China's Rising Surveillance Capacity Ill Omen for Other Modern States, TooRoundup
tags: technology, Chinese Communist Party, surveillance, Peoples Republic of China
Kathleen Keller is professor of history at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. and the author of Colonial Suspects: Suspicion, Imperial Rule, and Colonial Society in Interwar French West Africa.
News from China in the past several weeks has come at a dizzying pace. First, there were once-in-a-generation protests, then a loosening of coronavirus restrictions, and now the terrible toll of the virus itself on a large and vulnerable population. Yet, amid this extraordinary turn of events, other less dramatic but highly consequential stories have emerged about how the Chinese government has used the pandemic to dramatically increase its surveillance capabilities.
Surveillance may not seem like the main story in China these days, but history indicates that growing state surveillance warrants attention. Surveillance is a mode of state power that operates to protect the state itself, unlike the policing of crime, which is ostensibly to protect society, and historically surveillance projects have expanded well beyond their intended targets. Surveillance is insidious, secret, often silent — and incredibly dangerous, with the potential to tear societies apart.
Modern surveillance states date at least back to the French Revolution, when citizens monitored and denounced each other for lacking sufficient allegiance to the revolution. Fueled by paranoia and afraid of losing the republic amid internal dissent and a foreign war with monarchies that wanted the revolution to fail, revolutionaries created a powerful Committee of Public Safety, which envisioned threats everywhere and arrested “counterrevolutionaries.”
During what later became known as the Reign of Terror in 1794, the Committee of Public Safety sent thousands to their deaths. What made surveillance so powerful was that people had to carefully monitor their speech, lest they be turned-in by a fervent fellow citizen who believed completely in the revolution and its program of radical equality.
As surveillance states ramped up capacity through the 19th- and early-20th centuries, they grew their policing regimes. The historian Athan G. Theoharis wrote about how the United States was slow to engage in political policing because of limits on federal power in the Constitution.
But during World War I, the United States’ nascent Bureau of Investigation (later FBI) subjected socialists and antiwar activists to state surveillance. This involved investigations for possible prosecution under espionage laws, but also “monitoring” of Irish supporters and German Americans, anti-colonialists, pacifists and Progressives such as Robert LaFollette and Jane Addams.
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