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Facial Recognition And Beyond: Journalist Ventures Inside China's 'Surveillance State'

Jan 5, 2021
Originally published on January 5, 2021 1:42 pm

Security cameras and facial recognition technology are on the rise in China. In 2018, People's Daily, the media mouthpiece of China's ruling Communist Party, claimed on English-language Twitter that the country's facial recognition system was capable of scanning the faces of China's 1.4 billion citizens in just one second.

German journalist Kai Strittmatter speaks fluent Mandarin and has studied China for more than 30 years. He says it's not clear whether or not the Chinese government is capable of using facial recognition software in the way it claims. But he adds, on a certain level, the veracity of the claim isn't important.

"It doesn't even matter whether it's true or not, as long as people believe it," he says. "What the Communist Party is doing with all this high-tech surveillance technology now is they're trying to internalize control. ... Once you believe it's true, it's like you don't even need the policemen at the corner anymore, because you're becoming your own policeman."

Strittmatter's new book, We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China's Surveillance State, examines the role of surveillance in China's authoritarian state. He warns that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, has embraced an ideological rigidity unknown since the days of Mao Zedong.

"Most people I spoke to, even party members and people inside party institutions, they thought that maybe Xi Jinping would start with reforms more in the liberal kind of way," Strittmatter says. "Everybody was completely surprised by how it turned out. ... It's really a new kind of regime and state that we haven't seen before."

Strittmatter says the Chinese state has amassed an astonishing amount of data about its citizens, which it uses to punish people for even minor deviations from expected norms.

"People sometimes ask me, 'Do we need to fear China?' " Strittmatter says. "My answer really is, in the end, we don't need to fear China. What we need to fear — if we need to fear anything — is actually ourselves. It's our fatalism, our resignation. We need to get up and we need to fight for our values and for our system, because I do believe it's still the best we've got."


Interview Highlights

On China becoming a leader in artificial intelligence and data collection

On the one hand, you have a guy [Xi] who is reintroducing repression on a scale that we haven't seen since Mao Zedong. So he's basically with one foot going back into the past, but with his other foot, he's going far, far into the future and really embracing all this new information technology and artificial intelligence and big data, like, I would say, no other government on the planet actually does and certainly no other authoritarian government.

This is one of the remarkable things, right? I mean, we have been told for so many years and decades by these tech prophets that every kind of new technology would actually serve the cause of freedom and would undermine and subvert authoritarian rule. Well, the Chinese, they have shown us already for ... more than 20 years, that they're not only not afraid of those new technologies, but on the contrary, they have grown to love them. ...

The Communist Party doesn't see those new technologies as a danger to their rule. On the contrary, they have discovered or they think that actually these new technologies give them new instruments that will perfect their rule. - Kai Strittmatter

The Communist Party doesn't see those new technologies as a danger to their rule. On the contrary, they have discovered or they think that actually these new technologies give them new instruments that will perfect their rule, and it will make their rule crisis-proof, and now that's the same thing with artificial intelligence and big data.

On how the widespread use of the app WeChat allows the Chinese state to monitor citizens

There's this one app on every Chinese mobile phone that's called WeChat. And with WeChat basically you can live your whole life in WeChat. It started as a normal chat program like WhatsApp, but very soon it turned into a kind of Chinese Facebook. Then it became a Chinese Uber. You could get credit, you could apply for credit to your bank with it. You could use it as an ID. You could file your divorce papers through this app to the local court, and you can do all your financial transactions through this app. And that works with bar codes. And they've been using these bar codes for a long time already.

Nobody in China uses credit cards. ... Everybody does everything with their mobile phones. And so you come to the point that even street beggars use them and they will tell you, "It's so convenient." But at the same time, it's also amazingly convenient for state security. And every single one of your transactions will actually end up on one of the servers.

On how Chinese citizens feel the presence of the state through WeChat

Kai Strittmatter served as the China correspondent for more than a decade for Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's largest newspapers.
Lasse Bech Martinussen / HarperCollins

Chinese citizens, they've been used to that, they feel the presence of the state, they've been feeling the presence of the state for all their lives. You realize that sometimes when some of your texts are being censored, suddenly words or sentences are missing ... and they never reach the other party or you don't actually get part of the conversation that your friends send you. This is like something that many Chinese experience. ...

