Networked totalitarianism

My Observer review of Kai Strittmatter’s remarkable new book.

Kai Strittmatter is a German journalist who writes for Süddeutsche Zeitung and is currently based in Copenhagen. From 1997 until recently, he had been a foreign correspondent in Beijing. Prior to those postings, he had studied sinology and journalism in Munich, Xi’an and Taipei. So he knows China rather well. Having read his remarkable book, it’s reasonable to assume that he will not be passing through any Chinese airport in the foreseeable future. Doing so would not be good for his health, not to mention his freedom.

We Have Been Harmonised is the most accessible and best informed account we have had to date of China’s transition from what scholars such as Rebecca MacKinnon used to call “networked authoritarianism” to what is now a form of networked totalitarianism. The difference is not merely semantic. An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense.
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Totalitarianism, in contrast, prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life…

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Chinese cheques

From Technology Review:

The People’s Bank of China is paying close attention to Libra, the digital currency Facebook has created. And it may inspire the bank to accelerate its plans to speed up its own project to develop a digital currency.

The news: The PBOC is paying “high attention” to Libra, according to Wang Xin, director of the bank’s research bureau. Speaking at an academic conference at the University of Peking, Wang expressed concern over how Libra might affect the world’s financial system if it takes off, according to the South China Morning Post: “Would it be able to function like money, and accordingly, have a large influence on monetary policy, financial stability, and the international monetary system?”

One thing China wants to know is what role the US dollar will play in the basket of fiat currencies that will supposedly back Libra coins. If it is most closely associated with the dollar, Wang said, “there would be in essence one boss, that is the US dollar and the United States. If so, it would bring a series of economic, financial, and even international political consequences.”

Why China won’t be democratised any time soon

I’m reading an extraordinary book by Kai Strittmatter, a German journalist who has lived in, and studied, China for many years. It’s a sobering account of how the Chinese Communist Party is making the transition from what Rebecca Mackinnon christened “networked authoritarianism” to networked totalitarianism. Digital technology is their tool of choice for enabling this transition, and the book provides some graphic insights into its potential for such a project.

The recent remarkable demonstrations in Hong Kong — which caused the territory’s Chief Executive to make a humiliating climb-down over a proposed extradition law — have led some people to wonder if this might prompt a reversal of Xi Jinping’s remorseless progress to totalitarian power. Tyler Cowen doesn’t think so, and neither do I. Here’s the money quote from his latest Bloomberg Column:

It’s also worth thinking through exactly what changes Chinese democracy is supposed to bring. China’s urbanization has been so rapid — it has had more urban than rural residents for less than a decade — that a national election might well reflect the preferences of rural voters, which after all most Chinese were until very recently. If you belong to the Chinese upper class or even middle class along the eastern coast, you may end up asking yourself the following question: Who is more likely to protect my basic economic interests, the current Chinese Communist Party, or a democratic representative of Chinese rural interests? China is also growing rich during a time of extreme economic inequality, which may make many Chinese elites think twice about democratization.

Sadly, I think he’s right. Besides, I can’t see Xi having any truck with ‘democracy’.

Xi Jinping’s Little Red App

This morning’s Observer column:

We need to update Marx’s famous aphorism that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Version 2.0 reads: history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as an app. Readers with long memories will remember Mao Zedong, the chairman (for life) of the Chinese Communist party who, in 1966, launched his Cultural Revolution to preserve Chinese communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society and reimposing his ideas (aka Maoism) as the dominant ideology within the party. One propaganda aid devised for this purpose was a little red book, printed in the hundreds of millions, entitled Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

The “revolution” unleashed chaos in China: millions of citizens were persecuted, suffering outrageous abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, hard labour, sustained harassment, seizure of property and worse…

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The real significance of the Apple slide

Apart from the fact that the Chinese economy seems to be faltering and collateral damage from Trump’s ‘trade war’ what the slide signals is that the smartphone boom triggered by Apple with the iPhone is ending because we’re reaching a plateau and apparently there’s no New New Thing in sight. At any rate, that’s Kara Swisher’s take on it:

The last big innovation explosion — the proliferation of the smartphone — is clearly ending. There is no question that Apple was the center of that, with its app-centric, photo-forward and feature-laden phone that gave everyone the first platform for what was to create so many products and so much wealth. It was the debut of the iPhone in 2007 that spurred what some in tech call a “Cambrian explosion,” a reference to the era when the first complex animals appeared. There would be no Uber and Lyft without the iPhone (and later the Android version), no Tinder, no Spotify.

Now all of tech is seeking the next major platform and area of growth. Will it be virtual and augmented reality, or perhaps self-driving cars? Artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency or digital health? We are stumbling in the dark.

Yep. Situation normal, in other words.

The great Chinese hardware hack: true or false?

This morning’s Observer column:

On 4 October, Bloomberg Businessweek published a major story under the headline “The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate US Companies”. It claimed that Chinese spies had inserted a covert electronic backdoor into the hardware of computer servers used by 30 US companies, including Amazon and Apple (and possibly also servers used by national security agencies), by compromising America’s technology supply chain.

According to the Bloomberg story, the technology had been compromised during the manufacturing process in China. Undercover operatives from a unit of the People’s Liberation Army had inserted tiny chips – about the size of a grain of rice – into motherboards during the manufacturing process.

The affected hardware then made its way into high-end video-compression servers assembled by a San Jose company called Supermicro and deployed by major US companies and government agencies…

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