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Image by Gauthier Delacroix available at Flickr.com under CC license.

10:34 am | 14. September 2020

The Masks Chinese Wear

As ever stricter media controls and mass surveillance take root in China, gaining a clear picture of Chinese society is difficult. In this commentary for Echowall, writer Wen Kejian suggests that social resistance will continue to exist alongside state efforts at stability preservation.

By Wen Kejian

As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe, one of the simplest means of slowing transmission of the virus, generally recommended by disease experts, has been the wearing of protective masks in public spaces. In some Western societies, there has been pushback against the wearing of masks. But in China, there is no detectable sense of resentment or opposition to this preventive measure. Why should Chinese be so amenable?

One answer to this question, in my view, is the fact that Chinese have long been conditioned, under the country’s authoritarian system, to the wearing of figurative masks. What I mean is that people generally are neither able nor willing to express themselves truthfully, and so they do their utmost to avoid sensitive issues. This conditioned self-censorship amounts essentially to an acceptance of masks – both figurative and literal – as an unavoidable part of life.

For those trying to ascertain the true face of Chinese society, the existence of this protective mask can make things difficult. There is a common saying in China, that those who observe the game from the side-lines see more than those who are busy playing. When it comes to understanding Chinese society, however, this is almost certainly untrue, because if everyone disguises their true face, no real information is conveyed to the outside world. China seems only like a stagnant pool, a place devoid of voices or ideas.

Surveys and Surveillance

The Song dynasty poet Su Shi once wrote: “As I range about Lu Mountain, I cannot recognize its true form.” In other words, we cannot always see clearly the life in which we are immersed. And by the same reasoning, being Chinese living does not necessarily guarantee a fuller understanding of Chinese society. Even among ourselves we have as many disagreements about who we are as we have interpretations. We are like the blind men in the Indian parable, each touching just one part of the elephant and daring to describe the whole.

The same blindness applies to the various public opinion polls undertaken in China by various research consultancies. For example, a recent survey conducted in 23 countries by Blackbox Research, a leading social research agency in Singapore, and the consumer intelligence company Toluna, rated the level of satisfaction citizens reported with their government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey found that Chinese citizens were the most satisfied, with a score of 85 out of 100. But just stop for a moment to consider this. In China, all information about COVID-19 has been tightly monitored and controlled. State media, meanwhile, have actively promoted the idea that the response to the crisis in Western countries has been inadequate. With critical voices actively removed from the internet, the public has essentially had zero opportunity to take issue with any aspect of the government’s response.

In such a context, what meaning does the satisfaction level reported in a survey of citizens actually have?

Since 2012, the control and surveillance of Chinese society has only intensified. Critical voices have almost entirely disappeared, and China seems to have entered its own Ice Age. The country’s Communist Party leaders seem willing to incur heavy costs to maintain a monopoly on power. In the interest of maintaining stability, the government now engages in the widespread surveillance of society, using all the digital tools at its disposal, including big data, artificial intelligence, facial recognition and so on. Correspondingly, public expenditures aimed at securing the regime have been increasing every year. According to a reports from state media, expenditures for public security account for around six percent of the national budget, and one scholar estimated last year that spending on stability maintenance in 2018 reached 1.25 trillion yuan, or about 160 billion euro.

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Screenshot of a video report from Quartz on surveillance systems in China. A citizen spotted on a surveillance camera in a public place is matched to a file photo using facial recognition technology.

China’s system of governance in the current era has been characterized by some as “digital Leninism.” Within just a few years, surveillance systems that would be unimaginable in democratic countries have come fully online in China, where the power of the Chinese Communist Party is not subject to checks or balances.

The push to implement an extreme form of digital control in China has arisen in large part from a deep concern in the leadership group about lack of legitimacy. But the rollout of digital controls is also tied to vested interests in China. There are powerful interests like the Public Security Bureau, China’s vast police apparatus. But manufacturers, suppliers and service providers for surveillance systems also have their interests closely intertwined with those of the people in positions of power.

