Big Brother, Big Tech, and China

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Lizzie O’Leary: When I got Josh Chin from the Wall Street Journal on the line, I wanted to show him a video. It’s from Beijing. On October 13th, right before China’s Communist Party Congress met to give Xi Jinping a precedent breaking third term.

Speaker 2: So in this video, what you have is a view who turns out to be a one man protest. He’s a type of bridge called called Sit on Bridge, which is in the northwestern part of Beijing in the university district. It’s a really busy intersection. Tons of traffic. You can see cars flowing underneath it. And he’s standing on the bridge. He’s got there’s something on fire. And he has two banners. One says a bunch of things on it, but it’s essentially saying, you know, we don’t we’re tired of COVID tests. We want to eat, we’re tired of lockdowns, we want freedom, that sort of thing. And the other one calls for the quote unquote, autocratic dictator or the autocratic traitor, Xi Jinping, to be deposed. So, you know, Xi Jinping being being the leader of China.

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Speaker 2: So it’s a really a pretty remarkable scene in China. You almost never see this sort of thing these days, and especially not in Beijing. And what also is really, really fascinating and surprising about this footage is it happened two days before the start of a major Communist Party meeting in Beijing, just a just a few miles away.

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Lizzie O’Leary: What did you think when you heard about it and saw it?

Speaker 2: It was just it was shock, honestly. You know, I mean, it’s I covered China for for more than a decade. And actually one of my beats was human rights. And I covered a lot of protests in the previous era in China under the previous leadership. And this was actually not that uncommon back then. But under Xi Jinping, you just use almost never see stuff like this. The levels of control that the Communist Party wields now are so high that it was just shocking. It was really was really just amazing to see. I wasn’t it was almost disbelief.

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Lizzie O’Leary: But the other thing that’s striking in this clip is that you can see nine security cameras just in one frame of the shot. And this is where Josh comes in. He and his colleague Liza Lin have just written a remarkable book about the rise of China’s surveillance state and how Xi Jinping has used high tech surveillance to consolidate his power after this brief and brave protest. Josh says the slogans displayed by the man on the bridge started popping up in bathrooms across China.

Speaker 2: Because bathrooms are the one place in China that aren’t really subject to surveillance, at least for now. I mean, that may change at this point. But but so, you know, there are bathrooms around China where if you go into the stalls, they have these this guy’s slogans are sort of scribbled on the on the walls and then pasted up. And that’s you know, it’s it’s kind of one of these things that really I mean, it’s really moving in the sense of of of, you know, the bravery of people to do this. But also, you know, it’s also says something about public space in China and the ability to the space that people have to express themselves. It’s basically limited to bathrooms now.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Today on the show, Xi Jinping is now more powerful than ever and his eyes are almost everywhere. How high tech surveillance and some American companies helped get him there. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick around.

Lizzie O’Leary: It’s probably worth establishing that all governments collect and have collected information about their populations. Going all the way back to ancient Rome. In China, Mao Zedong built a network of domestic spies after the Communist Party won the country’s civil war in 1949. But Josh says the roots of China’s modern surveillance operation lie with rocket scientist Chen Shearson Chin, who once worked on the Manhattan Project and was later detained in the U.S. during the 1950s, became fascinated by cybernetics. That’s essentially the science of control. After he returned to China, Shinn and other members of the Communist Party began theorizing about how to expand cybernetics beyond the physical sciences to society itself.

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Speaker 2: If you only had enough information and the right ways of analyzing it, you could you could essentially create a society that was perfectly engineered. And so his ideas were, you know, he started to kind of develop these ideas in the 1980s and 1980s in China. There was a period of it was a period of intellectual ferment through a lot of different ideas floating around about how to run the country. And. And Chen’s idea was just one. But it did it caught on with the Communist Party and, you know, started to be taught in the Central Party school in Beijing, which is where all the top kind of Communist Party leaders are trained.

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Speaker 2: And so, you know, they’ve always had this idea that it might be possible to engineer society. Is this really utopian kind of notion? Right. And then what happened is, you know, in the 20 tens, we started to get these advances in technology that allowed them to actually kind of put those ideas into into practice.