I had some friends [who were interested in politics], and I saw two of them getting arrested because of their WeChat records, because they had actually on WeChat, agreed with other people, with friends to go to a poetry reading where a poet in Beijing was supposed to read some poems supporting the students in Hong Kong in the struggle for democracy. And they never made it to the poetry reading. They were arrested on the way. And it was clearly because of their WeChat conversations.

On the point system citizens have in the city of Rongcheng, wherein they get points for good deeds and get docked points for dishonest deeds

It's actually really like right out of a picture book. Every citizen in Rongcheng starts with a score of 1,000 points. And then you can work your way up. You can get more points by doing really good things for society and you can fall down. ... If you have more than 1,050 points, you can be a AAA citizen and then you become a AA citizen if you fall lower, and C and D. If you're a D citizen, you're actually dishonest, and you have less than 599 points. ...

They say they want to create the honest citizen, the trustworthy citizen, and they want to punish the trust breakers. So, for example, you can earn points if you donate blood or bone marrow or if you give lessons to the neighbor's children that they need for school. I went to a neighborhood where one lady got five points because she actually provided one of her basement rooms for the local choir that sang revolutionary songs. ...

At the same time, you get punished for the things that you're not supposed to do, and you can get punished for jaywalking. You can get punished for downloading pirated stuff. You can get punished for letting your dog [poop] on the lawn in front of the neighborhood, for all these kinds of things. So many of these things would be actually actions that we also consider them not to be good actions and maybe worthy of being punished. But of course, then it goes much further, and it also becomes political. And you can also become punished because you endanger the social harmony on the Internet, for example.

On the potential consequences if your score drops too low in the point system

What we have to actually say is that they're introducing the system step by step. Now, it's not yet a nationwide system, and we'll have to see how it develops in the next couple of years. But one thing is already nationwide, and that's the system of blacklists. If you're blacklisted because your social credit is down, then actually you already get sanctioned. For example, you're no longer allowed to take a plane. You're no longer able to buy plane tickets. You're no longer allowed to take a high-speed railway. You're no longer allowed, for example, in expensive hotels. Your children are no longer allowed to go to expensive good schools and things like this. And this is something that's already happening. This is one part of the system that is already active. In 2018, there were more than 17 million people being banned from flying because of the system.

On how cities will implement public shaming

You have these billboard systems and cameras and artificial intelligence cameras when you jaywalk, still already while you are still in the middle of the road, your face appears on the huge billboard for everybody to see. - Kai Strittmatter

In Shenzhen, for example, in the south or in Shenyang, in the northeast, you have these billboard systems and cameras and artificial intelligence cameras when you jaywalk, still already while you are still in the middle of the road, your face appears on the huge billboard for everybody to see. And next to your face, your name appears, your ID number, part of it is [censored]. ... But the whole point is, "We know who you are. This is you and you are actually hurting society this moment right now." So public shaming is a big part of it.

On public opinion about these systems

One lesson I learned is that propaganda works, censorship works. It really does work. And people actually believe a lot of the things that they hear, because they don't have any other information. Also because there is no public debate on many of these things. There is no tradition of public debate on privacy, data protection and things like this, and the arguments of the government are basically twofold: One is ... convenience. It makes your life so convenient. And the second thing is ... it makes our life safer. This is especially what they use for the facial recognition and the cameras, and we actually make your life safe and secure. And you can go through the city, you can leave your handbag now in a bus and in a subway train, and nobody will dare take it, and they're right, probably. And many people buy that, and they like that.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest today, journalist Kai Strittmatter, says while Americans worry a lot about the threat Russia poses to the United States, the real challenge to liberal democracy will come not from a stagnant Russia but from the authoritarian economic powerhouse of China. Strittmatter speaks fluent Mandarin and has studied China for more than 30 years.

In a new book, he warns that the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping has embraced an ideological rigidity unknown since the days of Mao Tse-tung and a level of control over its population that is simply unprecedented. Strittmatter describes an astonishing level of surveillance exercised by the Chinese state over its citizens, generating massive databases used to punish people for even minor deviations from expected norms of behavior. And he says China is aggressively using its state-controlled technology firms to infiltrate and influence Western institutions and is marketing its authoritarian system as a model for other nations to follow.

Kai Strittmatter was the China correspondent for more than a decade for Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's largest newspapers. He now works in Copenhagen. His new book is "We Have Been Harmonized: Life In China's Surveillance State." He joins me from his home in Copenhagen. Kai Strittmatter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Xi Jinping takes power in 2012. He has a country riddled with corruption. But he doesn't just bring an economic agenda, does he?

