The dragon slayers were, quite simply, the unseduced. They saw China’s communist rulers as expansionist, working toward a day when they would no longer struggle to feed their own people and instead be able to position China on the world stage as an aggressive superpower. The dragon slayers weren’t surprised when tanks rumbled into Tiananmen Square in June 1989, crushing student demonstrators. Panda huggers, like me, were stunned.
That’s why “We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State,” by Kai Strittmatter, should come with a warning label for panda huggers. His engrossing, deeply reported and somewhat Orwellian survey of today’s China raises unhappy questions we all have yet to answer. “The China we once knew no longer exists,” he writes early in the book. “The China that was with us for forty years — the China of ‘reform and opening up’ — is making way for something new. It’s time to start paying attention.”
Strittmatter is a German journalist who writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. From 1997 until recently, he was a foreign correspondent in Beijing. Before that, he studied Sinology and journalism in Munich; Xian, China; and Taipei, Taiwan. So he comes to this issue with the clear-eyed vision that accompanies firsthand experience.
Early in the book, Strittmatter takes aim at the two assumptions that panda huggers hold dear: If China wants to modernize, it will eventually have to embrace capitalism; by extension, if it has capitalism, democracy will soon follow. And, if China wants the Internet (and it does), it will have to accommodate the openness that comes with it. Strittmatter makes a compelling case that we are wrong to accept either of these beliefs.
To make his argument he takes readers on a China tour that is part George Orwell, part Aldous Huxley. In the city of Rongcheng, for example, Strittmatter pays a visit to the Office of Honesty, which, just as it sounds, is trying to create honest citizens. (It later changed its name to the Office of Creditworthiness, either because honesty seemed too vague or because the idea of creditworthiness, in this new China, seemed more enticing.)
He introduces us to the head of the office, Huang Chunhui. “Huang takes a sheet of paper and draws an egg,” Strittmatter writes, “slicing off the top and bottom sections with a stroke of his pen. This is society, he says. At the top, you’ve got model citizens. ‘And at the bottom you’ll find the people we need to educate.’ ”
Rongcheng is part of a pilot program instituted by the central government to test how technology might be able to tame the masses. Its solution is to continually assess every company and individual in China and then categorize them. The Rongcheng program is a combination of moral education and surveillance.
City authorities use simple arithmetic: Every resident starts with 1,000 points, and they can go up or down from there. Let your dog poop on someone’s lawn and neglect to pick it up? That will cost you five points. Help an elderly couple move into a new house, you gain five. These are real examples that a neighborhood party secretary provided to Strittmatter. “We are ensuring that society is harmonious,” the secretary tells him.
“Being a model citizen also makes financial sense,” Strittmatter writes. “ ‘If a person has a lot of points . . . then they no longer need to provide guarantees when they want a bank loan,’ [party secretary] Dong says. ‘Isn’t that great? But that’s how our Party works: if you’re good, it will be good to you.’
“What if I’m bad,” Strittmatter asks him. “ ‘Then eventually you won’t be allowed to board planes or high-speed trains. And I won’t hire you.’ ”
No single group has been in the crosshairs of this uncomfortable mix of technology and social engineering in China more than the ethnic Uighur Muslims who live in northwest Xinjiang province. Back when I was in China, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Xinjiang was considered China’s Wild West. It was so far away it took days to get there by train, and, most important, you needed permission to visit. China set up its own gulag archipelago there. Twenty years ago, it was where Beijing housed its political prisoners, and today it is where officials house ethnic Uighurs in reeducation camps in the desert. It is part of an effort to make them renounce Islam.
To brainwash an entire community, it appears, you need technology, and China has spared no expense in creating a surveillance state with all the latest gadgets. “In some districts you have to install a state-monitored GPS transmitter in your car, if you own one,” Strittmatter writes. “You can only buy gas once your face has been scanned at the gas station and the system has declared you harmless. . . . If you’ve been identified as a potential troublemaker, then in some places the cameras will send an alert as soon as you stray more than 300 meters outside the ‘safe zone’ that has been designated for you.”
