Review: “We Have Been Harmonized.”

We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State by Kai Strittmatter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You are on social media and type the words, “I disagree.” They disappear. You retype them, and they again disappear. The state has decided that the phrase no longer exists.

You are called in for questioning because an AI algorithm has detected that you have twice in the last month bicycled within sight of someone who is under investigation. You spend days being questioned without being charge. If you are a writer or a poet, your work disappears in an instant.

Your credit score is no longer just a matter of whether you pay your bills and owe more than you earn, but is reflective of whether you are adjudged a good citizen. You frequented bars too often and crossed against a red light. You have committed a plethora of other infractions. You find yourself not only unable to buy the automobile you want but to travel on high-speed trains or via air. The state has determined this because it monitors your every move, your every social interaction, and even your thoughts via artificial intelligence.

As you adapt to this reality, you begin to self-censor. You no longer question your living or working conditions and particularly not your state. (After all, everything you see, hear, and read—literally everything—touts the fairness, equity, and democratic values of the state.)

Such is the reality of the New China as revealed in Kai Strittmatter’s “We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State.” Strittmatter is a German journalist was has spent years covering China. He has witnessed the change from Deng Xiaoping’s relaxation of restrictions, which ended at Tiananmen Square (which does not exist in Chinese history; young people have never heard of it and their parents do not speak of it) to today’s rule, not by one party, but one individual, enabled by modern technology and Artificial Intelligence.

Strittmatter uses the metaphor of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon to show the effect on the individual. This building, never constructed, restricted a prisoner’s view to a single window behind which a guard might be observing at any time. The prisoner could not see the guard and thus did not know whether he was being watched at any moment, but the knowledge that he might be was designed to create self-censorship…and to allow a single guard to hold sway over many prisoners.

As Strittmatter’s book unfolds, it expands from China’s control over its population to its effort to warp the world to its view. By sponsoring academics and blackmailing businesses, it has worked to conceal its suppression of Tibet and its Uighur population. Many western industries use maps that include Hong Kong and Taiwan as part of China. Western publishers that print books in China and filmmakers that depend on the Chinese box office have fallen in step with Beijing’s commands.

Now, through its New Silk Road Project, China is co-opting democratic institutions and buying the loyalty of countries from Tanzania to Hungary. It is open about what it is doing and what it intends. He shows how Western use of Chinese technology, aided by Western businesses, is invading our own privacy and raises questions about whether we are headed down the same road.

Strittmatter ends with an appeal to Western democracies to rediscover the commitment to democratic values and pluralism that were once a beacon for the world. His argument is stronger for the fact that he is European. He takes his stance without the nationalism and jingoism to which we Americans fall prey.

This is an important book, but more valuable because it is an easy read. And it should be read.

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