KAI STRITTMATTER: No. He surprised all of us, actually. I actually came back to China just a couple of months before he took power. I was there in - for my second stint in Beijing in summer of 2012. And everybody knew that the incoming new strongman had to do something because the country was sort of in a state of crisis. There was, really, a kind of a fin-de-siecle feeling all around in society and politics with whomever you spoke. But actually, most people I spoke to, and even party members and people inside party institutions, they thought that maybe Xi Jinping would start with reforms more in the liberal kind of way, you know, like more towards independence of courts, independence of media and something like this. This was, at least, the hope that many people had. And everybody was completely surprised by how it turned out, really. Nobody had expected that Xi Jinping would do to China what he did. And in fact, actually, he created a completely new creature. It's really a new kind of regime and state that we haven't seen before.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting because, you know, he wears a Western business suit in sharp contrast to the image of, you know, Mao Tse-tung, who wore, you know, the military jacket. Describe his ideological agenda for China.

STRITTMATTER: One of the first things he did is he put the party back into control, you know? In the decades before, with the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, the opening of the country, the economic success, the growth, we had seen a much freer society and a much more liberal economy developing. And there was a - there were things like civil society China. And many aspects actually started to resemble a little bit our own societies, you know, which brought many of us, actually, to think - to believe in a kind of China fantasy - you know, someday, China will become like us.

So there comes Xi Jinping now. And what he does is he actually does away with many of these things. He does away, in effect, with the China we have come to know for three or four decades. The China that you see now is no longer the China that we all grew up with. And what he did was he put the party back in total control. And he brought back a centralization of power. He brought back one-man rule. He brought back, actually, a cult of personality, things that we haven't seen since the days of Mao Tse-tung. And he brought back ideology in a big way.

And he's still - he's speaking a lot about Marx. He has his own thought, you know? In Chinese universities, suddenly, everywhere, there are new faculties springing up teaching the Xi Jinping thoughts and the Xi Jinping ideas. And while he speaks about Marx all the time - you know, Marx was more, like, the kind of idealist thinker of socialism. In fact, what he is, he's more a Leninist. It's more about power in the end. And that is, actually, his big goal. He speaks a lot about making China great again, the big China dream. But, in effect, you know, what he does is and what his main aim is, actually, secure the power of the Communist Party for eternity.

DAVIES: Now, you were in China as this began to take shape. Were there ideological purges in universities among journalists? I mean, what was it - how did you see this unfold?

STRITTMATTER: Actually, there were, yeah. It was very interesting because there were purges, actually, in waves. And it hit a different segment of society and of the institutions every time. It started with the bloggers, with the Internet, then came universities and the party itself. You know, the party members suddenly started to have to be afraid. A lot of it, actually, took place under the guise of the anti-corruption campaign, because the same people who actually are in charge of the anti-corruption campaign, this is the disciplinary commission of the Communist Party, that's actually the arm of the Communist Party that is responsible for ideological discipline also.

And so they conducted these purges. And a lot of times, you know, these purges were accompanied by, for example, show trials, you know? Suddenly you would have a civil rights lawyer on TV being tried for crimes that were obvious he didn't commit. And then, the next time, it was, maybe, a famous show star. Then it was a journalist and so on. And fear came back. The people started to fall silent again. And party control came back.

DAVIES: I think one of the strangest measures of how extreme this became that you describe in the book was that donors to the sperm bank at a hospital in Peking had to pass an ideological test.

STRITTMATTER: Yes. And that's, of course, one of those absurdities. You know, I'm sure Xi Jinping didn't think of this. But this is how it works in autocratic regimes, you know? You have the big guy on the top. And everybody else is following him. Well, first, you know, they're all ducking away. And then, when there is a policy, they all - they're all trying to second-guess him. And they're all trying to outdo his policies, you know?

