«Every Single One of Them Is at the Mercy of the CCP»
Kai Strittmatter on China's Reorientation and Reinvention as a Modern Dictatorship under Xi Jinping
On December 3, we invited Kai Strittmatter, author and longtime correspondent for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche and the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger in China, together with Uli Sigg, amongst many other roles Board Member Asia Society Switzerland, to talk about China's cultural, political and economic developments under Xi Jinping. Behind the scenes, we had the opportunity to talk with Kai about his newly published book on China's reinvention as a dictatorship in the 21st century, relying on new technologies and artificial intelligence to develop a system of perfect surveillance.
Anna Zwald: In your book, you describe the common intimidation strategy of the CCP: arrest people, threaten or even torture them and then make them apologize for their «wrong doings» by reading prepared statements in favor of the CCP on national TV. Many Chinese editors and authors have been victims of this procedure. As a foreign journalist, living in and writing about China, did you ever fear something similar could happen to you as well?
Kai Strittmatter: That’s a good question. Until quite recently China used to be a very different country. It never was like some places in South America for example, where correspondents had to fear for their own safety. We used to be afraid for the personal safety of our Chinese interview partners and friends but not for our own. This holds very much to the given day. The worst punishment for a foreign journalist used to be that they throw you out of the country by not extending your visa. Nevertheless, things have gotten tougher for us. There have been incidents, especially with TV crews who experienced physical attacks by thugs of the state security. The rise of these public «trials» on China Central Television (CCTV) has though been a shock for everyone. Many Chinese felt reminded of the criticism- and self-criticism-sessions of the cultural revolution, with the difference being that it suddenly was shown on national TV. Since Xi Jinping came to power, state security ploughed through every sector and field of society and paraded Chinese nationals as well as foreigners on CCTV. Hence, while I would still say it is not a daily fear, you cannot exclude the possibility any longer. Even though, foreign correspondents remain among the last ones untouched, I would not go so far to say that they would not dare to apply their powerful strategy of «kill the chicken to scare the monkey» to our field as well. We might be the next ones, who knows.
How do you categorize the anti-corruption campaign initiated by Xi Jinping – is it a power tool to get rid of uncomfortable political opponents or does Xi genuinely want to curb corruption?
Both; it is a very useful tool that serves both needs at the same time. On the one hand, he used it to get rid of all, especially, powerful rivals. On the other hand, I feel there is a genuine drive to curb corruption which grew extensively in the years ahead of Xi Jinping. Back then, corruption in itself was one of the biggest challenges and threats to communist party rule. Hence, to save the rule of his party, Xi Jinping decided to clean up a little. But, it is surely not an instrument to root out corruption completely. It cannot be because it is by nature a campaign. Xi Jinping’s rule does not rely on strategic policy making or on any reform of the system. Instead, he relies on the old time-tested socialist, Leninist and Maoist tool of campaigns. The anti-corruption campaign aims to scare and to terrorize everyone inside the ranks of the communist party. And it works so far: everyone is hiding and people do not dare to take bribes in ministries. But, as mentioned, it does not address the problem at its root. If you really want to root out corruption you need independent oversight; an independent judiciary and media. Xi Jinping has not only not strengthened this, he has led a war against both. Surprising though is the length and the stamina he shows with this anti-corruption campaign; this is very extraordinary. Nevertheless, I bet the time will come when Xi Jinping’s stamina runs out; other challenges will pop up that he needs to face more urgently and then, corrupt practices will return.
With the decrease of the GDP growth experienced in China over the last couple of years and all the money lost due to corruption, could it be that Xi Jinping could become forced to tackle the problem in a long-term way in the near future?
I do not think that it is high up on his to do list because it is a systemic problem. Many intellectuals who I interviewed about Xi do not think of him as intelligent, but they do look at it from an intellectual point of view. I personally think that he is very intelligent to the point of being brilliant in this sort of power play. What we have witnessed so far is quite amazing and I am only waiting for the moment a Chinese version of House of Cards will hit TVs with a level of power play far exceeding the American original in ruthlessness, tactical foresight and surprising twists [laughs]. But to answer your question: Xi knows that by addressing corruption in an efficient way, he will have to change the system. In this case, weaken the control of the communist party and allow for independent oversight. This seems unlikely, as everything he has done so far is to bring every little inch of the country back under the power of the CCP.
