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Protesters fill Tiananmen Square in May 1989. Photo/Reuters

AI's role in the mass-monitoring of behaviour in China

Journalist Karoline Kan talks to Peter Griffin about the pervasiveness of technology in the lives of young Chinese and its role in state surveillance.

It was 10 years ago that Karoline Kan first used a virtual private network to access the internet. The Beijing-based journalist at China Dialogue was then studying English at university. Then aged 20, she asked a foreign teacher about a forbidden topic in China, referred to only as the “June 4 incident”. The teacher quietly suggested that she use the networking software to bypass the great firewall of China to find out for herself.

Kan’s subsequent googling led her to page after page of sources detailing the Tiananmen Square massacre. “I cried as I watched my country’s soldiers kill their own people, on the orders of our government,” she writes in her captivating memoir Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss and Hope in China.

“China collapsed for me suddenly. I no longer understood what was in front of me. I had no faith in what I had been brought up to believe.”

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I meet Kan in Beijing just a few weeks after the 30th anniversary of the massacre and following the first wave of furious protests on the streets of Hong Kong. Kan may be a millennial, but she considers herself a “technology laggard”. Still, every day she inhabits two worlds as she reads international news websites that are officially blocked in China, and talks to family and friends who rely only on vetted Chinese sources behind the firewall to stay informed.

“Ten years ago, people were quite optimistic that the internet would bring new ideas and there would be a big change in China,” Kan says. “Ten years on, what we see is it isn’t becoming more liberal, it is the opposite: China is going backwards in terms of freedom of speech and the quality of information we can get from the internet.”

Journalist Karoline Kan. Photo/Supplied

Kan was born in a small town in Tianjin, in north-eastern China, during the time of the one-child policy. Her mother, Shumin, already had a son when she became pregnant and had to dodge birth-control officers to avoid an enforced abortion. Following Kan’s birth, the impoverished family had to scrape money together to pay Shumin’s huge fine for having a second child.

Kan’s coming-of-age tale is about her family’s struggles to survive through decades of hardship and her growing awareness of the divide between the propaganda she was fed as a child and the real China she investigates today as a journalist.

She feels unease at the pervasiveness of technology in the lives of young Chinese, especially given its role in state surveillance, which she has experienced firsthand.

Recently, she had an instant-message exchange with another journalist on WeChat, the messaging platform that has expanded to become the go-to internet platform for hundreds of millions of Chinese to do everything from making payments in restaurants to staying in touch with friends and colleagues.

“It was nothing sensitive, nothing political. She was going to report on a new development area near my hometown. I told her that town is basically a kind of ghost town because the investment is being withdrawn,” says Kan.

A police officer wearing facial-recognition glasses. Photo/Getty Images

“One day, the local police in my hometown called my mum asking about me and why I was talking about this. I’m still trying to figure out what keywords they picked up – maybe the name of that zone, which is a failure. Maybe they are really sensitive about how people are talking about it.”

She worries about the development of the “social-credit” system that the Chinese Government intends to use by 2020 to encourage good behaviour among its citizens. It is being piloted in a number of centres and involves calculating a credit score for each citizen to establish their trustworthiness.

Applying the system to China’s 1.4 billion citizens will rely on artificial intelligence, and Chinese tech companies are helping the Government to build it.

“I think people outside China know more about it than we do. How do you get off the blacklist? How do you explain yourself? Who do you talk to to tell them you are not a criminal?”

The problem, says Kan, is that there is little public discussion about it. She says many Chinese buy into the need for a vast country to maintain “stability” to justify China’s authoritarianism, including using surveillance and biometric technology to monitor and subdue millions of Uighurs and members of other Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang in western China who are suspected of harbouring extremists.

“It’s a weak idea. It is using fear,” she says.

“People should ask more questions about what we want to achieve from whatever we do with it.”

This article was first published in the September 28, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.