Lizzie O’Leary: Nowhere was that more apparent than in Xinjiang province, home to China’s ethnic minority.

Lizzie O’Leary: In 2017, Josh followed up on a tip he got about what was happening there. I remember reading his story and that he described the region as one of the most closely surveilled places on Earth.

Speaker 2: And when we got there, it was like just driving into a dystopian kind of counter-insurgency sort of war zone where essentially everywhere you went, you were you were encountering, you know, cutting edge AI driven technology, surveillance cameras, microphones.

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Speaker 2: You know, if, you know, we started talking to people who lived in who lived in Xinjiang, wiggers, who were, you know, Turkic Muslim group sort of come from come from Xinjiang and were the targets of this surveillance. And, you know, if you were a wigger, what they were telling us is, you know, you would go outside and from the minute you left your door, you were being tracked. Right? So there were security checkpoints everywhere. You know, every public place, you know, if you wanted to go into a bank or a hotel or a market, anything like that, you had to go through a security checkpoint. You had to scan your ID card, which and also scan your face to match it with your ID card. And that would, you know, and so they would have a record of where you were going If you were walking down the street, police could wave you over and make you hand over your phone and they would plug it into a scanning device and it would scan your phone for for digital contraband.

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Lizzie O’Leary: The Chinese state took this data and slotted people into one of three categories safe, average and unsafe.

Speaker 2: And people who were unsafe were disappearing. And they’re being sent to. What what the what the government described as schools. But that know, we went to go visit them. We visited one and it was essentially a prison. It had just we have 20 foot high walls with razor wire. There were guards out front with with with with assault rifles. And it didn’t look like any sort of school we’d ever seen. And then what we later found out was that those were internment camps where people were being subject to sort of political re-education.

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Lizzie O’Leary: You met the Wigger poet to hear Hamlet who has since fled the country. But but he and his wife were subjected to a lot of the stuff. What did he tell you about sort of like the granular level of stuff that they experience? Because the details here are incredible.

Speaker 2: To hear is probably most vivid experience was, you know, sort of early on in 2017 as the system was being rolled out. He and his wife were called in to a police station, ostensibly to have their fingerprints taken, which they both thought was weird, because, of course, every week or in Xinjiang has already had their fingerprints taken before. But they didn’t really have a choice. And so they went and they got called down into this basement where, you know, which which was which.

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Speaker 2: He remembered. I remember him describing this. And you could still still, still sort of see the fear in his eyes as he was describing the scene, because he had previously been in that station and he had heard sort of screams emanating from this basement because it’s where police conducted interrogations. And so he’s going down to this basement and he’s just, you know, as hard as thumping. And he gets down there and and he’s standing at a line with a bunch of other wiggers. Nobody really knows why they’re there. They start kind of talking amongst themselves and they figure out that it’s all because, like all of them had recently travelled abroad or they all had passports. That was the one thing that kind of tied them together.

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Lizzie O’Leary: The line wound past an interrogation room and Hamit could see chairs with bloodstains on the floor underneath them.

Speaker 2: When you got to the end of the line, they basically subjected him to this sort of series of biometric tests, and they didn’t explain it at all. But, you know, they did I mean, they did take his fingerprints, but then they also took his blood. And then they had him read a from a newspaper article for like five, 5 minutes while they recorded his voice. And then they made at the end, the sort of finale was a 3D image of his face where he had to sort of sit in front of this camera as a 3D camera, kind of move his head back and forth and up and down and open his mouth and close it. And he had to do it a bunch of times, you know, over and over again, because he wasn’t quite getting the the movements exactly right. And, you know, and he had no idea what any of this was for. I mean, obviously he realised it was not not good.

Speaker 2: And then, you know, later he got out, he and his wife kind of got out and and they started to notice more what was, you know, all of these cameras sort of had been popping up in their neighborhoods and these police stations that were just suddenly sort of mushrooming on street corners. And they started to kind of put two and two together and realised, you know, what was happening, that they were all, you know, they were part of this, of this, you know, this experiment in surveillance. And and then, you know, their friends started to disappear and that and then they basically decided that they needed to try to get out.