Rent-seeking behaviour and interest trading have contributed to the rapid expansion of the surveillance network in China. Publicly listed companies like Hikvision Digital Technology and Dahua Technology, both based in the city of Hangzhou, have amassed huge market capitalizations on the back of the strong prospects of this shared interest between technology suppliers and the government. Hikvision’s principal products are all various forms of surveillance equipment – including “safe city” solutions such as CCTV surveillance systems, facial capture and recognition cameras, drones, and so on. The company, partially state-owned, is a key player in China’s massive surveillance equipment market, with a market capitalization of more than 40 billion US dollars. Hikvision is now among a number of Chinese tech companies to be subjected to sanctions by the United States, which has alleged that Hikvision is controlled by the Chinese military.

Every individual in China today is subjected to real-time surveillance, and strict controls can be exercised over anyone regarded as a clear threat to social stability, meaning that the authorities can neutralize any potential threat. The internet, once seen by liberal intellectuals in China as a possible source of hope, has been completely dismembered, cut off from the global internet and progressively isolated – a “splinternet,” as some have called it.

Every individual in China today is subjected to real-time surveillance, and strict controls can be exercised over anyone regarded as a clear threat to social stability, meaning that the authorities can neutralize any potential threat.

 

Armed with high technology tools and significant resources, the Chinese Communist Party today differs greatly from totalitarian systems throughout history. The CCP has no precedent in terms of its ability to stop opposition in its infancy, and its capacity to subject all organizations to constant surveillance.  

State Power and its Limits

This leaves us with a rather grim picture of the situation in China, in which it indeed seems like a stagnant pool, with all signs of vibrancy wiped away by control and surveillance. But if we take a slightly more dynamic perspective on the interplay between the assertion of private rights and interests and official control measures, we might arrive at a more encouraging assessment.

When we look at controls on speech and information in China, we can see that the formal media largely abide by the objectives defined for them by the leadership, and in principal there are no independent media. At the same time, the authorities have established a massive propaganda system, and a massive system of internet police, as well as online content monitors, both paid and volunteer, that number in the millions. Every online platform employs a large team of its own internal censors charged with content monitoring to ensure compliance. On top of this there are automated controls that filter out sensitive keywords.

Police often interrogate citizens over the sharing of so-called “rumours,” the most prominent recent case being that of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor referred to as the earliest whistle-blower on the COVID-19 epidemic who was interrogated by police in December 2019 for sharing information on WeChat about the emergence of a new virus. In addition, ordinary people attempting to exercise their right to freedom of expression, guaranteed in China’s Constitution, can be pursued by judicial organs accusing them of “provoking trouble,” “disrupting public order,” or “inciting subversion of state power.”

With such a formidable force of people and technologies, arrayed layer upon layer against those attempting to speak, one might assume Chinese society has entirely lost its power of speech, that it exists in a dark state in which even the buzz of a mosquito can be detected.

But the tools offered by advances in technology are employed not just by the state, but by citizens as well. And any close observer of China can also recognize that information technology and the internet have expanded the space for speech, particularly with the widespread penetration of social media. Correspondingly, they can observe that public opinion, as it follows issues of public concern, can have some impact on political decision-making – even if this impact is applied inconsistently.

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Screenshot from a July post on a travel website explaining health codes in China and their possible impact on air travel. 

In fact, there are limitations to how effectively the state can process mass data about the population into actionable information. At some point, achieving this requires human intervention, and the state, even with all of the powers at its disposal, cannot always be effective. The Soviet KGB, for all of its grasp of intelligence, could not predict the direction Gorbachev’s policies would take, nor could it foresee the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Likewise, US intelligence groups could not predict the course the USSR would take. The gap that separates data from actionable information cannot easily be bridged by an increasingly dull and bureaucratic system.

The smartphone-based health codes used in the effort to contain COVID-19 in China are a good example of this principle. One friend of mine discovered that his own health code had changed to red, signalling that he had had close contact with someone testing positive for the virus. He could not work out where he might have had such contact, until finally he learned that when he was driving on the expressway he had been passed by another vehicle with an infected person inside. This had been his close contact, but there had never been any real risk of transmission. Technology of this kind is a terribly frightening thing. But what real utility does it have in preventing the spread of infection? And doesn’t it risk doing a great deal more harm than good?