And so you get these absurd things like the sperm bank you describe are suddenly, you know - you have things reappearing that we didn't see since the times of Mao Tse-tung. Suddenly, you have scientists writing papers about the ozone level in Beijing and air pollution in Beijing as seen from a Marxist perspective, you know, these kind of absurd sort of things that serve as nothing else but a sign of ideological submission. All this was gone. China was a very pragmatic country. This was one of the basic traits of the China of Deng Xiaoping. And suddenly, these absurdities are reappearing.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. Kai Strittmatter is a journalist who has spent years reporting on China. His new book is "We Have Been Harmonized: Life In China's Surveillance State." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YING QUARTET'S "LARGHETTO NOSTALGICO")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Kai Strittmatter. He was the China correspondent for more than a decade for one of Germany's largest newspapers. His new book about the growth of authoritarianism and social control in China is "We Have Been: Harmonized Life In China's Surveillance State."

You write a lot about the new level of social control. And a lot of it starts with technology. Xi Jinping is determined to make China a leader in artificial intelligence. How does he do it? What are the implications of that?

STRITTMATTER: Yeah. This is the thing. So on the one hand, you have a guy who is reintroducing repression on a scale that we haven't seen since Mao Tse-tung. So he's basically, you know, with one foot going back into the past. But with his other foot, he's going far, far into the future and really embracing all this new information technology and artificial intelligence and big data, like, I would say no other government on the planet actually does it, and certainly no other authoritarian government. I mean, this is one of the remarkable things, right? I mean, we have been told for so many years and decades by these tech prophets that every kind of new technology would actually serve the cause of freedom and would undermine and subvert authoritarian rule.

Well, the Chinese, they have shown us already for a long time - for example, with the Internet, already for 20 years, more than 20 years - that they're not only not afraid of those new technologies, but on the contrary, they have grown to love them and really love them big time. The Communist Party doesn't see those new technologies as a danger to their rule. On the contrary, they have discovered or they think that, actually, these new technologies give them new instruments that will perfect their rule and will make it - will make their rule crisis-proof. And now, that's the same thing with artificial intelligence and big data.

DAVIES: There's a big investment in China in facial recognition technology and a lot of cameras. I mean, these numbers are incredible that you quoted. 2016, there were 176 million surveillance cameras in the country. It's a big country, but that's a lot. And then you say, as many as 600 million surveillance cameras now. Tell us what kind of capability this presents. Where do all these pictures go? How are they used?

STRITTMATTER: Yeah. So that's the difference to before, right? I mean, I'm a German, you know? We had the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And then we were actually one of the few countries, I would say, where you actually could study, and you still can study, the means and instruments of dictatorship - of the arms of the dictatorship. We have a state security museum of the former eastern German state security. And one of the lessons that historians have taken from that is, actually, they were overwhelmed by the mass of data that they actually collected by their own paranoia. Now, with new information technology, you know, this is suddenly changing because you're not - no longer having real people sitting.

There's no policemen sitting behind these cameras, you know, at a screen and watching them and trying to watch, like - you know, a whole bunch of policemen trying to watch 10,000 cameras. Instead, you have algorithms. You have artificial intelligence, actually, working there. And that makes it much more effective. So for example, already, in 2018 - you know, if you're asking, what have they achieved already? In 2018, The People's Daily, which is the party's central newspaper, it claimed on Twitter, in English language - you can Google that, actually. You know, Twitter is forbidden inside China. But they still use it for propaganda purposes.

So you can see they're very proud of these achievements also. So they claimed on Twitter that, already now, their Skynet - this is what they're calling this network of surveillance cameras, Skynet, like the one in "The Terminator." I don't know whether you've seen the movies. Their Skynet is already capable of identifying each and every single one of their 1.4 billion citizens in the course of one second.

DAVIES: What does that mean, to identify them all in one second? What is that describing?

STRITTMATTER: That means if you're looking for someone, you know, and you have his or her picture in your database and you feed that picture in your database and you tell the algorithm - or you ask the algorithm, you ask the computer, to tell you the moment once this person is actually stepping on the street, that once they're stepping outside of their home and getting into the reach of one of those surveillance cameras, it doesn't take more than one second that the computer will actually alarm you. They're here and there. And you can go and pick up - pick them up there.

DAVIES: You are never alone. (Laughter) Wow.

STRITTMATTER: You are never alone, exactly. But a question back then, you know, is it even true? And then, very soon, you realize it doesn't even matter whether it's true or not as long as people believe it. This is one of the central - this is a very important point, you know, because what the Communist Party is doing with all these high-tech surveillance technology now is they're trying to internalizing control, you know? They're trying to make people self-censor themselves much more than they used to do. And once, you know, you believe it's true, it's like you don't even need the policeman at the corner anymore because you're becoming your own policeman.