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Lizzie O’Leary: When you wrote that story or I guess around that time, did you think. They are building a surveillance apparatus for wiggers. Or did you think Xi Jinping is building something national?

Speaker 2: You know, that was a question that we really wrestled with and we didn’t know. You know, on the surface, it looked very specifically targeted at readers. And, you know, the background here is that, you know, Xinjiang has always been a place that’s always really strategically important to Chinese rulers because it’s it’s kind of on the doorstep of Central Asia. It used to be where the Silk Road passed through. So strategically, its location has always been important and also has a lot of, you know, resources, natural resources.

Speaker 2: But it’s always been difficult to control because when you go to other groups, they’re not really Chinese culturally, linguistically. They just they don’t have very much in common with China. And they’ve always sort of resented Chinese attempts to control Xinjiang. And so there’s always been a lot of conflict. And, you know, prior to this surveillance tape being rolled out there, there had been a series of fairly surprising attacks by Uighurs outside of Shenzhen. Well, including one in Beijing. And that’s really what sort of kicked this off.

Speaker 2: You know, after that happens, Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, declared what he called a people’s war on terror. When we got to sit down, we’re like, okay, so this is the this is this is the people’s war. This is what it looks like. And but then we got back to Beijing, and I remember talking to a Chinese activist for another story and just mentioning that had been to Xinjiang what I’d seen. And he immediately responded and said, you know, that’s what’s happening in Xinjiang now is going to is just a preview of what’s what’s going to happen in China, the rest of China.

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Lizzie O’Leary: As surveillance systems expanded to the rest of the country. The government was proud of it, talking up so-called smart cities like Hangzhou. Hangzhou, which is picturesque and affluent, is home to both Alibaba and the video technology company Hikvision. The local government has embraced their technology to create a city brain, a platform that controls everything from traffic to trash detection.

Speaker 2: When we were writing this book, you know, we were we were sort of surprised at how how pleasant state surveillance sort of was in Hangzhou and how people seem to really be totally happy with it. And we’re like, okay, so there is another side to this. And we were looking around for stories and kind of just how it really affected people’s lives. And we stumbled across the story of this woman who was living on the outskirts of Hangzhou in the suburbs, and she was doing her laundry in a creek and she fell in and and, you know, half basically half drowned. She luckily enough, a neighbor was walking by, saw it happened, dragged out, and they called. And her son also happened to be nearby. So they said the villagers ran and got her son. And he’s the one who sort of told us this whole story that, you know, So they pulled her out and they were doing CPR on her.

Speaker 2: And finally the you know, the ambulance shows up and they loader in and. On the ambulance. There was a switch that Alibaba had that was part of the brain system and they flipped the switch and essentially told the city brain to turn all of the lights along the ambulances route to the hospital green. And so basically it was just a straight shot for this ambulance to the hospital and cut the travel time basically in half. And so they were able to rush this woman into the emergency room. They pumped out her lungs and she was fine.

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Speaker 2: And it was just this kind of you know, there was this story where we’re like, oh, you know, this is like this is like life saving technology, right? I mean, it makes people’s lives more convenient. Definitely. In Hangzhou, you know, the traffic there has gotten much better. And, you know, you can sort of use your face to buy things and, you know, and and all sorts of, you know, kind of gee whiz conveniences. But there was also this sort of life saving aspect to it that that that we thought was really sort of unexpected.

Lizzie O’Leary: You also have some kind of fascinating stories of like the technology getting stuff wrong. Right. But like the eye, instead of identifying a hump of trash that’s supposed to be picked up. Woops, it’s some leaves.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And, you know, that’s I mean, I think that’s actually one of the key things to think about when you’re thinking about state surveillance. And one of the was one of the big discoveries for us, right, is that we you know, a lot of what we did for this book was going around. Reading state media coverage of of of surveillance because there was tons of it. Right. Including the story of this woman who had fallen into the creek. You might assume that the Chinese government wants to kind of hide this, but actually they’re totally open about it. And they and they you know, they write about it all the time. And, you know, one of their favorite genres of stories is of this technology being used to find lost children or abducted children because it’s such a huge issue in China.