If you’re a Muslim living in Xinjiang and you own a mobile phone, you are required to install an app that allows the government to access its contents. Buy a kitchen knife, and a special code, assigned to you, is stamped onto the blade, Strittmatter reports. Everything is examined and stored — your file, your fingerprints, your blood type, even samples of your DNA are all gathered together.
“One of the most powerful tools of mass surveillance in Xinjiang is the ‘Integrated Platform for Joint Operations’ — IJOP,” Strittmatter writes, “an artificial intelligence system that collects data about all of Xinjiang’s citizens and then, plugging that data into its algorithms, alerts the authorities about potential suspects.” The algorithm decides what is “normal” and flags anything that deviates as a threat. Pre-crime of the “Minority Report” variety, but in real life instead of a movie.
We don’t need to wonder what is probably in store for the Uighurs of Xinjiang; we’ve seen it already in Tibet, which the Chinese have ruled since 1950. In the intervening years, Beijing has destroyed monasteries, exiled the Dalai Lama, and razed towns and villages in an effort to stamp out all things Tibetan. And that is the subject of an awe-inspiring new book by Barbara Demick, “Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town.”
Demick’s name might ring a bell. In 2009, she wrote a stunning book (still one of my favorites) about life in North Korea called “Nothing to Envy,” which was a National Book Award Finalist. In that earlier work, she pulled back the curtain on a society cut off from the world, on the brink of starvation, that nonetheless found moments of real happiness and humanity among the ruins. It is a heartbreaking book. Similarly, “Eat the Buddha” is a book about the human condition and the human response to difficult circumstances.
“Eat the Buddha” focuses on a group of Tibetans from Ngaba County in Sichuan province. Ngaba has the dubious distinction of being the “undisputed world capital of self-immolations.” Some 156 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in recent years to protest China’s rule. Beijing finds the deaths particularly embarrassing because they fly in the face of the claim that Tibetans are happy under Chinese rule.
Self-immolations involve more than conviction, a flammable liquid and a match. The Ngaba technique requires individuals to swaddle themselves in quilts and wire to ensure they won’t be saved. They then douse themselves in gasoline and drink the fluid so that they burn not only on the outside but on the inside too.
These fiery acts of desperation and protest have conferred a certain cachet on Ngaba, Demick reports. “People collected the faces of self-immolators on their iPhones like so many baseball cards in the deck of martyrs,” she writes. “These were people once too obscure to merit their own photographs — they were perhaps the fourth sons and third daughters, easily passed over in the crowd, with almost no public profile. Now they were heroes celebrated in the home of the Dalai Lama himself.”
Everything about this book is enthralling, from the seamless way Demick recounts history through flashes of memories, to her descriptions of the Tibetan plateaus, to the distant mirror through which a reader connects today’s events in Xinjiang to China’s earlier campaign in Tibet.
Consider her description of the arrival of Chinese soldiers in Ngaba, as seen through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy. “Over the course of 1958, Delek noticed that the working-age men had begun to disappear,” she writes. “Then the women too. In time he learned that many, including his older brother and an uncle, had been arrested — for what crime he never knew. . . . What Delek didn’t understand until later was the Communist Party was about to launch what would be the first of many wildly ambitious and ill-conceived schemes to transform Tibetan society.”
In one particularly stirring use of flashbacks, Demick describes young Delek hiding in a basket while soldiers burned his house and beat his grandparents. “Delek could hear the thumping — whack, whack, whack — over and over, and his grandparents’ screams. They were being beaten,” she writes, making us feel like we’re in the basket with Delek. “His first instinct was to rush out of the basket to protect them, but he was so small and so scared. He dared not cry out for fear of being discovered. He shoved his hand into his mouth to keep quiet, even though tears were streaming down his face.”
There is a historic sweep to Demick’s book. It spans the golden days of the Tibetan empire to the movement for independence to the struggle for cultural survival. Demick makes clear that today’s Tibetans have continued to whittle down their goals: They simply want the rights the Han Chinese enjoy. They want to travel, hold a passport and preserve their traditions. It shouldn’t be lost on Demick’s readers that China’s Uighur minority is asking for those things, too.