If you scroll back through the timeline of Facebook’s acquisitions—or if you search for all the startups that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has bought and absorbed—you can see that Silicon Valley tech giants want to do much more than simply stay ahead of the “competition.” They work differently that that; they are their own competition. Google wants to be more than a mere search engine, and Facebook wants to be more than a mere social network. These companies want to become the crucial, indispensable core of their users’ lives. They want anything that can be done online to be done on their platform.
What they want is what some see China as already having: the integration of a multitude of social services into a single authoritative interface. You can do much more than chat with friends on the main messenger app in China, for example; the ubiquitous mobile app WeChat, owned by Tencent, allows you to make in-store purchases, transfer money, buy groceries, rent a car, and even file lawsuits, all through its online payment platform, WeChat Pay.
This kind of superintegration is still beyond the capabilities of Western tech companies, who must convince users to download many separate apps in order to maintain control: Facebook foists its Messenger app onto mobile phone users and compels administrators of Facebook pages to download a separate management app; Gmail tries to convince its users to download mobile apps for Hangouts, Google Drive, etc. And so, at a time when anxiety about American decline meets the prospect of China “taking over,” Chinese tech integration can seem like a taste of things to come.
For some, this means the West is losing out on innovation, that China has a head start. For others, the anxiety is more dystopian: with American civil liberties under assault, the prospect of Chinese superintegration projects an image of the dystopian surveillance state to come. But all seem to agree that China is the future.
Take the prospect of “social credit”—a rating system for all Chinese citizens in which they will have credit scores that will rise or fall based on their behavior—which is a perfect example of the coming Chinese tech dystopia. Under such a totalizing system of surveillance and political control, the loyalty of citizens could be ranked and their day-to-day lives held as collateral. Currently, Chinese tech companies are helping to pave the way toward making social credit a reality.
The online payment platform Alipay’s “Sesame Credit” system has been widely reported on as an example of social credit, even appearing as the subject of a skit on an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Sesame Credit, operated by Alipay and sponsored by the Chinese government, provides users with discounts, kickbacks, and a variety of rewards on the basis of a credit score determined by brand loyalty, personal behavior, and the scores of one’s friends.
Sesame Credit can easily be seen as an early draft of the totalizing system of social credit that the Chinese government reportedly hopes to roll out by 2020. But even though the Chinese government is promoting Sesame Credit, it is still just a loyalty program for frequent customers. Initial reporting tended to blur the distinction between Sesame Credit and “social credit,” with frequent comparisons to the “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror, set in a dystopian world where people are constantly “scoring” each other on social media, providing perks to those with high scores and negative consequences to those who lose points. In 2015, the ACLU described “this Chinese system” as an example of “a whole range of things we’ve warned about [that] are no longer theoretical.”
At present, Alibaba’s Alipay is one of eight companies involved in a pilot project sponsored by The People’s Bank of China. Of the other seven, the best-known is Alibaba’s major rival, Tencent, which owns China’s primary messaging app, WeChat. The pilot programs are intended to lay the groundwork for developing a nationwide credit system for China, as well as as marking increasing collaboration between the Chinese state and Chinese tech companies for the purposes of developing a surveillance society. Such companies are allowed to operate in China only under the authority of the Chinese Communist Party to begin with.
There are some indications that the People’s Bank of China does not view efforts by Tencent and Alipay as having been completely successful. On the other hand, preparations are underway for trials in 26 cities to have WeChat replace traditional state-issued social security cards, with WeChat itself serving as a form of government-accepted ID. The program will allow Tencent, the online retailer Alibaba, and search engine giant Baidu to aggregate large amounts of information from citizens for future projects. Train announcements between some Chinese cities now already warn that those who violate train rules will have their credit scores lowered. Those who have committed acts of political dissidence can find themselves shut out of basic services, such as purchasing train or airplane tickets, a form of exclusion that a social credit system could expand.
But does the emerging Chinese system, as the ACLU claims, “provide the kind of widely recognized paradigm for what to avoid and how not to be that the old totalitarian regimes used to give us”? Recent scandals regarding Facebook, its ties with the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, and the question of user data ending up in private hands should prompt us to ask just how different the Chinese system is from what exists in the United States and other Western countries in terms of the surveillance state. Certainly, restrictions on freedom of movement and political expression remain far more extensive in China, but is China, in fact, “the future”?
