The Future Of Digital Dictatorships

While Americans and Europeans debate whether the internet and social media are undermining democracy, a big question for many Chinese is whether cutting-edge technology strengthens autocratic rule. China’s government is embracing technologies to monitor its population. A national plan to develop artificial intelligence highlights its “irreplaceable role in effectively maintaining social stability.” Surveillance cameras with facial recognition, policing platforms that crunch big data and the monitoring of smartphones and social media are being deployed. To some Chinese, it seems their movements, habits and thoughts can be tracked by a government with unchecked power. So is a digital dictatorship all powerful?

That’s a question that author Wang Lixiong set out to answer in his dystopian novel “Ceremony.” Released by Taiwan’s Locus Publishing in December, “Ceremony” describes a China in 2021 that isn’t far off from how the nation is today. The leader wants to stay in office beyond mandated term limits and uses an anticorruption campaign to vanquish rivals. Surveillance is ubiquitous. In the end, the ruler is assassinated by his tech-savvy spy chief, using mini-drones in the shape of bees. The outcome, Mr Wang says, underscores the vulnerability of a digital dictatorship. “The Achilles’ heel for a regime like this is that it needs the assistance of people who understand technology,” he says. “These people can manipulate the technology for their benefit. And just like the government, they can do so at much lower costs and higher efficiency.”

“Ceremony” felt especially relevant this past week after the Communist Party endorsed amending the constitution to eliminate presidential term limits, thereby removing an institutional check on China’s already powerful leader, Xi Jinping. The book manages to capture a change in mood for some Chinese, especially liberal intellectuals like Mr Wang, about technology and China’s authoritarian political system. Less than a decade ago, the internet and social media looked like power tools to promote freer expression and a more open, tolerant political order. Now it’s techno-pessimism that prevails. Police tried to stop Mr Wang from publishing his novel. They visited him several times at his home. The book is banned in mainland China and is only available at several independent bookstores in Hong Kong, as well as in democratic Taiwan. Much in “Ceremony” sounds familiar to experts studying the Chinese government’s attempts to master the latest technologies, from aggravated internal rivalries to the ways AI, big data and surveillance cameras cut the financial costs of suppression.

Elsa B. Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, calls the AI revolution “a key test” of the Communist Party’s capacity to harness new technologies to advance development while minimising their disruptive effects. Already, tension is brewing between the government and big tech companies like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. Beijing wants them to take the lead in China’s AI revolution because they have the money, talent and data. As their capabilities rise, Ms Kania says, the tech firms may be perceived as a challenge to government authorities. Meanwhile, the companies are looking to expand globally and therefore don’t want to be seen as tools of Beijing, says Samm Sacks, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Using artificial intelligence can be unpredictable, and so it isn’t risk-free, says Ms Kania.

Last August, Tencent had to take down two AI-enabled chatbots from QQ, its popular messaging app. One gave a simple “No” when asked, “Do you love the Communist Party?” The other chatbot said its “China Dream”—a slogan associated with Mr Xi—was to go to America. Then there’s bureaucratic rivalry, which Ms Sacks says is an underappreciated factor holding back Beijing’s ambitions. “Right now different government departments have different pieces of that data pie, and they don’t want to share that information,” she says. When I told her that the tech-savvy spy chief in Mr Wang’s book is the state security minister who has access to nearly all data in the country, she responded: “That person doesn’t exist yet in the Chinese bureaucracy.”

Technology can still empower individuals against a powerful government. Mr Wang cites the example of Guo Wengui, a tycoon who fled to the U.S. ahead of a corruption probe. For many months last year, Mr Guo transfixed China’s chattering classes, taking to Twitter from his Manhattan penthouse to lob corruption allegations at senior Chinese officials. To contain the damage, Beijing dispatched Ministry of State Security officials to try to lure him home. Censors and police worked to keep Mr Guo’s name and accusations off social media. “He wreaked havoc on the reputation of the Communist Party by using the most rudimentary modern technology: social media,” says Mr Wang, the author. “In the past, it would require a lot of costly propaganda operations to achieve similar effects.” In “Ceremony,” the government embeds chips that combine radio-frequency identification tags and nanotechnology in shoes to monitor the whereabouts of its citizens. I told Mr Wang that those technologies seem less sophisticated than what’s already in use in Xinjiang, China’s Central Asian frontier region. There, the government has deployed facial-recognition cameras, smartphone readers, DNA collection and data-crunching policing systems to try to quell sporadic anti-government violence by militant Muslims. “Reality beats fiction all the time, especially in China,” he responds.

Credit: Li Yuan for The Wall Street Journal, 1 March 2018.