DAVIES: Information is gathered from other methods besides, of course, all of these surveillance cameras. And that's - a lot of that is the digital footprints that Chinese citizens leave. You write that most purchases in China are now digital. Even street beggars use barcodes to collect handouts. This is true?

STRITTMATTER: Yeah.

DAVIES: What do they use?

(LAUGHTER)

STRITTMATTER: At least in Beijing they're doing it, you know, because - I mean, everybody has been asking for a long time the question, can authoritarian regimes actually be innovative, you know? And I think China, up to a certain point, has proved, of course they can, you know? In terms of, like, for example, fintech applications or the apps they use on their daily mobile phones, they're really, in some sense, much more advanced to anything that we use. There's this one app on every Chinese mobile phone that's called WeChat. And in WeChat - with WeChat, basically, you can live your whole life in WeChat.

You can - it started as a normal chat program like WhatsApp. But very soon, it turned into a kind of Chinese Facebook. Then it became a Chinese Uber. You use - you could get credit. You could apply for credit to your bank with it. You could use it as an ID, actually. You could file your divorce papers through this app to the local court. And you can do all your financial transactions through this app. And that works with barcodes. And they've been using these barcodes for a long time already. I mean, I left China two years ago. But it's been a thing of four and five years.

You know, the Chinese, when they look at us - and some of my friends, my Chinese friends, they go travelling to Europe. And they come back and say, oh, it's beautiful in Europe. And it's so romantic. But really, I mean, you're so far behind us, you know? It's really - I can't believe how advanced we are already technologically compared to you, you know? It's so convenient what we can do with our apps and everything. And when they talk about cashless payment - you know, I'm living in Scandinavia now. There's also - cashless payment is the main form of payment. I think 80%, 90% of all transactions are done cashless here.

But in Denmark, in Sweden, in Norway, cashless payment means you use your credit card, you know, most of the times. Nobody in China uses credit cards. Nobody has been using them for years. Everybody does everything with their mobile phones, you know? And so you come to the point that even street beggars use them. And they will tell you, it's so convenient. How come you don't use it? Of course, it's convenient. It's amazingly convenient. But at the same time, it's also amazingly convenient for state security. And every single one of your transactions will actually end up on one of their servers.

DAVIES: Right. So WeChat is - you know, it's a payment service, kind of like Venmo. You can transfer money. It's a social media platform. It's a messaging app. It's all these other things.

STRITTMATTER: Exactly.

DAVIES: And the government extracts all this information about you. What's been your experience in terms of seeing how citizens feel the presence of the state through information they get from this WeChat app?

STRITTMATTER: I mean, the thing is, you know, Chinese citizens have - they've been used to that. They feel the presence of the state. They've been feeling the presence of the state for all their life. And, of course, I had some friends who actually - they were, in the end - I mean, you realize that sometimes when some of your chats are being censored, you know? Suddenly, words or sentences are missing. That's like the first step before they delete your account or anything. And they never reach the other party. Or you don't actually get part of the conversation that your friends send you. This is, like, something that many Chinese experience.

But then, on the next level, it gets - you know, if you're, like, politically interested, if you're, maybe, a little bit in the activist line - I had some friends like this, and I actually had two of them. I saw two of them getting arrested because of their WeChat records, because they had actually, on WeChat, agreed with other people, with friends, to go to a poetry reading where a poet in Beijing was supposed to read some poems supporting the students in Hong Kong in their struggle for democracy. And they never made it to the poetry reading. They were arrested on the way. And it was clearly because of their WeChat conversations.

And, actually, I myself had the same experience. I had, like, appointments with friends for interviews. But, like, this one guy, we agreed to meet in a hotel, in a Beijing hotel via WeChat. And I got there. And, like, after half an hour, I get a message from him, this time not on WeChat, but on - through FaceTime or through the iPhone messaging app. And he tells me, I'm sorry I'm late. I'm sure you understand why. And, of course, I immediately knew why. And later then he told me that state security had called him immediately after they saw our appointment on WeChat and told him and threatened him not to come and see me.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me introduce you. Kai Strittmatter is a veteran China correspondent. His new book is "We Have Been Harmonized: Life In China's Surveillance State." He'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Kai Strittmatter, a journalist who studied China for more than 30 years and spent more than a decade as the China correspondent for one of Germany's largest newspapers. He has a new book about China's turn towards heavy-handed authoritarianism under President Xi Jinping and its increasingly aggressive posture towards the West. The book is "We Have Been Harmonized: Life In China's Surveillance State."

