In his new book chillingly titled Every Breath You Take, Ian Williams, who was Channel 4 News foreign correspondent for Asia from 1995 to 2006, graphically explains why we should be wary of the world’s most dangerous and fastest growing superpower. China’s reputation has been heavily tarnished of late by the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which the attitude of officials has vacillated between on the surface cooperation and cover-ups. But in all the uncertainty one thing is clear, China has emerged from the pandemic stronger than before. The fear that was generated by the virus outbreak has allowed the totalitarian state to wield its internal power in new and frankly terrifying ways. It has even used the fear stoked by the virus as a smoke screen in order to make multiple arrests in Hong Kong and tear up the ‘one country two systems’ agreement, confident that every other government in the world would be so busy with its own problems that the deed would pass unnoticed, and it did, for a while. Other aspects of life in China are also passing unnoticed, and the warning in this book is clear. If we do not make more of an effort to curtail China’s influence, it will be too difficult to stem the tide of her insidious ambitions. As Williams puts it, ‘This book is not arguing for a new Cold War, a charge the Communist Party frequently uses against its critics, but for a recognition of what China has become under the Xi Jinping: an aggressive and expansionary power which not only represses its own people but is now the biggest threat to Western democracies, their like-minded allies and to democratic values in general’.
Perhaps the most chilling element of China’s many mechanisms of repression is the way it has harnessed technology to create systems of surveillance more menacing than any Orwellian imaginings. Schoolchildren in Guizhou province are wearing microchips in their uniforms so that party officials can control their behaviour and monitor their responses. ‘…the uniforms are washable,’ says the Party newspaper, ‘and can endure temperatures of up to 150°C and 500 washes’. Perfect. Sophisticated data collecting cameras scan the faces of Chinese citizens as they pass through public spaces. Gait is analysed, expressions are scrutinised using ‘…algorithms able to process vast amounts of data, looking for patterns and matches, and cross-referencing with other available data sets’. This is artificial intelligence being used against the interests of people, even if some Chinese officials like to pass it all off as a safety tool. In reality it’s a tool that the Chinese state is using to control its population. And the danger is that it is also exporting this technology elsewhere, feeding it into the hands of dictators and tyrants who will use it for similar ends, namely to inhibit the freedom of people and augment the power of the state.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, only the US emerged as a superpower. It exerted its influence over the world economy and global resources in ways that not everyone appreciated, but at least we were dealing with a democracy. A totalitarian superpower such as China is another kettle of fish, since superpower status implies an ability to dominate the rest of the world and impose its ideology on a global scale. It is therefore important that the US in particular revives its pre-Trump credentials as a force for good and rebuilds itself as an ethical powerhouse – if such a thing exists. According to Ian Williams, ‘Biden’s China policy will not change much in substance, but it is likely to be tactically smarter…’ It looks like it will have to be. What Beijing fears most, says Williams, is a unified front. It follows therefore that we are safer in blocs, such as the five eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and the US) than as individual countries. Europe, for example, will be even more important in the coming decades to world peace than it has been in the immediate post war period.
Any Cop?: Politicians and governments might have to stop threatening to cut each other’s power cables and start taking their networking more seriously – fishing rights pale into insignificance beside the loss of human ones.