Sensationalist reporting tends not to note that while the Chinese state may be working toward building the dystopian future, they aren’t there yet. And if we take into account the gap between that totalizing aspiration and the existing surveillance state, we find something that looks more like the United States, as it already is. “China” is still the future in China, as well.
For example, while much attention has been directed toward the 30-plus cities in which social credit systems have been rolled out, it is far from clear how the effects of social credit systems differ from conventional political blacklisting. Having a bad social credit score can get one banned from a government position or an academic position, from applying for a housing loan or being allowed onto an airplane or train, but such restrictions could easily have been accomplished with a conventional blacklist.
Sesame does not divulge the means by which its scores are calculated, so it’s not impossible that, in reality, its blacklists are still primarily being compiled conventionally while results are attributed to the more effective threat of social credit. Claims by Chinese state-run media that social credit has blocked individuals from boarding 11.14 million flights and 4.25 million train trips do not offer concrete proof of this being true, although some Western media outlets have uncritically reported it as fact. Threats by China to apply social credit regulations to foreign companies that fail to toe China’s diplomatic line have been vague thus far; it may simply be a threat that China throws the around, knowing the strong reactions that the idea of social credit has provoked in Western countries.
Even in Rongcheng, the city claimed to be furthest in its implementation of social credit, 90 percent of residents still have “A” scores. The primary effect of implementing bans using social credit instead of conventional means may simply be its chilling effect, and reinforcement of the mentality of collective punishment. If social credit is to be realized in China, it is probably better understood as a larger ecology of integrated technologies rather than a monolithic system.
Telling stories about the future surveillance state with Chinese characteristics only obscures the uneven development of the Technoleviathan that has already arrived. After all, Western banks use an expansive (and unregulated) system of credit scores to evaluate the likelihood of an individual repaying a loan, while credit card companies have long rewarded loyalty with the same kind of kickbacks and other benefits offered through Sesame Credit.
There are other similarities too. Algorithms on WeChat and other messaging platforms automatically delete key phrases from private conversations in real time (something that was discovered only after the death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in a Chinese prison). But since 2010, Facebook has automatically blocked certain links that it deems harmful from being posted, even in private messages. Still, it took the Cambridge Analytica scandal to show the public at large that Facebook routinely scans private messages.
Likewise, Google will sometimes lock users out of their own documents on Google Drive if it decides the content is inappropriate. Google delists entire sites from its indexing “if it believes it is obligated to do so by law” or “if [these] sites do not meet Google’s quality guidelines.” Since Google controls over 60 percent of search engine traffic, with a near monopoly on mobile searches, its actions—as also observed in recent changes to its algorithm and throttling the traffic of leftist websites under the guise of combating fake news—are also a form of censorship. When Facebook restricts the reach of pages that don’t pay for advertising, which severely affects NGOs that depend on Facebook pages for messaging, this, too, is a light form of censorship.
Just as Sesame Credit adds perks for providing personal information, Facebook began locking out users with names thought to be fake, allowing them back in only after seeing identification in the form of a passport, driver’s license, or the like. Such efforts make using Facebook itself as a form of identification the next logical step, which to some extent it already is; immigration officials in America check social media alongside other forms of identification for foreign visitors and even monitor the social media profiles of Green Card holders and naturalized citizens.
Is it that we fear only attempts to encourage loyalty to the state? Encouraging loyalty to multinational corporations doesn’t seem as threatening to Americans. Given such disregard for corporate actions, it may not be surprising that outrage against longstanding practices by Facebook exploded only in the wake of the controversy regarding accusations of Russian state interference in American elections.
We also find China and Western powers behaving similarly in terms of security measures. China’s tracking systems have proven to be highly sophisticated, reportedly allowing police to recently grab a suspect out of a crowd at a concert with an attendance of 60,000. If American surveillance and tracking technology is not yet as sophisticated, most cities in the US are similarly well surveilled, and there’s a security camera for every 11 people in Britain; as the ACLU has documented, Amazon has been selling facial recognition technology to American police. China restricts the internet within the “Great Firewall,” blocking sites like Google and Facebook to prevent the free exchange of information; crackdowns on VPN providers have made it increasingly hard to jump across the Great Firewall without monitoring. But the demise of net neutrality in the US should give us pause. If access to particular websites will be granted only to those able to pay for it, is this too not a form of censorship?