So you've told us about the incredible amount of data that the Chinese security authorities harvest on Chinese citizens, from facial recognition cameras and tracking their purchases and everything else, and how this is used is remarkable. You write about these experiments in social control, in which people are constantly evaluated for their honesty and conformity to social norms. You write that this was spurred in part by Xi Jinping's concern when he came into power that a breakdown of trust in the country was a threat to economic growth. You want to explain this a bit? What kind of dishonesty was threatening the economic health of the country?

STRITTMATTER: Yeah, so the thing with China is - as with all authoritarian system, is those really - societies are not really healthy. You know, so the societies in authoritarian systems always are sick societies, and one of the main reasons is because there is no trust. This is not new. This is not something new for China. This has been like this in dictatorships for centuries and millennia.

But in China, it's an especially big problem because of the Cultural Revolution because that was such a catastrophic event. That was 10 years under Mao Zedong - 1966 to 1976 - where, you know, this was the time when China was really a totalitarian country. And this was a time where, actually, the great leader, Mao Zedong, he actually had children reporting on their parents and husbands reporting on their wives, actually sending them to labor camps, you know, for just one word, one sentence they said and having them killed, having them executed.

Actually, that was one of the stories I did - was a guy who's a lawyer now. When he was 16 years old, he had his own mother executed because he reported her to the authorities because of a sentence she said while they were having dinner, where she said she preferred the old president over Mao Zedong. And he wrote a letter to the local revolutionary committee asking them to actually - literally, asking them - he said she deserves death for that. And actually, she was executed a couple of weeks later. So that was Mao Zedong. That was a time under Mao Zedong.

And when you have a system like this, of course, trust is - completely breaks down. You know, even the most intimate relationships are destroyed. So when Xi Jinping came to power, this was really - I think he thought it was one of his main missions that he had to do - was to address this crisis of trust and to bring trust back again, not only because he needed it for his own party but also because this level of distrust is really a big hurdle for economic development.

DAVIES: So you write about these programs in various cities around China in which citizens are rated upon their honesty or creditworthiness. One of them is in a city called Rongcheng, if I have the pronunciation right. You want to explain how this works?

STRITTMATTER: Yes, Rongcheng, basically, was one of the pilot programs that the Communist Party had set up in different cities for this social credit system. And Rongcheng was the one that was constantly rated No. 1 among all the pilot programs. And I had been speaking to people in Beijing, and one of them told me, a professor who was an adviser for the system - he said, you have to go to Rongcheng and visit the Office of Honesty. And that's already, you know, a name - like a really George Orwell name, the Office of Honesty.

So I went there to have a look at the social credit system there. And there it's actually really like right out of a picture book. Every citizen in Rongcheng starts with a score of 1,000 point, and then you can work your way up. You can get more points by doing really good things for society, and you can fall down, you know. They also actually - they copied a little bit the Wall Street model. They can rate you - if you have more than 1,050 points, you can be a Triple A citizen, and then you become a Double A citizen if you fall lower and C and D. If you're a D citizen, you're actually dishonest, and you have less than 599 points.

DAVIES: So how do you get or lose points? What kind of activities get you in trouble or get you more points?

STRITTMATTER: So, for example, you can earn points if you donate blood or bone marrow or if you give lessons to the neighbor's children that they need for school or - I went to a neighborhood where one lady, she got five points because she actually provided one of her basement rooms for the local choir that sang revolutionary songs then and there. At the same time, you get punished for the things that you're not supposed to do. And you can get punished for, you know, jaywalking. You can get punished for downloading pirated stuff. You can get punished for letting your dog poo-poo on the lawn in front of the neighborhood - for all these kinds of things.

So many of these things would be actually actions that we also consider them, you know, not to be good actions and maybe, you know, worthy of being punished. But, of course, then it goes much further, and it also becomes political. And you can also become punished because you endanger the social harmony on the Internet, for example.

DAVIES: And when your score starts falling and you're regarded as a disreputable citizen, what are the consequences?

