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The Dark Side of China's Tech Boom
Girls check their phones next to security personnel inside the Great Hall of the People during a plenary session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing, China, March 11, 2017.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The Dark Side of China's Tech Boom

 
 

Chinese smartphone users have the world at their fingertips. With a few taps, they can order food, message their friends, send money, read the news, play games, hail a taxi, pay off utility bills, and more through a single app like WeChat.

But there’s a catch. All this convenience comes with a heavy price: their freedom and privacy.

Thanks to China’s Internet giants – Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba – the authoritarian regime now has the means to monitor a user’s every action, purchase, thought, and location in real-time. The Chinese government has long sought the means to more closely keep tabs on its citizens, but with smartphones, people are voluntarily logging their every move for the government in a single, convenient place.

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China’s Tech Giants

While tech titans like Google, Amazon, and Facebook have become essential to the daily lives of many Americans, their reach pales in comparison to their Chinese counterparts.

This year, 79.1 percent of all smartphone users in China are expected to use WeChat, a messaging app, with nearly 500 million people using it at least once a month. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the entire population of the United States, Canada, and Mexico combined.

But what makes WeChat’s use so significant is how deeply integrated it is with a person’s daily life. Far more than just a messaging app, WeChat is a hub through which Chinese smartphone users access the Internet and other services.

In addition to its basic communication functions, WeChat enables users to order wine, check in for a flight, make a doctor’s appointment, get banking statements, search for books at their local library, donate to charity, pay for things offline, and more. An American venture capitalist described WeChat as being “at every point of your daily contact with the world, from morning until night.”

Meanwhile, Alibaba China’s equivalent of Amazon, delivers an average of 30 million packages a day, more than the U.S. Postal Service on its busiest day in history. In 2014, 86 percent of all shopping done on smartphones in China was through Alibaba.

Building the Digital Surveillance State

A byproduct from all this heavy use is a torrent of rich data that reveal highly-detailed specifics about each individual user. But unlike the United States, which has laws – imperfect as they may be – about when and how the government can access this type of data, no such prohibitions exist in China. Tech companies routinely hand their data to the government which has made no secret about its efforts to integrate that data into its surveillance apparatus.

With the help of a mobile phone company, police in the city of Guiyang are tracking the movements of migrant workers in real-time. And as part of its anti-corruption crackdown, officials are monitoring social media accounts to trace spending on wine and luxury goods.

China’s censors already meticulously monitor social media for taboo topics like criticizing the government or promoting democracy, and now they are going even further. The Chinese Ministry of Education has suggested cataloging the individual political sentiments of university students. By pulling data from library records, surveys, and social media posts they hope to create a political ideology database.

But perhaps the most worrying development is the government’s plan to create a “social credit” rating system. An individual’s score will be determined by social, financial, and political behaviors that are drawn from a variety of databases. Infractions would include falling behind on bills, jaywalking, and violating family-planning rules.

Those with low scores will have a harder time travelling, securing loans and insurance, and would be barred from privileges likes staying in a luxury hotel. Meanwhile, individuals like lawyers and journalists will be more closely monitored. According to government planning documents, the system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

The rating system is currently being tested in 40 towns and cities across China with plans to expand it nation-wide by 2020.

Personal Files

The elaborate social rating system envisioned by the Chinese government can be traced to the dang’an. Created under Chairman Mao, the dang’an, or personal file, contains an individual’s grades, employment record, and reports on how they interact with others, their religious affiliations, psychological problems, and potential political liabilities.

But the proposed rating system would take the dang’an to another level. The government can now add every purchase an individual makes online as well as their search history to their digital file. Purchasing certain products could potentially affect a person’s score. In a controversial move, Alibaba’s rating system Sesame Credit, which functions like eBay seller ratings, takes into account what a user buys online.

“Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility,” said Li Yingyun, Sesame’s technology director.

Beyond online shopping, a person’s Sesame credit can shape their romantic lives. A Chinese dating website has taken to factoring in a person’s Sesame rating and prominently featuring those with high scores.

These developments are problematic as “negative” behavior from one part of an individual’s life could soon have far-ranging consequences. Under the new social credit system it is a distinct possibility that failure to pay a parking ticket could keep an individual from booking a train ticket or receiving a bank loan. Watching banned Western TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and making politically-charged social media posts could result in a travel ban.

The government has already established this precedent, publicly blacklisting nearly 7 million people who failed to make loan repayments and barred them from buying airplane tickets.

The authoritarian regime has also shown its willingness to regulate and punish individuals for personal choices. In addition to the long-standing One Child Policy, under the Elder Care Law of 2013, all adult children are required to visit parents over 60 “often” otherwise they can be fined or even face jail time.

Public-Private Partnerships

China’s ruling party is on the cusp of exercising unprecedented control over its citizens, and it’s been made possible with the cooperation of tech companies.

“The line between private companies and state institutions is often quite blurred,” said Maya Wang, a researcher from Human Rights Watch. “In theory, there are protections on citizens’ data, but in practice there are no controls about how this data may be used.”

But it’s not just Chinese companies that do this. In order to operate in China’s lucrative market, American companies have capitulated to the demands of the regime. In the hopes of regaining access to China, Facebook has created a censorship tool that would allow officials to keep posts from appearing on people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas.

A new cybersecurity law requires that all foreign companies operating in China must store their data within the nation. Major American companies like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM have all complied with the government’s order, raising fears about the security of user data.

The tools and technologies that once promised freedom and openness are instead creating the very dystopian reality we feared most. Far from science fiction, the pieces are already in place – the databases, the technology, the policies, and the precedent.

In a vicious twist, each time Chinese users sign in to WeChat, order something from Alibaba, or search using Baidu, they are tightening the Communist Party’s grip over their lives.

Eugene K. Chow writes on foreign policy and military affairs. He has been published in The Week, Huffington Post, and The Diplomat.

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