Feb 27Liked by Noah Smith

I work in tech, and have worked in the past for a smartphone company. Nothing to disagree with here on the concept of sharp power and what China seems to want, but a few tech-related parts jumped out and didn't seem right to me in this essay:

> [Russia's] lack of economic heft and its lower technology level mean that it doesn’t have nearly the reach that China does.

Russia is one of the very few countries in the world that has been able to develop and keep domestic equivalents to Google, Gmail/Hotmail and Facebook. It also has produced some very advanced software companies that have successfully sold into western business for years (e.g. Kaspersky, JetBrains). China's success is at best similar or if you wanted to you could argue it's worse, because TikTok is free (people don't really choose to pay money for it in the way they buy Russian products) and the rest are manufacturing companies that benefited immensely from cheap factory labor, something that doesn't really apply to software companies.

In other words: don't underestimate the Russians. Given a choice between being given a team of 10 Russian computer engineers or 10 Chinese, I'm gonna pick the Russians every time.

> First, internet users migrated from the Web (where attempts at tracking can be detected and blocked) to apps, which watch and record pretty much everything you do in the app

The privacy differences between mobile apps and websites are trivial and hardly matter, despite what you may read in parts of the media. You can argue that in some cases websites have worse privacy than apps and that would be perfectly credible.

> internet use switched from PCs to smartphones, which are far easier to track in physical space, and far easier to link to a user

Again the differences are small. Phones only share precise location if you agree to it, and if you don't then historically it's actually easier to figure out the location of a PC than a phone, because the PC is far more likely to be using an IP address that maps directly to your geolocation whereas mobile IPs are invariably useless due to heavy use of CGNAT.

> A sufficiently powerful government can use your phone, and the apps on your phone, to track where you are and what you’re doing at all times.

They can track where you are if they can either hack or compel the phone company to tell them, but phones have always worked that way even before smartphones and the internet. Tracking what you are doing is much harder. They can see which websites or services you interact with but not necessarily what you are doing on them. For that they'd have to either hack the phone, or hack the entities you're interacting with, or compel them to hand over the data.

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Obviously, liberalism and authoritarianism don't mix. So respond symmetrically: whenever the CCP tries to increase control over "its" people in free societies, decrease the CCP's control over its people at home. There are many ways to do this (send some star link terminals over there, assist dissidents with encrypted software, etc.) but the most effective is to encourage emigration.

The CCP is absolutely livid about the UK's BNO visa program for Hong Kongers as is witnessed by its propaganda outlets' constant raging and whining about it. Every time one of those secret police stations is discovered grant another 10.000 Chinese visa. Voting with one's feet still works and China cannot afford the brain drain.

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I am in the middle of reading The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff and have just got to the part where she describes the rise of Totalitarianism in the early parts of the 20th century, leading to Hitler and Stalin. This whole issue is deeply disturbing and, I'm afraid to say, US tech. companies are playing their part in the totalitarianism of Surveillance Capitalism with the ultimate goal of behavioural control of us, the lumpenproletariat, to ensure certainty of the commercial ends of the tech. companies' commercial customers. God, how depressing.

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Another threat to our way of life. I’m saddened. I just got over Saddam Hussein, Assad, Islamism, secular Arab nationalism, white supremacy, woke totalitarianism, Muhammad ghaddaffi and now Putin, Putin Putin. Now China.

Will it ever end.

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While I agree China is an issue, the largest threats to Western liberalism are domestic. The Left (which is firmly in control of the Democratic Party) has essentially abandoned the value-neutral state model of Lockean / Millian liberalism in favor of privileges and rewards assigned by a racial and sexual grievance hierarchy. the cult of Trump is putting the Right on the same road, largely but not entirely in response to the Left. Patrick Deneen (and Edmund Burke long before him) predicted this.

2/3rds of American college students today say speech should be legally limited for "climate change deniers", "haters", racially insensitive people"... essentially anyone who disagrees with them. (https://thompsoncenter.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/509/2021/01/Thompson-Center-First-Amendment-Survey.pdf ) That illiberalism didn't come from China. It came from America's higher "education" establishment, the very institutions that are supposed to be creating the next generation of our ruling class. In horror movie terms: you're worried about locking the doors when the call is coming from inside the house.

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Clearly you've forgotten Comintern and Stalin's succesful suborning of Western journalists and Leftists. There's been a campaign to strip Walter Duranty of the Pulitzer Prize he won for denying the Holodomor for 30 years. Great men like George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells were hoodwinked into praising Stalin. The Communist Parties in many Western countries were also effectively run from Moscow for a number of years. The West countered with operations like Voice of America and, more subtly, The Paris Review.

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You wrote:

"Of course because the Worldcon organizers do not employ a large team of censors that combs over every work of fiction with a sensitive eye to what might offend the CCP, it’s pretty much certain that the CCP called the Worldcon people up and gave them a list of authors they didn’t like”

This seems inaccurate given the evidence from the leaked emails. The linked Guardian article and the report here https://file770.com/the-2023-hugo-awards-a-report-on-censorship-and-exclusion/ say pretty much the opposite, that it was driven by Worldcon, at least at the level of selecting individual works and authors:

After discussing technical details of the work in the June 5th email, McCarty wrote “In addition to the regular technical review, as we are happening in China and the *laws* we operate under are different…we need to highlight anything of a sensitive political nature in the work. It’s not necessary to read everything, but if the work focuses on China, taiwan, tibet, or other topics that may be an issue *in* China…that needs to be highlighted so that we can determine if it is safe to put it on the ballot (or) if the law will require us to make an administrative decision about it.”