STRITTMATTER: What we have to actually say is that they're introducing the system step by step now. It's not yet a nationwide system, and we'll have to see how it develops in the next couple of years. But one thing is already nationwide, and that's the system of blacklists. You know, if you're blacklisted because your social credit is down, then actually you already get sanctioned. For example, you're no longer allowed to take a plane. You're no longer able to buy plane tickets. You're no longer allowed to take a high-speed railway. You're no longer allowed, for example, in expensive hotels. You know, your children are no longer allowed to go to expensive, good schools and things like this.

And this is something that's already happening. This is one part of the system that is already active. In 2018, there were more than 17 million people being banned from flying because of the system.

DAVIES: Public shaming is part of this, too, right? I think you described a circumstance in which there's a surveillance camera, and if it catches you jaywalking, your face pops up on a little electronic billboard so everybody knows.

STRITTMATTER: Exactly. That's happening in some cities. In Shenzhen, for example, in the south, or in Shenyang, in the northeast, you have these billboard systems and cameras, artificial intelligence cameras. When you jaywalk, still already - while you are still in the middle of the road, your face appears on the huge billboard for everybody to see, and next to your face, your name appears, your ID number. Part of it is blackened then so that people, you know, cannot see the whole thing. But the whole point is - we know who you are. This is you. And you are actually - you know, you are actually hurting society this moment right now. So public shaming is a big part of it, yes.

DAVIES: I want to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Kai Strittmatter. He's a journalist who has spent years reporting on China. His new book is "We Have Been Harmonized: Life In China's Surveillance State." We'll be back in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Kai Strittmatter. He was the China correspondent for more than a decade for one of Germany's largest newspapers. His new book about the growth of authoritarianism and social control in China is "We Have Been Harmonized: Life In China's Surveillance State."

You know, there's been a lot written about the Uighur population in China, the Muslim population that has been so persecuted, and there have been, you know, reports of concentration camps. I'm wondering how all of this sophisticated surveillance technology has been used on that population.

STRITTMATTER: Yeah, that's the thing. You take all these technologies and you go to Xinjiang, which is the western province where the Uighur population lives, the Muslim population. This is the laboratory where it's all being tried out, actually, you know. On the one hand, you have, like, this huge camp system, reeducation camp system, being set up - sometimes labor camps, sometimes reeducation camps. And on the other hand, who lands there? Who is actually going to these camps? It is the people being caught up in these big data predictive policing systems, you know.

And in Xinjiang, it's really extreme because you have all these checkpoints, whenever you come to a checkpoint - you know, and if you walk through a city like Urumqi, you might pass 10, 15, 20 checkpoints on one walk only or one day, you know. And the policemen there, the first thing they will do is they will check your mobile phone, whether you have installed an app that is called Jingwang app - Clean Internet, Clean Net app. And this is an app, actually, that sends information from your mobile phone to the authorities, you know. This is a spyware. This is a spying tool.

DAVIES: And it's required for Uighur people?

STRITTMATTER: It's required for Uighur people. And if you don't have it, actually, you're getting a record, and you might get punished. Even if you don't have a mobile phone, you're being suspicious, you know, because if you don't have a mobile - why does this person not have a mobile phone? You know, it might make it much harder to track them. They look at how religious you are, how often you go to the mosque, whether you give your children religious names.

They collect your DNA, actually, with the help of American companies, you know, technology provided by a company called Thermo Fisher, which was revealed by The New York Times, which is - with many of these high-tech surveillance technology, a lot of it is actually being supplied by Western companies, a lot of them Americans.

But in Xinjiang, it gets to a point that is so absurd and scary at the same time that you have, you know, reasons why do you end up in the system. For example, in our own paper, we are part of this international committee for investigative journalism, which published the China cables and another thing called the Karakax List, which are actually internal Chinese government documents. And there are crimes, you know, listed, which are, like, he has relatives abroad. This is why he's suspicious. He has communicated with someone abroad. This is enough.

If you send messages through WhatsApp or WeChat to someone abroad, it's enough for you getting into a camp. Or he does not leave his house through the front door - you know, this is something that makes you suspicious. He does not have a lot of contact with his neighbors. All these things are being collected. And then the system, the algorithm, decides whether you are a potential terrorist or not, and then you land in one of those camps.

None of the 1 million people that are in these camps has ever been in front of a court - none of them. And none of them has been legally accused of anything. They're all in there because of the big data systems and predictive policing and because the security apparatus thinks they are potentially dangerous.