Lizzie O’Leary: Well, especially under the sort of previous one child policy. Right. You lose your what? I mean, good Lord.

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Speaker 2: It’s one of these phenomena that that, you know, it’s been a problem in China for a long time. And this technology has as a chance to solve. I remember one story in particular also in Hangzhou. This is a there’s a housing complex. It was sort of this new new development. And they were, you know, selling themselves as this this smart residential compound. And, you know, it had these AI systems that would kind of manage, you know, security and that has helped find, you know, elderly residents who had dementia, who’d wandered off and then found and found lost children and were like, okay, well, we got to check this place out. So Liza, my coauthor, went there and and she was asking around for like a day, you know, like, who do you know? You know, like asking residents, have you heard about these systems finding lost children and everyone she talked to like, no, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Speaker 2: And and she went to finally to the to the kind of property management office. And she walked in and she saw this video of was showing how the system had found these lost kids. And she’s like, who? Like who is the woman in that? Who’s the mother in that video? I need to talk to her. And the person one just turned around. She’s like, Oh, that’s like now she’s she’s not really a mother. She’s like a staff member here.

Speaker 2: We just we we made that this like a promotional video, you know, And then there were other instances, right, of of like you said, you know, cameras misidentifying people and that sort of thing. And that’s, you know, the technology really, you know, it’s good. It’s much better than it’s ever been, but it’s not perfect. And but we also what we discovered is it kind of doesn’t matter in some ways, because, you know, ultimately state surveillance is as much about propaganda as as it is about technology. And the idea is to get you to believe that you’re being watched.

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Lizzie O’Leary: And if you believe you’re being surveilled, it doesn’t really matter.

Speaker 2: Exactly. Exactly. Because what what you want people to do is to adjust their behavior. Right. And so, yeah, if people think that cameras are watching them all the time and they can recognize them and pick them out of a crowd, that affects the way they behave, it also makes them feel safer, right? I mean, that’s the flipside of it, is that is this idea that, oh, the Communist Party is watching out for you. And so as long as everyone believes that the party’s kind of achieved its goals largely without even having to actually have that technology working 100%.

Lizzie O’Leary: When we come back, how American companies empowered the Chinese government to watch its citizens. This is a really difficult question to answer because there’s always the potential for it to be loaded with so many stereotypes. But is there a way to know how people feel about this surveillance?

Speaker 2: It’s hard to kind of figure out how anyone, any group of people feels about this, because I think it really depends a lot on who you are and your context at the time. Right. And, you know, in China, a lot of Chinese people perceive this system is working in their favor, and so they’re happy with it. And, you know, but there are there are plenty of Chinese people because of who they are or their circumstances, realize that that’s not that’s not the case. Wiggers, for example. Right. Or, you know, people in a city like Hong who, you know, suddenly find themselves opposed to the government for whatever reason.

Speaker 2: One really common example of this in China is is eminent domain, because the government in China, you know, they have the constantly building things, tearing them, tearing things down, building new things, you know. Infrastructure bridges and high speed rail and. And to do that, they have to knock down people’s houses. And the Communist Party is able to they just kind of have the power to do it right. They sort of come up and they hand you a wad of cash that is usually below market value for your property, and you just kind of have to take it. And but if you don’t go, there are a group of people who don’t who refuse and they try to fight. And, you know, those people then become targeted by the by the surveillance system.

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Lizzie O’Leary: There is an argument often made by boosters, certainly of of I and of kind of other different types of algorithmic learning that, well, these systems are less biased and less corruptible than than humans, which we know is not true because, you know, an algorithm is what its data set is, what its authors are, etc.. But I heard you make the argument on another podcast that. That argument may hold some extra weight in China, because particularly if you’re thinking about the local police, maybe you really do have no faith in them that like the idea of of a, you know, algorithmic apparatus seems more trustworthy.

