The fear of a nightmare future that inspired “Animal Farm,” “Brave New World” and “1984” is rapidly becoming a reality in today’s China, where that nation’s Communist leaders have embraced the technology of the 21st century to craft a surveillance state few but these 20th century authors could even imagine.
Tyrants of the last century attempted in Germany, Russia, China and Cuba to construct regimes that would monitor and ultimately control the actions and even the thoughts of entire populations, but try as they might none of them really succeeded. They told themselves and the outside world that they were doing what they did to remake man and build a better world, but what they were really doing was attempting to create a compliant citizenry that could never threaten their grip on power.
George Orwell put it succinctly: “[T]they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”
Orwell’s “we” are today’s Chinese Communists who are building a technologically advanced internal security system that, if completed as planned, will allow them to control every aspect of the lives of nearly 2 billion people and rest easy at night in the knowledge that they have built an unassailable state, something that Hitler, Stalin and their soulmates were never able to accomplish. Previous totalitarian leaders relied on brute force, domestic spies and paid informants while today’s totalitarians have access to computers, facial recognition software and algorithms, tools that make the internal controls of old seem amateurish.
Last week, Beijing announced a plan to “grade” the 22 million people in the nation’s capital in ways that will allow the regime to determine whether individual citizens should be rewarded or punished for their public and private behavior and beliefs. Eventually the system will be rolled out to include all of China’s 1.2 billion people. Those who act in ways the regime approves will receive rewards based on their “grades” including better access to housing, jobs and other benefits while those who don’t measure up will automatically be denied such benefits and find it difficult if not impossible to get good jobs or even travel. The goal is to get all of China’s citizens to think, talk and act as their rulers dictate.
The unworthy or those who find themselves less than politically correct will find themselves on a “black list,” according to press reports and will, according to Bloomberg News, find themselves “unable to move even a single step” both figuratively and physically. With only parts of the system in place, China’s 11 million citizens have been denied the right to travel by air and another 4 million have been denied the right to purchase railroad tickets.
In the good old days, dictators had to hire spies to keep an eye on their people. It was learned after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, for example, that East Germany had about 18 percent its people on the payroll of one security agency or another to report on the rest. That means that if one had a dinner party back then, there was a statistically very good chance that someone at the table would be reporting what everyone else said to the regime.
The regime kept files on everyone and encouraged kindergarteners to rat out their parents and other children. When East Germany fell, researchers found warehouses full of files, including information on the extra-marital affairs, politically incorrect conversations and questionable activities of everyone. There was so much information that it became virtually useless as it couldn’t be collated or utilized effectively in a timely manner by constantly frustrated security officials.
The Chinese hope they have solved that problem and are bragging about it as a way of convincing their citizenry that there will be no escape. George Orwell wrote in “1984” that “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
The Chinese are convinced they have designed a boot for just that purpose.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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