In fact, it must be asked: If China's ubiquitous digital control measures are truly effective, why should the authorities continually seek to enhance them with layer upon layer of measures, like these recent health codes?

Between information and decision-making, we find another looming gap. At the decision-making level, the concepts, powers and responsibilities, and personal preferences of the bureaucrat can in various ways affect their behaviour. The decision-making function of the human being cannot readily be replaced by strengthening technologies. As the benefits of compliance have diminished in the current system, and the purging of officials has increased, the effectiveness of the system has declined, and this naturally has an effect on the system of stability maintenance.

Life Under the Ice

The former system in which the mainstream media, monopolized by the Party-state, had the means to shape the agenda one-dimensionally has been replaced by shaped by hundreds of millions of Chinese internet users who express themselves on social media.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese express themselves on social media platforms, and even as their posts are deleted and their accounts suspended, they manage in certain ways to make themselves heard, circumventing this complex and multi-layered system of controls. The result is the emergence of a limited public opinion space that, while constantly subjected to controls, cannot be entirely tamed. This public opinion space is formed by a complex mixture of many types of media and technology platforms. The basic values expressed in this space are often about asserting freedom, fairness and justice, about condemning injustice and demanding the accountability of those in positions of power. 

Hundreds of millions of Chinese express themselves on social media platforms, and even as their posts are deleted and their accounts suspended, they manage in certain ways to make themselves heard, circumventing this complex and multi-layered system of controls.

 

There are many examples of platforms constantly pushing open this public space. One such example was the short video app “Neihan Duanzi,” which specialized in user-generated jokes and humorous content. Launched in 2012,  the app was initially merely a tool by which netizens could entertain themselves. Before long, however, its user scale had expanded, with a strong sense of shared community, and it had also became a platform hosting content that satirized the government. Users of the app had no intention of challenging the government, but as all unapproved gatherings make the leadership nervous, the app’s rapid development prompted action. In April 2018, authorities order the app to shut down.

This time, however, the government’s pre-emptive action against “Neihan Duanzi” prompted widespread opposition online, and some die-hard supporters even arranged online to meet up in their cars to express solidarity, blocking certain major roads in the capital. Interestingly, Zhang Yiming, the founder and CEO of ByteDance, the company behind the app – and also the creator of TikTok, the globally successful video-sharing social networking service – made no attempt whatsoever to resist the government action. Instead, he issued an abject apology to the authorities, saying that he was “filled with remorse and grief.”

When TikTok’s turn for trouble came in 2020, as US President Donald Trump issued an executive order demanding ByteDance sell its American assets to a US buyer, citing security concerns, the Chinese government was harshly critical of this action. Leaders in Beijing seemed not to realize that their own actions two years earlier were at least equally objectionable.

The furore inside China over the forced closure of “Neihan Duanzi” soon dissipated, but the incident demonstrated that even during this so-called Ice Age for speech, there are currents flowing still beneath the cold, still surface. Meanwhile, as the stability preservation system of the party-state continues to advance and adapt to ensure control, it in fact alienates and makes enemies of more and more groups within Chinese society, so that even as it consumes massive resources it serves only to foster greater numbers of opponents.

When it comes to issues like direct criticism of high level officials, or discussion on political action considered a threat of the regime, there can be no real breakthroughs on fundamental issues. Nevertheless, opinions expressed online have played an important role in gaining traction on a number of issues of public concern, and in some cases have managed to curtail the most egregious applications of power.

In early March, right in the midst of the epidemic, China’s People magazine published a cover story called “The Whistleblower,” in which it interviewed Wuhan doctor Ai Fen, the first medical professional to share information about the virus outbreak in December 2019. Ai, who was pressured by officials at her hospital to keep quiet, told the magazine that she wished she had spoken even more openly about the dangers of the epidemic. The People magazine article quickly drew public attention on the internet, and just as quickly was removed by the authorities. But in the hours that followed, Chinese took to social media to share the deleted report by making creative alterations to the text that would elude the censors – for example, by rendering it into foreign languages like Korean that could be auto-translated, or converting it into emoticons. In this way, internet users managed to a certain extent to break through information restrictions, even perhaps disseminating the censored article more widely than it might otherwise have been. The case, perhaps exceptional in contemporary Chinese communications, brought to the surface the often unseen dynamism of views in Chinese society.