Speaker 2: That is definitely a factor in China. And that’s partly because people in China have a lot of faith in the central government and the higher ranks in the Communist Party. But they all the most Chinese people you talk to are a lot of Chinese people, I should say. If you ask them about their local government, they have an extremely dim view of local government officials, of local police. There’s this perception that they’re all corrupt. And so so yeah, there is this this idea that algorithms are. Less corruptible than people. And so maybe it’s better for them to be running things.

Speaker 2: And, you know, one example of this again in Hung Joe, that we that we ran across that was really interesting was this system called CGI, which is used by a government agency called the Chengguan, which they’re basically sort of the urban management officials are kind of like a junior varsity police force. It’s an AI camera system that is trained to spot things like litter or or, you know, illegally parked cars or unlicensed street vendors, beggars and that sort of thing, and flagged those viable those street violations to the chengguan and sort of alerts them and.

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Speaker 2: You know, we talked to to the head of a chengguan unit in Hangzhou who just love the system. And his main argument for it was that it had improved the relationship between. People in his district and the chengguan, because if you’re in China, there is probably no more low government agency that which ongoing because they are there at street level right there. They’re sort of like the you know, they’re kind of like the they’re perceived as the state thugs. Right. They go out and they kind of they beat up on the poorest of the poor, like people like people who are begging, people who are selling things in the street. And and they often use violence. There have been several instances where they beat people to death.

Speaker 2: And, you know, this guy was telling us that the system had kind of changed that because it it created this record, this digital record of violations that they could that they had like in their phones and they could show people. And also because people just trusted that the system, the computer system, was identifying it, not a human being, identifying a violation, not a human being. And so that’s one instance as which, you know, the peculiar context of China does is is somewhat different.

Lizzie O’Leary: Which companies are involved here. You mentioned a couple of the Big East, but I feel like it’s probably worth unpacking that a little bit.

Speaker 2: Yeah. So the you know, the some of the big ones, I mean, basically all of the tech big tech companies in China are involved in the surveillance state to one degree or another because they sort of really don’t have a choice. So Alibaba, we already talked about a huge e-commerce company. The other big one is Tencent, which which runs WeChat, which is the Chinese super app. So those are the two big ones in terms of in terms of data, right? Because between the two of them, they have just this immense amount of insight into into human behavior inside China because they can track, you know, who people are talking to, where they’re going, what they spend money on, which is, of course, one of the most important aspects of trying to understand why people do what they do. Then there are also camera companies like Vision, and there’s Huawei, which is the big Chinese telecom company that I think people recognize will recognize which which actually sells a lot of these Chinese systems abroad. There are major exporter.

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Lizzie O’Leary: But there are some other names that might be more familiar to Americans, U.S. companies whose products China has relied on for years to surveil its citizens.

Speaker 2: One of the companies we looked at was Intel, which its venture capital arm turns out to have funded. One of the one of the pioneers of digital surveillance in China, you know, and also sold chips to them and sort of gave them advice. You have in video, which is a major chipmaker in California, also sells a lot of chips to Chinese surveillance companies. Microsoft, basically, you name it. Kind of almost any Silicon Valley company out there besides maybe with the exception of Google, which is essentially had to leave China. They’re are they’re involved in one way or another. And that’s actually been been been a long standing relationship.

Lizzie O’Leary: I’m also really interested in the fact that some of these companies are exporting tools and systems to to other places, to Uganda, for example. And I wonder if you think that is about selling Chinese products or a Chinese vision of surveillance. Or does it matter?

Speaker 2: I think the answer is yes. It’s definitely both. You know, Chinese companies, they are they are very commercially driven. And, you know, they’ve essentially saturated the Chinese market. There are something on the order of 400 million. Surveillance cameras installed in China already feeds one for every three or four citizens. And so the chat, you know, if you’re a Chinese camera maker, you’re kind of generally so into China anymore, Right. So you kind of you have to look abroad.