Western anxiety about Sesame Credit tends to presume not only that China’s lack of democracy will facilitate the development of the Chinese surveillance state, but that Western governments are fundamentally different in their approach to security. But the 2014 Snowden revelations showed America’s equally wide-ranging surveillance system: the NSA has the ability to search through any user’s entire internet history using the XKeyscore program, make direct requests from Facebook, Google, and other companies for user information—which these companies may be legally obligated to fulfill—and directly tap into telecommunications networks through equipment installed at facilities of companies such as AT&T, Verizon, and others. The Department of Homeland Security acknowledges it is compiling a database of journalists, bloggers, and social media influencers. Americans, already afraid that their innocuous statements will register as threats, already take steps to self-censor, and rightly so.
If we strip away fear and envy, China shows us something much more banal than “the future.” It shows us convergence.
While commentators sometimes attribute Chinese economic growth to uniquely Chinese cultural characteristics, they made similar claims regarding the supposedly uniquely Japanese cultural characteristics undergirding the “Japanese economic miracle” (and more broadly pointed to “Asian values” as propelling the rise of the four “East Asian Tigers”). But just as China has long been a latecomer to modernization, and often looks to the West as a model, its economic “rise” could as be seen as its convergence with the already industrialized West. The same is true with technology.
Technology transfers have played a large role in advancing Chinese technology, as the state has made sharing technology a condition for entering the Chinese market. Now that China has caught up technologically, China faces the need for domestic innovation—hence the large role played by Chinese tech companies and the close ties they have with the state. This close relationship between tech companies and the state might seem to be something unique to China… but it isn’t. The Chinese government has launched plans to buy 1 percent of Tencent, Sina Weibo, and Alibaba—so as to appoint representatives to their company boards—but this is a difference of scale, not of kind. Western tech companies also extend the American government’s reach, both complying with and enabling NSA surveillance; if they wish to continue operating—and they do, with rare exceptions of disobedience—they have no other option but to comply with the government. Tech companies also stand to benefit when they comply, and so they do. Google, Twitter, and Facebook already tap directly into the contents of private messages and patterns of user behavior for advertising; how unlikely is it that the US government already calculates the likelihood of threats in the same way? Palantir, a shadowy company cofounded by PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel—who also sits on Facebook’s board of directors—certainly seems likely to take steps in this direction, considering its close relationship with the NSA, as revealed by the Snowden leaks.
Again, if the Chinese surveillance state is more far-reaching than what we know to exist in the West—at the moment—this is largely because China has already done what the West is currently proposing to do. Donald Trump’s “Muslim registry,” for example, aspires to replicate what China has done: residents of Muslim-majority Xinjiang must install cell phone apps to allow 24/7 monitoring. Security cameras track vehicle license plates, and all commercial vehicles are required to have GPS installed. Indeed, after a series of high-profile stabbings committed by Muslim Uighur residents of Xinjiang, some locations require Uighurs to register the kitchen knives they purchase, which are engraved with a QR code showing the registration. Some security checkpoints have iris scanners installed, and there are plans to implement DNA sequencing and voice pattern analysis. (China has quietly built the world’s largest DNA database, partially under the pretext of health inspections). The Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang are mirrored by rising Islamophobia in the United States, and by FBI surveillance of Black Lives Matter.
That the bleeding edge of both surveillance states starts with minority populations that the government deems potential threats only demonstrates the extent to which China continues to take its cues from the US. China has adopted American military rhetoric in order to justify crackdowns on the incipient independence movement in Xinjiang; the claim that China is combating Muslim extremists draws on a discourse of rising global Islamophobia that is largely advanced by America to justify its War on Terror. China similarly appeals to the precedent of American global interventionism, justifying foreign interventions on the basis of defending the international community, much as America has done for decades.
Why is this convergence so rarely discussed?
