links with exiled Chinese dissidents, developing a greater understanding of the state of the current opposition. They must draw lessons from history, particularly the Arab Spring and the unexpected disintegration of the Eastern Bloc. Most importantly, they must engage in contingency planning, preparing for potential revolution in the largest country in the world.

Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul face a daunting challenge: shaping the behavior of the current Chinese regime, all while planning for a future without it.

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