Speaker 2: And so I think for the Chinese government, if you look at sort of what they write and how they portray all of this, it is a. It is an effort to spread an idea about the use of these technologies by the government. But it’s not specifically that they’re trying to spread the Chinese model. Right. Because, you know, the.

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Speaker 2: The Communist Party is very interesting in that they they sort of they want to have global influence, but they also talk all the time about the uniqueness of the Chinese model, the uniqueness of the Chinese achievement. And it is true in the sense that there are very few countries out there that could actually replicate what China does, right? It’s a big, wealthy country with a huge population and a huge, pretty competent bureaucracy that’s like that’s technologically savvy. The US is probably the only other countries that actually has those all of those conditions. But what’s so so they’re not selling the Chinese model in particular. But what they are doing is selling this idea that it is legitimate for governments to use these technologies to exercise control in whatever way they see fit.

Lizzie O’Leary: So the Biden administration has just done a bunch of different things that sort of connect to what we’re talking about. They put in new controls on the export of American chip technology to China, and then the Justice Department charge two Chinese citizens with spying for Huawei. And I kind of wonder how to think about these things. Are they? Are they the sum of their parts? Are they some sort of like message? Hey, Xi Jinping, you have just consolidated power. Like we’re watching we we want to put a thumb on the scale in this whole surveillance question. How do you think about them?

Speaker 2: Yeah. You know, this is I think the way to think about these moves is to sort of zoom out a little bit and think more in terms of kind of US-China tech competition. And I think what’s clear now is that the Biden administration, similar to the Trump administration, has taken a really hard line on China, and it is basically effectively trying to contain China. I mean, they don’t say it as much, but if you look at sort of the actions of particularly with these this most recent restrictions on chip exports, it really is I mean, it was a really bold and potentially kind of tectonic. Move by the Biden administration.

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Lizzie O’Leary: They really need these chips, right? Like, they don’t they don’t make ones as good as Nvidia does.

Speaker 2: No, no. And so, yeah, you know, and so what the rules say is that that no one, American chip companies cannot export chips or chip making technology or chipmaking expertise and knowledge to China without a license. Right. And and that that includes foreign companies. Any company that’s using American technology that hires Americans is also subject to these rules.

Speaker 2: So essentially, the Biden administration has cut off China from from high end chips, which it needs for a huge range of applications. You know, a lot of it is targeting the military. I think that’s probably the government’s biggest concern is they don’t want they want to they want to make sure that China’s military cannot develop and use A.I. weapons and that sort of thing. But they also, you know, surveillance and surveillance state, particularly the situation in Xinjiang, has been influencing policy in a way that’s really interesting. I mean, human rights was not a concern in the US-China relationship in a real way for many, many years, but it has become that way now, I think, largely because of Xinjiang. So that’s also motivating this. And and it really is.

Speaker 2: You know, it really does have the potential to sort of cripple the surveillance state in some really significant ways in the sense that the chips that are used for something like facial recognition or for training A.I. surveillance algorithms are made by companies like NVIDIA, which which I mentioned before. And China really doesn’t have the ability to make those chips on its own, or at least not chips that are as good.

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Lizzie O’Leary: At the recent party Congress. Xi Jinping began a third term as the country’s president and assumed even more control over China’s Communist Party. Everyone else is negligible. Even the former president, Hu Jintao, was mysteriously escorted from the event. Josh says much of Xi’s future is tied up in the success of his surveillance state.

Speaker 2: If you look at Xi Jinping’s speech and what he said before the party Congress, before he took on this new third term, his opening speech was overwhelmingly focused on security, on national security and on domestic security. I think someone did an analysis and found that he used the term security related terms, something like three or 400% more in this speech than the same speech he gave at a similar conference five years ago. This surveillance system is what he’s built to ensure that at least at the domestic level and, you know, the country is investing hugely in technologies that feed into this surveillance system.

Speaker 2: And so the system is going to be for him, I think, extremely important because, you know, as he moves into this next phase of his rule, he has to figure out how to. Maintain both control and legitimacy in the country without this huge sort of double digit, you know, historic economic growth that his predecessors had. Previous leaders really benefited from that from that economic growth in the sense that that was all they really had to deliver.