And I reckon by actually addressing corruption, he could risk the emergence of a resentment within the communist party that could reach a scale able to challenge his power?
Such reflections are very interesting because the Communist Party is almost like a black box to us, so what I am going to say now is mostly guesswork. I was thinking about that risk when he changed the constitution to allow for endless rule. Also, it reminded me of Erdoğan in Turkey; there it was equally a question of corruption and the number of enemies he has made on his path to power. I somehow feel that just like Erdoğan, Xi Jinping has created too many enemies with his power games and with his anti-corruption campaign as one tool of it. I could imagine that both Xi and Erdoğan are driven by a fear that any departure from power will be the end for them and for their family. They need to hold on at any cost.
How was the trade conflict (which came to a temporary halt at the G20 on the weekend) between the US and China covered in the Chinese media? What was the narrative?
Xi Jinping introduced a major fortification process back home, ideologically and spiritually, and his narrative inside China has always been that the West and particularly the US are out to sabotage and undermine the rise of China. The trade war therefore fitted perfectly into this picture. So, when Trump announced the first tariffs and people started to realize he was serious about it, it strengthened the argument of the propaganda. But, interestingly enough, very quickly, it became obvious that people did not fully trust this framing of the story. Suddenly, all those voices popped up that challenged Xi Jinping for his behavior and past decisions. Hence, the tenor in some parts of the internet turned into: «Wow, China has overplayed its hand, Xi Jinping has gone too far, he wanted too much too early.» Even with the heavy-handed censorship and propaganda, these kind of dissenting articles and essays written by academics and economic experts made their way to the public. Xi’s censors were unable to contain all of them.
So, that is what the recent statement of Deng Pufang, citing his dad Deng Xiaoping with «Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead» underpins.
Yes, and that is exactly the opposite of what Xi Jinping has done since he came to power. He has challenged the West, particularly the US. Therefore, besides all the self-confidence and sometimes also arrogance in the ranks of the CCP that the West has gotten used to in recent years, there is now an emerging rhetoric of: «Maybe, we have challenged them too soon and too extensively.»
You often mention how private companies, among them also start-ups, are highly controlled and even governed by the CCP with regard to their activities and the service or products they offer. What effect does this have on the start-up ecosystem in China?
At the moment start-ups in China are clearly having a party because there is so much money. I read a comparative article about the incubating period of newly founded start-ups in China and the US. In China, it is easier to get money as well as to reach the take off stage. That explains why so many people from the Silicon Valley return to China; they can earn more, and they can do more. There are barely any legal restrictions in terms of privacy protection, data protection and so on. One guy told me with shining eyes: «It’s the wild West here!». But certainly, a start-up in China is something completely different than a start-up in the US. In China, it operates in the realm of the Communist Party; you always have to cooperate with the system. Some of them, for example, iFlytek, China’s major voice recognition company based in Anhui, clearly displays their cooperation with the Ministry of Public Security on their Chinese website. But not on their English one. There, the information that they run a hi-tech-laboratory together with Public Security is completely missing. At the same time, they sell their voice recognition technology to BMW, to Volkswagen, to Toyota and many more. Generally, the question: «What is a private enterprise in China?» is a very interesting one. The control of the CCP is strong. In regular intervals, CEOs of the biggest, even of multinational, companies disappear overnight. Jack Ma, for example, is probably the most famous and influential Chinese businessmen outside of China. But listen to his speeches inside of China and you will find that he uses a language of complete submission when praising the Communist Party in public appearances. And of course: He has to. They are all forced to comply and cooperate because every single one of them is at the mercy of the CCP. And if we talk about start-ups in the AI field, all of them, besides their funding by other private companies and foreign investors, enjoy huge investments by state funds. In many incidents, state funds are even the biggest investors.
You quote Foucault – «The perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary» – in your book to make reference that with the help of AI the direct exercise of power by the CCP may become needless. What role does the Social Credit System incorporate to achieve such a reality?