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A censored March 2020 article from China’s People magazine is shared over social media by converting the text entirely into emoticons.

Not all issues in China can give rise to the kind of circumvention seen in the case of the People magazine cover story. But this does offer an encouraging signal that digital totalitarianism is not invincible. Given sufficient determination and enthusiasm, and sufficient coordination, China’s formidable censorship system can be bested.

If we compare China to North Korea, we can see these social forces at play even more clearly. As a poor and weak totalitarian country, North Korea has not invested anything close to the same level of resources as China in the control of information and ideas. Because ordinary people in North Korea cannot go online, its rulers have no need for cyber-police, for technological filtering of sensitive keywords, for the installation of surveillance cameras in every nook and cranny, or for scrutiny of people’s lives through big data.

One conclusion we might draw from this is that North Korea’s capacity for the control of speech is much weaker than that of China. But in fact, the opposite is true. North Korea, as a poor nation, can nevertheless exercise far more effective control over speech than the People’s Republic of China, which some Chinese internet users have wryly referred to as “West Korea” (西朝鲜). North Korea today has nothing at all resembling the public opinion space that can be found in China, the scale of Chinese censorship notwithstanding.

What this situation tells us is not that the Chinese Communist Party is more tolerant in its rule than the Kim regime across the border, but rather that social development in China has occurred at a deeper level even in the absence of real change to the political system. Given these deeper transformations to the social climate, China’s powerful ruling party cannot, even with the most state-of-the-art technologies, turn the country into a stagnant pool completely devoid of criticism – as is the case in North Korea. In China, the expenditure of vast resources and personnel to control speech is necessary precisely because Chinese society is far more vibrant than that of North Korea, which has only a limited dissident population outside the country.

In North Korea the population can only signal obedience to the leadership. By contrast, China’s vast middle class, numbering in the hundreds of millions, occupies a middle ground between obedience and open resistance. Few may act in outright protest against the regime, but there is a shared demand in the population that basic rights are respected, and that the system abides by certain political norms. These basic demands are constantly asserted online, putting relentless pressure on an already exhausted system. The leadership’s struggle to control speech is constant, demanding ever greater resources, and yet victory is always far from reach.

In China, where there is insufficient political space for real civil participation, the middle class is not yet  politically conscious. When there is collective action by members of the middle class over certain issues, the predominant logic is opportunism over idealism. They may opt for various forms of resistance on concrete issues touching on their rights or interests, but only when these are not obviously sensitive. Meanwhile, on more abstract matters of much greater sensitivity, such as questions of democracy and constitutionalism, they will tend toward obedience. As a group, however, they have developed to the point already where their voices and demands can no longer be overlooked and neglected by the leadership.

On August 28, China's Caijing magazine reported that Cai Li, the top official at the Central Hospital of Wuhan who disciplined doctor Ai Fen for her role in exposing the epidemic, had been suspended from her position. The magazine noted that public pressure for Cai's dismissal had been a factor in the decision, suggesting the wave of sharing and commentary surrounding the March profile in People magazine had exerted real pressure.

The Song dynasty poet Yang Wanli once wrote:

The peaks rise against the hurrying stream, 
and day and night the obstructed waters cry. 
Down they come, in the end, to the foot of the hills,
Where stately they pass before the village. 

This verse quite vividly describes the longstanding state of confrontation between social forces on the one hand and totalitarian control on the other. And it also lets us know what the ultimate outcome of this confrontation must be. 

We may talk of an Ice Age in China. But this does not mean that the currents beneath the ice have frozen hard. We say in Chinese that still waters run deep. The system of stability preservation may raise the threshold for social movements in China, but it cannot entirely eliminate the source of social resistance. The more systems of speech control and stability preservation must apply pressure, the more they speak to the real future aspirations of the people.

For Chinese today, protective masks are an inevitable part of life. But they do not necessarily mean silence.

 

14. September 2020
Author
Wen Kejian

Wen Kejian is a Hangzhou-based entrepreneur, independent economic analyst, and columnist for various Chinese media.