On June 5, Kat Jones asked McCarty for a “list or a resource you can point us to that elaborates on ‘other topics that may be an issue *in* China’?”

McCarty responded on June 5 at 7:18 pm saying “At the moment, the best guidance I have is ‘mentions of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, negatives of China’. I will try to get better guidance when I have a chance to dig into this deeper with the Chinese folks on the committee.”

What would be the point of asking your staff to research the books and author backgrounds if you were just going off a list given by the CCP? It seems that precisely because Worldcon didn't employ a large team of experienced censors, the actual censoring was pretty poor, with one author disqualified for having visited Tibet despite never having been there.

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Even if we can avoid China's influence, we're still sleepwalking into home-grown totalitarian thanks to the ongoing collapse of privacy and the increasingly cheap and economically attractive ability to make everything legible via audio, video, and natural language processing.

Without change, we're not far from a future where no minor infraction (jaywalking, drug use in your backyard) will go unnoticed by automated processes. We're then in a no-win situation where either we fall into tyranny of individuals empowered by these systems, or, if the law is instead enforced equally in all cases - a tyranny of the law itself expanded far beyond the domain it was ever intended - as I outline here:


Thankfully, some states like Taiwan have seen this danger, and are already working to implement systems designed to preserve individual privacy in the age of AI and big-data and even go so far as to attempt to prevent the future reverse engineering of their datasets:


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Feb 27·edited Mar 8

I don't think it's that difficult. People rail against conservative Boomers and totalitarianism all the time (though, that sounds wrong - it's authoritarian and not NK style totalitarianism as there's still a lot of non-political personal freedom here). Meanwhile, there's slow but steady income growth and some hand waving about inclusive growth but everyone knows it's all about being close to the people in power and, hopefully, not getting burned when they invariably look to make an example out of someone.

Liberal countries just need to keep doing what they're doing, accept immigrants and maintain their comparative advantages while re-developing a new trading bloc and disciplining their companies so they don't repeat the errors of the past. Meanwhile, they need to sew up better trading relationships with the developing world. Above all, there needs to be a path to eventual prosperity for one's progeny in the Western world. That's where you guys have dropped the ball.

The flip side of China (or, rather, the CCP) wanting control over the racial group is that it kinda wants nothing to do with the rest of the races out there. They'll happy kowtow to the elites of every country, of course. Sharp power can, over the long haul, be countered by soft power and hard economic power.

The firewall hasn't come here in HK just yet.

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This is an excellent article, but I think a far bigger threat than Chinese totalitarianism is the rise of the same methods within wealthy Western nations. Over the last few years, Western nations seem determined to copy the methods of Chinese Communists rather than preserve our freedoms. I hope that you write a follow-up article on that topic.

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"Then two things happened. First, internet users migrated from the Web (where attempts at tracking can be detected and blocked) to apps, which watch and record pretty much everything you do in the app. Second, internet use switched from PCs to smartphones, which are far easier to track in physical space, and far easier to link to a user."

Not sure what you mean by your first point: isn't a Web browser itself a kind of "app"?

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It took me some time to understand why the CCP targets Chinese abroad. For recent immigrants, it's about recruiting them to return to China with Western skills. For permanent residents, it's about being able to apply leverage on their families back in China. For second generation, it's about maintaining a monopoly on Chinese-language media.

So many China hawks look at this as "and this is why you can't trust Chinese immigrants". But it should be "CCP realizes that free Chinese people preferring the West is it's greatest ideological and geopolitical weakness".

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There are many things to say about this post, but one thing that makes me very sad and hits close to home is the idea of Chinese spies in American academia.

I am a scientist. Over my career, I have interacted with tons of Chinese foreign nationals as my fellow grad students, postdocs, and technicians. (There are Chinese-American faculty too, of course, but they are more likely to be American citizens of Chinese ancestry.) They are super smart and hardworking and it's hard to imagine American STEM departments without them. If the Chinese government pressures/entices Chinese scientists in America to spy, what is the solution? Surely it can't be to assume that any Chinese national at an American university is a potential spy? That would be hideously racist.

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I worked in IT for years and I ditched my smartphone 3 years ago after watching Citizen Four on NetFlix. It altered both my view of Edward Snowden and of smartphones. Big Brother in your pocket is not a metaphor. Here's the weird thing; I'm much happier since ditching permanent Internet access. My flip phone is cheap ($30/yr), effectively unhackable, and doesn't tempt me to look at it constantly. Is it inconvenient not to have Internet access on my phone sometimes? Sure. But it's certainly not hard, and how much is your convenience worth in privacy?

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India seems to want a (much smaller) piece of that action, but devoted toward their strange sexual puritanism. In India it is de facto illegal to display even a romantic kiss, and they seem intent on enforcing that standard upon the world by using their value as a market as a bludgeon.

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For what it's worth, I didn't find The Poppy War very good. It is too much a direct copy of history while also simultaneously not making sense. It has scenes that felt like they were copy & pasted from the Wikipedia entry on the rape of Nanking. Meanwhile the main character is supposed to be Mao but nothing about her actions or philosophy make sense given that.

If you didn't know anything about Chinese history I think the book might be better. A kind of "stealth history for people who hate reading about history".

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