The argument is, that AI allows to reach a state of surveillance that is permanent in its effects, even if it is not working all the time. People internalize control, it becomes implanted into your brain. It is a psychological effect: people know the state is there with his all-seeing eye. Therefore, they feel under constant surveillance even when the eye is not looking at them – the convenient result is, they self-censor and self-control. Everyone turns into his own guard. The concept is derived from the 18th century Panopticon model developed by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham who tried to create the perfect prison. His prison model has never been fully realized, but now might just be the time. You know that the Chinese call their nationwide AI-camera-surveillance network tiangwang which means Skynet (the name does not come without irony when you think of the Terminator movie where the Skynet is an evil AI-organism gone out of control planning to annihilate humankind). This year, China’s People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, tweeted proudly that the Skynet was already able to identify each and every single one of the 1.4 billion citizens in the course of just one second. Personally, I do not believe that this claim is true and that they have already come that far. But that is not the point. The point is that it does not have to be true, it is enough if people believe it to be true. Once they believe in the all-seeing eye, then they will automatically control themselves.
Back to the Social Credit System – what role does it incorporate in this aim of reaching perfect surveillance?
I think it is one piece of the puzzle in the whole undertaking.
So not a decisive role?
Probably not. I know it has been very sexy in Western media coverage and I understand the reason: It is an Orwellian Nightmare, no doubt. I have written extensively about it myself because it serves as a prime example to illustrate the Party’s intention. But as I said: It is only one piece in the puzzle. First, it serves several purposes; there is also an economic motive behind it. Second, we still do not know exactly how it will look in 2020. Whether there will be one homogeneous system or whether they will play with several regional ones, state run ones and private ones. But the Chinese state has explicitly said that the aim is to create the «honest man», the «trustworthy man». It is one disturbing puzzle piece, it fits in very well together with all the other control measures they implement, and that is very concerning in my opinion. They aim to «standardize people», this is how one cadre put it to me. Again, it is all about creating the «new man», like back in Mao’s time, even though essentially it was an invention of Lenin. This time it is the man who has perfected self-control, self-censorship and guardianship over himself. Probably the scariest statement with regards to the Social Credit System was that of the lady in charge of the System in Shanghai. At the end of our interview she told me: «Enough with all this talk about the system and sanctions and punishments. Let us for one moment imagine that we will meet again in a couple of years and there will be no need to talk about any of these mechanisms anymore. We will not even mention the system anymore, because by that stage, nobody will even have harmful thoughts anymore and nobody will break trust anymore. At that point we will have reached our goal.» To sum up, we have to focus on the bigger picture and evaluate the Social Credit System not only by itself but within this framework and understand how it contributes to the overall goal of the CCP.
With your relocation to Copenhagen, what do you miss most about your daily life in China?
This question is very easy to answer: food and I can tell you exactly what: My absolute favorite noodles Youpo mian, handmade noodles with a lot of oil and chili from Shaanxi province, the yellow soil in the Chinese heartland. I was a student in Xi’an, so I became addicted to them at a very young age. Luckily, while living in Beijing, we had a Xi’an noodle shop just next my house which served as my personal canteen. And then there are my friends. Some of my best friends live in China and really, Chinese people are just incredible. Honestly, being a journalist in China there are many depressing aspects but what keeps you alive are the food and the people. I met so many great and courageous people during my time in China. Whenever I met someone outstanding, considering the circumstances under which they operate, I thought to myself that amazing people in China are two times, three times or even four times as amazing as the same people in the West. Because being an outstanding person is so much more difficult in China. It requires so much more energy, struggle and dedication and let us not forget sometimes courage as well. I have boundless admiration for the Chinese people. I just wish they could live under circumstances that would allow them more dignity.
Kai Strittmatter was born in 1965 in Allgäu and has dedicated most of his life to the observation and description of China. After studying Sinology in Munich, Xi'an (PR China) and Taipei (Taiwan), he became a correspondent for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche in 1997 and later also for the Zurich based Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger in China. After an intermezzo in Turkey (2005-2012), he returned to Beijing in 2012 and lived there until October 2018. Kai Strittmatter is the author of several books on China, Hong Kong and Istanbul. His current book "Die Neuerfindung der Diktatur" was published in October 2018 by Piper-Verlag.
Kai Strittmatter joined us, together with Uli Sigg, Board Member of Asia Society Switzerland, on December 3, 2018, to talk about the cultural, political and economic developments in China under Xi Jinping. Read our recap of the event here: «Two Views on the Changing China».
Anna Zwald is Project Manager at Asia Society Switzerland.