Imagine a world where your every word, facial expression, and action might be recorded. Imagine further that the government has the resources to not only store and digest this data but munge it with your credit rating and the legal records containing your name. Now combine this with your basic identity information (name, address, employer, parents, birth date, place of birth, etc.) and statistics about how and with whom you spend your time. Voilà, welcome to dystopia, a future China where an all-encompassing social credit score can coerce your behavior by threatening to blacklist you.
This could never happen in a democratic nation, right? Wrong. Last week, Gordon G. Chang of the Gatestone Institute published an article about a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, Canada, with over 60 surveillance cameras that watch 30 tables and send data back to China. The restaurant is near the quarters of the support staff for Meng Wanzhou, the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei, who is fighting extradition to the United States for alleged banking fraud. Presumably, China feels it needs to keep an eye on the people around this personage. And what better way than by making sure their social credit scores are up to date?
The first question that springs to mind is, "Why does Canada let the Chinese do this?" No democratic nation should tolerate that level of surveillance of its citizenry, especially by another country.
The next thought might be, "The United States government would never do anything like this." Well, it already did. National security concerns trumped individual rights repeatedly during the 20th century. The Church and Pike committee reports of the 1980s documented how US law enforcement and the intelligence community overreached before and during the Cold War. The main villain was the FBI, but there was plenty of blame to go around. An overzealous J. Edgar Hoover employed surveillance techniques of questionable legality to compile dossiers on both citizens and immigrants. The FBI used this information to prepare blacklists of potential enemies of the nation. It's a cautionary tale about how high tech used in the name of national security can erode American freedoms. The committees' revelations remain relevant today, harbingers of how technology in anyone's hands – including those of privacy pirates like Facebook and Google – can be used to highjack individual rights like free speech and privacy.
Could the Chinese be surveilling us in our own country? Yes, they could.
To be fair, China is driven by a very different heritage than the United States. Once a great imperial power, China feels entitled to a leading role on the world stage. Furthermore, centuries of experience have taught the Chinese to be suspicious of Westerners. The European explorers who first came to China in the 16th century sought aggrandizement opportunities for their monarchs and personal fortunes for themselves. They offered very little in return to China's sophisticated culture. For example, the Chinese had been making paper since the 2nd century CE, whereas the Europeans didn't get around to "inventing" it until 12 centuries later.
While its geographic size is on par with the US, China's population dwarfs ours. Around the beginning of the Christian Era, China's population was already 60 million. It remained in the range of 37 to 60 million for the next 1000 years, when it began to skyrocket. To meet the needs of so many people, it's not surprising that first Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong would have been tempted to adopt a Marxist model to take "from each according to his ability" and provide "to each according to his needs." Today, China hosts a population of nearly 1.5 billion people, five times that of the United States.
Maybe this gives you a sense of why the collective good - not individual rights - is emphasized in China. The individual rights we Americans cherish - like privacy, freedom of speech, and intellectual property – are anathema to the Chinese psyche. China's collective good drives its actions in everything it does. In the Chinese frame of reference, it's entirely logical to leverage control of natural resources worldwide, underbid to win infrastructure contracts overseas, steal intellectual property, control thinking and behavior in Chinese diasporas, and carefully message benign intentions in foreign lands.
Like other totalitarian nations, China maintains a steady gaze on the prizes she wants. During the 156 years that Britain held Hong Kong, China never wavered from her course to recover it. From the Chinese point of view, reunification was a fait accompli waiting to happen. Have no doubt, Taiwan is next. Such persistent focus on the goal gives China a significant advantage over our democratic process, where everyone has an opinion, and long-term plans fall fatally from their cradles between administrations.
Queen Elizabeth I famously said, "I have no desire to make windows into men's souls." I love that the English constitutional tradition allows me to enjoy our five freedoms – speech, press, religion, assembly, right to petition – and the implicit right to privacy. I love that I am free to think and do what I want within the limits of not violating another person's rights or breaking the law. We should never allow anyone – the government, the Privacy Pirates, the Chinese – to use technology to try to steal our precious privacy.
Unlike Queen Elizabeth I, however, the Chinese do indeed seek a window on each human's soul. Fortuitously, no one has developed the technology to connect our brains to a machine and suck out our beliefs and intentions. Yet.