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By: Enrique Dans

A couple of lengthy articles in MIT Tech Review help better understand China’s shift toward George Orwell’s Big Brother state in “1984”, by putting events there in a different frame of reference.

Why does the West find it difficult to understand China? Because Westerners believe that there are a series of rights and freedoms intrinsic to human nature, inalienable. Our privacy can and is being reduced, albeit not without a certain resistance or at least some trade off: security, a desirable or interesting product for free, the promise of a social approval, etc.

Understanding China and its technological coevolution requires an understanding of its history, its social structures, the degree to which people monitor each other, etc. Seen this way, it could be argued that the increasing use of surveillance technologies in China could make society fairer or punishment for certain behavior more just. Traffic is a major issue, so therefore punishing the individuals who break the rules is fairer than letting them get away with it and making life harder for everybody. Depending on the context you see China in, understanding that the use of data can help build a less unjust society is difficult to understand, but worthy of some reflection.

Seen from the perspective of a democracy, even with all its intrinsic problems and the tensions between the rule of law and technology under debate, the idea that mass surveillance could produce a better China is provocative, particularly given that monitoring is carried out by a ruling minority. But if you come from a system where democracy has never existed and where the rules were applied arbitrarily, and you now find yourself in a system where the relationship with the state is at least based on what you have really done or failed to do, the situation could be seen as an improvement, although saying so may seem like a way to justify something that, from a Western point of view, is completely unjustifiable.

When talking to Chinese students I have always found it difficult to understand why, for example, they would want to have access to Google, even if it was a censored Google or why they were prepared to accept economic improvement at the cost of certain freedoms. The answer is framed by how each of us sees the world and what we compare our situation with. There is now a generation in China that has reached adulthood without access to tools and services such as Google, Facebook or Twitter, instead using others that are submitted to a strong censorship.

To understand China and an internet that will increasingly be controlled by Beijing, we must go beyond Western stereotypes and instead see things in context, from China’s perspective, taking into account the country’s history, rather than making assumptions about certain ideas, even if they seem obvious to us.

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