Speaker 2: The economy sort of was already slowing down in the early years of Xi Jinping’s rule. And just just naturally. Right. No economy can grow at double digit rates forever. But then, you know, he’s sort of he has exacerbated that, particularly under, you know, and during the pandemic with his with the zero COVID rules that have really kind of crushed the economy. So now China has extremely low, by its standards, extremely low economic growth. And he needs to figure out what to do, how to control society in the absence of that.

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Speaker 2: And I think surveillance kind of answers that question both in the carrot sense and the stick sense, right, in that I think, you know. He and the rest of the Communist Party believe that they really can use these technologies to make people’s lives better. Even if the economy isn’t growing, their people’s lives can become more convenient and predictable and safe, and that that will be attractive. And then if it’s not enough, they have the tools to sniff out dissent and, you know, send away the people who are who aren’t accepting of the current situation.

Lizzie O’Leary: The last time I talked to you, we were having a conversation. You were in Beijing before you had been expelled from the country. And we were having a conversation about the novel coronavirus and the technology that the Chinese state was was deploying to monitor the virus and surveil people and all of these things. And I. I wonder now what? Role you think the COVID surveillance has played here? Because as we saw at the very beginning of the show, it maybe feels like a place where people chafed a little bit against some of the monitoring.

Speaker 2: Yeah, This is this has been the really fascinating thing recently in China is is to see how. Public attitudes towards the government and towards the surveillance system have changed as a result of basically of mutations in the virus. Right? Because in the early days of COVID, when we were still dealing with with the Delta variant and the original, you know, the original flavor of COVID 19, the Communist Party did a really good job of controlling it. And they used, you know, these technologies the way that they were roughly the way that they were supposed to.

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Speaker 2: The death rates in China, much, much lower than they are almost anywhere else in the world. And people were able to sort of live relatively normal lives through the first year of the pandemic. And what happened is Omicron came along and and it moved just too quickly for the surveillance system to keep up. So what happened was that the company had to change the target of its surveillance from the virus to to people.

Speaker 2: Right. And so they you know, they started locking down cities and using these really kind of dystopian combinations of technologies to keep people at home. Right. So they had like robot dogs and drones, you know, prowling residential compounds. And they had these are they were putting alarms on everyone’s door. And anyone who was who was sort of found to be infected would get a little device put on their door to monitor whether they were leaving their apartment and that sort of thing.

Speaker 2: And and, you know, the lockdowns were really harsh, including in Shanghai. There was this weeks long lockdown in one of the wealthiest cities in the country. And and people were having trouble getting food and medical care. And they were really freaking out in ways that that that those people, like wealthy residents of this financial center in China has but not really experienced before. That has changed things for at least a certain group of people in China. I think they are people now do feel like life under COVID zero with just repeated lockdowns and constant surveillance is just just too much.

Speaker 2: And, you know, the other issue is that there’s no end in sight. You know, the Communist Party keeps doubling down on it. Xi Jinping in his speech earlier this month, doubled down on it again. And and, you know, and and and as a result, the economy is bad. And so yeah it is you are starting to get this pushback in China and that’s probably what is behind the protest in Beijing.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Josh Chin, Thank you for your reporting and for your time.

Speaker 2: Thanks so much for having me. It’s always a pleasure.

Lizzie O’Leary: Josh Chin is the deputy bureau chief for China for the Wall Street Journal and the co-author with Lisa Lin of Surveillance State. And that is it for our show today. What next?

Lizzie O’Leary: TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. Our show is edited by Jonathan Fisher and Mia Armstrong Lopez. Joanne Levine is the executive producer for What next? Alicia montgomery is vice president of audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger What Next Family. And we’re also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And if you’re a fan of the show, I have a request for you. Become a Slate Plus member. Just head on over to Slate.com Slash what next?

Lizzie O’Leary: Plus, to sign up. We’ll be back next week with more episodes. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.