Perhaps, if we take a step back, it becomes possible to see that Chinese tech companies and their Silicon Valley counterparts are very comradely competitors, pushing each other toward the same evolutionary end—in differing environments, but with the same underlying genetics. The same can be said of the Chinese and American states. In both contexts, there is the complicated interplay between the state and the tech companies who act as the handmaidens of the surveillance state in return for being allowed to continue operating domestically. Why, then, can’t we tell a story about the convergence between Chinese tech giants and their Silicon Valley counterparts?
One reason is that too many still view China in monolithic terms: a godless “communist” country with restrictions on freedom of speech, civil society, and the free market in which a totalizing, all-encompassing state rules over a planned economy. The United States is seen, in similarly obscuring terms, as the capitalist ideal of a free market with minimal government interference. But just as China’s political economy is far more complex than decades-old caricatures of state communism, Silicon Valley libertarians refuse to see their own embeddedness in the American state. When they celebrate technological “innovation” as a product of the unregulated free market—and when they imagine that technology will release capitalist Übermenschen from the restraints of the government—they categorically erase and forget their own deep ties to the security state. From this perspective, the strong role of the Chinese state can only seem like an aberration.
Moreover, while libertarians believe the free market to be a liberating force, competition between American and Chinese tech companies has furthered the development of the surveillance state in both contexts. Silicon Valley sees Chinese tech companies as competition in their efforts to break into the Chinese market, while Chinese tech companies are increasingly extending their reach outside China’s borders. As a result, Silicon Valley looks at the accomplishments of Chinese tech companies with fear and envy: WeChat and Alipay have caught on in China for the same reasons that Facebook and Google have grown to the size they have. One sees a similar underlying mentality in both Americans and Chinese industrialists in their moves to deploy surveillance technology to maximize worker productivity through wearables that track movement and even brainwaves.
For the moment, American tech companies share in the US’s political and economic power. Companies like TenCent and Alibaba are on the rise, and while they rule over their domestic markets, they have not yet come to occupy a position of global dominance. Like China itself: on the rise but not (yet) globally hegemonic. But China is increasingly asserting its own global vision, whether in touting its economic model as being a unique “China model” that other countries should emulate or claiming its internet censorship as a new concept, “cyber sovereignty.” A new year’s speech by Chinese president Xi Jinping suggested that China would even like to step into the position of “world policeman” that American currently occupies, a new perspective backed up by other Chinese policy actions.
China’s large-scale foreign initiatives seem intended to re-create the conditions that led to America’s ascendancy. Take, for example, the “One Belt, One Road” development strategy, the “Maritime Silk Road,” or subsidizing infrastructure projects abroad. It was never free market competition that allowed American tech companies to achieve their global dominance. In an approach reminiscent of the Marshall Plan or the US subsidizing of the “Asian economic miracle,” China has been acting in a “neocolonial” manner in Africa so as to raise its influence across the continent. Just look at the difficulties that Ethiopia will have repaying China for construction of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, whose building costs represents nearly one-fourth of its 2016 budget, or China’s construction of the African Union headquarters, which was followed by accusations that China bugged the building. China is ramping up such efforts in response to the increasing precariousness of American global power, and particularly in response to the Trump administration. As American power seems increasingly unstable, China seeks to step into the vacuum it hopes America will leave behind.
American anxiety about China has spilled out into the open with the trade war that Trump has dragged America into—just as the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” was a military buildup aimed at containing China in the Pacific. The hawkish elements of the Trump administration are in the ascendant with the appointment of neocon John Bolton as National Security Advisor and heterodox economist Peter Navarro as Assistant to the President; it remains to be seen what other foreign policy moves will follow, even if Bolton’s hand is clear behind American policy actions in Iran and North Korea.
Western tech companies are not immune to American anxiety about China. But the main difference between Silicon Valley companies and their Chinese counterparts is their illusions about their relation to the state: China has no pretensions about the relation of the state to its powerful Chinese tech companies. If Silicon Valley will not look in the mirror—and if the Western press can see only their own distorted projections—it is possible to see, in China, how free competition between tech companies today will enable the rise of twinned corporatist states. Powerful tech companies supplying the technologies for the state to surveil the lives of citizens in return for being allowed by the state to operate and to profit.