The Human Condition:

The Dream of Control – July 21, 2019

Surveillance cameras

A group of friends and I were having a friendly discussion the other night, and the subject turned to China, its growing economic power, and its growing social control. I said that I was not worried about China as a competitor. I don’t wish the country or the people ill, but they have built an economic miracle on what I believe are the wrong principles, and that will eventually doom them.

First, they have sacrificed everything for economic growth. The view from afar is that they have built infrastructure and facilities in excess of their current needs simply to notch up growth numbers. And in the process, they have made bad investments—those ghost cities sitting on the edge of the desert—and incurred massive debt. You can do this when you have a command-and-control economy that is intermittently beyond the reach of market forces. But those forces eventually come into play.

Second, they have built a manufacturing economy based on cheap pairs of hands. They bring peasants in from the countryside and offer them jobs in special economic zones where their own country’s labor laws are abridged. They use this cheap labor to make goods for foreign sale, and this has worked so far. But the manufacturing of the future is going to be automated: robots doing the tedious, mindless, dangerous jobs that humans have done in the past. Once robots and their control software are worked out, they are easily cloned and copied.1 When robotics, 3D printing, and interlinked supply chains take over in the next couple of decades, Western Civilization will have to figure out what it means to be human and how to keep people usefully occupied. And then having a billion pairs of relatively unskilled hands willing to work cheap just won’t cut it. Having an economy based on the “labor theory of value” will be a disaster.

Third, Xi Jinping’s and the Communist Party of China’s attempts to reassert control over the culture and its politics, after the lightening and leveling with the market-economy reforms under Deng Xiaoping, is going to backfire. China’s long history is one of loosening and tightening control under various emperors and dynasties—until the country snaps in a popular rebellion that overthrows the system, calls for a new “mandate” and a “rectification of names” (in Confucian terms, making words correspond to reality), and asserts a new social order. And then the process begins all over again.

When I made this last point, one of our friends raised the issue of the new social controls that China is instituting, with computerized surveillance, public facial recognition systems, and a new “social credit system” that will link a citizen’s access to government-controlled privileges and benefits like travel, job choice, and financial credit back to the state’s approval of his or her every expressed thought and action. Such control, this friend suggested, will make a social revolution impossible and will lock the ruling party’s power forever.

I don’t believe it. The idea that you can so completely control human beings—especially masses of them in a densely populated country—is a dream. It cannot work.

Consider Nazi Germany, which had an extremely effective and ruthless secret police, the Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police) or Gestapo, and yet in 1944 a group of politicians and general officers were able to orchestrate a plot and plant a bomb at Hitler’s feet. The fact that the coup failed was an accident. The fact that it got so far is a demonstration of human resourcefulness.

If the postal service is monitored and subject to interdiction, if the internet and email are subject to electronic surveillance, then you resolve to meet face-to-face, work through trusted couriers, and write nothing down. There are ways to avoid the strictest surveillance, although you may have to learn the art of codes and ciphers, and use invisible inks and flash papers.

Even then, you may be hounded by police spies—but you will also have the opportunity to access disaffected and trustworthy spies within the police. The party and the police are both human organizations, which means that every member ultimately keeps his own counsel. Yes, the state’s bureaucracy will have many fanatics whose loyalties are switched on by party rhetoric and permanently locked in place by idealism and careerism. But you will also encounter many underlings who are stuck in their current job with no chance of promotion, who see opportunity in a change of regime. And for every dedicated officer willing to sacrifice for the state you will have one or more who may have been forced to watch and turn in his own brother or sister, parent or child, and now bitterly regrets it. People are not idealistic robots.

Even robots are not robots. Any electronic surveillance system, any system of social monitoring and scoring, eventually delivers its data and summaries to a human decision point. And the person watching the monitors or reading the electronic files is not going to be Heinrich Himmler or Lavrentiy Beria himself. The head of the police organization spends too much time “managing upward” to involve himself with the doings of average citizens. No, he delegates the watching and reporting downward. And his immediate deputies are not going to do the daily dirty work, either. Ultimately, the summarizing and reporting will be in the hands of police lieutenants in each prefecture—and these are the people who will have the potential for either promoting or ignoring a negative report or suspicious contact, for blinking at the television monitor, for corrupting the system because they were passed over for promotion or regret their part in the system.

This is not to say that such a system will not do a massive amount of harm to innocent and well-meaning people. Or that efforts to break it are not dangerous. Or that plots against the state will not be detected. The system of police surveillance and social credit will be marvelously effective at harassing and harrowing the lives of average citizens. But it is not foolproof, and it is not ironclad, because this mechanical system will be run and managed by human beings in the interests of a human-based organization.

And finally, China has for years been training computer hackers and cyber terrorists in order to launch them against the West. Such people are by nature curious, restless, and inventive. A computerized system of public surveillance and social credit becomes more vulnerable the more completely it automates. Some internal Chinese hacker—likely whole groups of them—will surely be at work somewhere getting themselves and their friends erased from the system and building up social credits they can distribute at will in a dark market. You know this is going to happen, again because the system is run by human beings.

The dystopian vision of 1984, where every room is blasted with patriotic speeches and music from unswitchable television screens that also watch every citizen at work and play … is a fiction. Behind that all-seeing eye is not a singular Big Brother but a million Little Brothers, variable human beings. And some of them will keep their own counsel. It’s not a benevolent system—far from it!—but it’s not infallible, either.

1. See Gutenberg and Automation from February 20, 2011.