How US Tech is Helping to Power China's Surveillance State

“The best way to control the opposition is to lead them.” — Vladimir Lenin

In writing this essay, I’ve come to the conclusion that the theatre of post-Cold War foreign policy can’t escape the shadow of George Orwell’s 1984. If you search for his work online, you’ll find a million and one examples of how his critique of monopolized state power has been ironically reduced to boomer-tier Facebook memes quickly distracting us away from recognizing the systemic corruptions he sought to expose. There is no greater example of such Orwellian dynamics at play than in the dark relationship between America and China which, as it turns out, is far more secretive than what gets performed on the international stage.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of this post-Cold War era, there remains a crusade-like romanticization of the “US versus its global adversaries”, with the Chinese communist regime serving as the clear and present danger to global human rights. The country’s use of slavery, surveillance and propaganda warfare check many of the familiar boxes of Orwell’s dystopia, all of which are united under the banner of government-led denialism in order to continue business as usual. By contrast, America maintains the appearance of the principled opponent, with both President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden condemning these actions against the Chinese people as “unspeakable oppression.” However, it turns out that American technology is powering what has been called “one of the most invasive parts of China’s surveillance state.” 

Last week, the New York Times reported that chips made by Intel and Nvidia, two of America’s foremost powerful tech giants, currently power China’s highly complex Urumqi Cloud Computing Center, the government’s major supercomputer initiative used to watch untold numbers of people in Xinjiang, a western region of China with a large Muslim population known as the Uighurs. The Times found that these chips, used to sort more footage in a day than any person could in a year, have been used as back as far as 2016. 

“When you have something approaching a surveillance state, your primary limitation is on your ability to identify events of interest within your feeds,” argued Jack Poulson, a former Google engineer and founder of the advocacy group Tech Inquiry. “The way you scale up your surveillance is through machine learning and large scale A.I.” 

The chip supply continued even after 2019, when the Human Rights Watch’s report revealed Beijing was using advanced technology to track, imprison and torture Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities under the guise of “counter-terrorism.” Intel and Nvidia denied any knowledge of these nasty intentions, saying that their chips were being “misused” by the government. 

Now, would it be wrong of me to jump to a conclusion of mustache-twirling evil afoot from Intel, Nvidia, and the whole American government? Of course. There is no evidence this was done with the approval of the US government and the companies are free to deny knowledge. But the whole affair is wrong whichever way you slice it. My fascination with Cold War history is in it being a “comedy of errors,” particularly in what national security analyst Eugene Scherbakov described as the “heedless blundering of the United States.” Consider how for 20 years, several US military bases had their entire nuclear arsenal set to the code 00000000 and the numerous computer glitches and false alarms which almost set off World War III.

Is it any wonder the country’s foreign policy apparatus continues to disappoint? The Times report mentions that the Trump administration banned the sale of advanced semiconductors and other technology to a group of blacklisted Chinese organizations with links to the government’s detainment camps. And yet this relationship continued under their noses? To the point that even Intel and Nvidia didn’t know the implications? 

The reason I mention Orwell is that the response to his iconic work is a prime example of how we just don’t know how to critique modern superstates, even when it stares us in the face. Audiences tend to hyper-focus on vague generalities of authority, speech, the military-industrial complex and the perversions of all-powerful Big Brother government. It all pales in comparison to the character of Goldstein, the leader of “The Brotherhood,” who represents the novel’s supposed revolutionary promising to dismantle all the corruption in the world. Little does the protagonist know that “Goldstein” is actually a work of fiction, a tool of the party to deceive the traitors in their midst and set the boundaries of dissent in whatever favour they choose — a “controlled opposition,” if you will. 

On the global stage, the role of the United States is played with similar tragedy, speaking condemnation and complicity from both sides of its mouth, enabling one of the many examples of China’s abuse. These abuses are used by figures like Trump to justify continual increases in tariffs, sanctions, and the growing potential for a “new Cold War,” be it of social, economic or military tension. A foreign policy operated on doublethink can only exist for so long. 

At best, Intel and Nvidia’s dealings with these Chinese entities was the result of a fatal misunderstanding, simple free trade gone wrong which left the Uighurs under the watchful eye of the Chinese state — and somehow, the most powerful nation in the world let it slip by. At worst, the investigation exposed the pernicious way opposition is controlled, interlinking both public and private entities into a surveillance economy where the opposition is merely a performance to run out the backdoor with all the money. In either account, China, America, and its companies don’t leave this situation without blood on their hands.

After all, Intel and Nvidia are not the only major tech companies that have helped to prop up the Chinese surveillance network. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that Seagate, HP, and Western Digital have “nurtured, courted and profited” from China’s surveillance industry. “Participation in China’s surveillance market offers companies and investors an opportunity to grab a piece of a booming new field and improve their products,” wrote journalists Liza Lin and Josh Chin. “China’s video surveillance market reached $10.6 billion in 2018, with the government accounting for about half of those purchases, according to industry analyst IDC. Of 37 Chinese firms singled out last November by the Beijing-backed China Security and Protection Industry Association for outstanding contributions to the country’s surveillance industry, 17 have publicly disclosed financing, commercial or supply-chain relationships with U.S. technology companies. Several had multiple connections.”

And given how these advances in technology are ever encroaching on our civil liberties, we deserve a better class of dissent than simply relying on those from control. But who can blame them for using this tactic? “Imagine you have a hammer,” writes Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. “That’s machine learning. It helped you climb a grueling mountain to reach the summit. That’s machine learning’s dominance of online data. On the mountain top, you find a vast pile of nails, cheaper than anything previously imaginable. That’s the new smart sensor tech. An unbroken vista of virgin board stretches before you as far as you can see. That’s the whole dumb world. Then you learn that any time you plant a nail in a board with your machine learning hammer, you can extract value from that formerly dumb plank. That’s data monetization. What do you do? You start hammering like crazy and you never stop, unless somebody makes you stop. But there is nobody up here to make us stop. This is why the ‘internet of everything’ is inevitable.”

For now, China’s dependence on American chips is the only push back against seeing truly self-sufficient totalitarianism take root. Maya Wang, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch, concluded there are short-term steps in policy the US can take to prevent another Intel or Nvidia from becoming controlled by these regimes. It’s just a matter of whether the Biden administration will answer the calls to firm up, loosen or rethink restrictions on surveillance abuses. 

“I’m afraid in a few years time,” Wang continued, “Chinese companies and government will find their own way to develop chips and these capabilities. Then there will be no way to get a handle on trying to stop these abuses.”

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