DAVIES: I'm wondering how Chinese citizens regard this. And I don't know that there are reliable opinion polls. And I would imagine some people like the idea that - you know, that there's more control and crime is probably reduced. How do people react? Is there outrage? Is there depression? Is there suicide? What are you seeing?

STRITTMATTER: You know, one thing I took away from China is - one lesson I learned is that propaganda works, censorship works, and people actually believe a lot of the things that they heard because they don't have any other information. Also, because there is no public debate on many of these things, you know. There is no tradition of public debate on privacy, data protection and things like this. And the arguments of the government are basically twofold. One is - we've already talked about this - convenience. It makes your life so convenient. And the second thing is what you just said - it makes our life safer. This is especially what they use for the facial recognition and the cameras.

And we actually make your life safe and secure. And you can go through the city, you can leave your handbag now in a bus and in a subway train, and nobody will dare take it. And they're right, probably. And many people buy that, and they like that.

DAVIES: I'm wondering if you're seeing generational differences in Chinese citizens' response to what's going on. I mean, there are people who lived through Mao's era. There are some around who remember the China before the revolution in 1949. Then, of course, some people are quite young. What differences are you seeing among how people respond to these initiatives?

STRITTMATTER: That's a very interesting question because, of course, you have critical people in China. You have a lot of, you know, people who think a lot, who reflect a lot. But most of these people actually belong to a generation that has witnessed the crimes and sins of the Communist Party themselves, especially the generations who have lived through the Cultural Revolution and the generation who has lived through Tiananmen Square - the massacre near Tiananmen Square.

Those are the people, I found, who are actually the most critical ones because they have seen, you know, what they think is the true nature of a system like this, the true nature of a party like this, you know? And young people - because propaganda is very successful and the sort of collective amnesia that the party wants to rule is very successful - people don't know.

Even in Beijing, people don't speak and they don't know about the Tiananmen massacre, which is, you know, which was only - happened - has had - happening in 1989. You know, remember, 2 million Beijingers were on the streets, marching. Of course, this generation, they all know, but they were afraid to tell their children. Because, you know, what do you do when your child in school suddenly tells the teacher and asks the teacher about Tiananmen massacre? Then you've got serious problems.

So they're a lot more open for actually, you know, the propaganda - the party propaganda - as long as the party delivers, as long as their material life is still good and as long as they're safe and wealthy. And at the moment, I would say, you know, this propaganda works especially well because, as I said, the party points to the United States and asks their people, would you rather want to live there? And actually, many of the urban population and the younger ones at the moment are saying, no, we prefer probably China. But that only works as long as the economy is actually in good shape.

DAVIES: Before I let you go, when you describe the level of technologically sophisticated surveillance and social control in China, it's pretty dispiriting. And it seems sort of immutable, you know? But the Soviet state once seemed impregnable. And the East German Stasi, you know, had its citizens in terror. But they collapsed eventually under the weight of their own internal contradictions. And it raises the thought that as powerful as the Chinese state is, could the human spirit in the end be stronger? - and that this will all fall someday.

STRITTMATTER: The way Xi Jinping is going, I would say actually he looks very strong now. And it's - superficially, it looks as if he's making China really much stronger. But I think under the surface, with a lot of the things he does, he's actually making the party and the country weaker and his old system weaker. Because he did away with a lot of the - not only the freedoms and the freedom to experiment, which was basically, you know, a foundation for economic success also, but he's also doing away with all critics, you know? And with all - he only has people around him that actually, you know, nod to everything he says. And he's making the system blind again.

And this is something we saw at the beginning of the coronavirus, you know? Let's not forget, at the moment, they have it under control and they're very successful. But it began with a huge system failure inside China. And that - part of the reason was because he had made the system blinder than it used to be because he didn't allow critical journalists, he didn't allow critical bloggers anymore. So this is something that, in times of crisis, can become very dangerous for a system. So yes, the Chinese system actually might be weaker than it looks like.

DAVIES: Well, Kai Strittmatter, thank you so much for spending some time with us.

STRITTMATTER: Thank you.

DAVIES: Kai Strittmatter is a journalist who's reported on and studied China for more than 30 years. His new book is "We Have Been Harmonized: Life In China's Surveillance State."

Coming up, David Bianculli reviews "Mr. Mayor," the new NBC sitcom starring Ted Danson as the mayor of Los Angeles. This is FRESH AIR.

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