Just Finished Reading: We Have Been Harmonised – Life in China’s Surveillance State by Kai Strittmatter (FP: 2019)
Imagine you’re walking home from a late night drinking session with friends. You’re still 10 minutes away from your apartment but you’re desperate for a pee. You look around. It’s 2am so the streets are empty and there’s a handy dark corner near some large bins. Seconds later you’re feeling much better and even begin to hum a tune to yourself. You phone beeps with an incoming text message. Maybe it’s from that girl you met tonight. You fish your phone out and look at your phone in horror. You’ve just been fined for your public urination and what’s more video of the act has been posted to screens located outside your apartment, the nearby bus stop you use to get to work and outside your office. As this puts you over the monthly limit your Internet connect has been throttled back to its minimum setting and your high-speed train ticket has been revoked so no visiting your parents this weekend. One getting home you discover a printed note taped to your door from the landlord. If you don’t get your Harmony Score up in the next 30 days you’ll be looking for somewhere else to live. Time to clean up your act.
Is this the future? No, it’s present day China – a society dedicated to bringing Harmony through Technology. The author who has lived in China on and off for decades outlines the lengths that the authorities will go to in order to make its citizens toe the line, and it’s a LONG way. Surveillance of the public space as well as online activities is ever present and growing every day. The technology, including the addition of increasingly powerful AI software, is becoming more accomplished as whole cities become testbeds and countries across the world are becoming interested in applying lessons in their countries too and China is more than happy to help. This pervasive and intrusive technology might help outsiders to understand how the Chinese authorities apparently controlled the recent outbreak of COVID-19 so quickly and so effectively. Contact tracing was easy as they already knew a great deal about people’s day to day contacts. Isolation was a breeze as the authorities arrived, immediately identified the people they had come for with facial recognition on their phones, and whisked them away into quarantine without so much as a murmur of protest. Clamping down on apartment blocks, streets or whole cities was as easy as pushing a button and watching a handful of monitor screens.
This was a scary enough read when you think about it happening in China but it gets scarier as you realise that not only are the Chinese exporting this technology freely across the globe but that our countries are looking at this way of ‘harmonising’ their citizens too – maybe not as forcefully, maybe not as openly – but you can see them salivating at the power it gives them. It’ll be sold, naturally, as a painless way of protecting you from crime, from terrorism, and protecting your children from predators and it will work. After all, if you’re doing nothing wrong you have nothing to fear, right? I’m sure that European Jews said the same thing to themselves in 1932….. Highly recommended if you can keep your paranoia in check. Much more on China to come.
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin