In an age of pandemic, the most appealing metaphors are viral. This is certainly what the Congressional-Executive Commission on China appears to believe, at at least what may be driving its upcoming hearings: Techno-Authoritarianism: Platform for Repression in China and Abroad. The announcement of the hearing says it all.
Techno-Authoritarianism: Platform for Repression in China and Abroad
106 Dirksen & Virtually via Cisco Webex | Wednesday, November 17, 2021 - 10:30am
Techno-authoritarianism poses a serious threat to traditional notions of privacy, democratic governance models globally, and the future of an open and free internet. The Chinese government’s embrace of mass biometric collection technologies underpins the most pervasive surveillance state the world has ever seen. The Chinese model of extensive censorship and surveillance continues to spread to governments with poor human rights records that repress and control populations through technology made in China.
This hearing will look at the human rights and strategic impact of the technology of mass surveillance and censorship as employed and exported by the People’s Republic of China, including its use in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and efforts to influence and shape digital and telecommunications rulemaking and standard setting in international bodies. The hearing will be livestreamed on the CECC’s YouTube Channel.
--Geoffrey Cain, author of The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey into China's Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future
--Samantha Hoffman, Senior Analyst, Australian Strategic Policy Institute
--Yaqiu Wang, Senior Researcher on China, Human Rights Watch
--Jonathan Hillman, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic & International Studies
The thrust of the program is quite clear. First
, Chinese approaches to state coordinated or directly undertaken surveillance are incompatible with at least the principles of liberal democratic constitutionalism. Second
, the Chinese approach, like COVID, cannot be contained within China (note this undertone which is unmistakable and quite brilliantly used here); this COVID type virus creating a political pandemic is labelled "techno-authoritarianism." Third
Techno-authoritarianism is string enough and alluring enough to threaten the (delicate) health of global (and within liberal democracy more or less traditional) notions of privacy, democratic governance and an open and free internet. Successful attacks on these three elements of liberal democracy will either weaken or kill its spirit, leaving its body to be re-animated by the demon possessor of techno-authoritarianism. Fourth
, this powerful virus has a well known DNA: (mass bio metric collection technologies underpinning a comprehensive system of surveillance and censorship). Fifth
, the virus is particularly potent in governmental bodies with weakened immune systems--governments in conflict zones and governments in weak governance zones. Sixth, in the absence of a vaccine against techno-authoritarianism the COVID protocols of containment, safe distancing, mask wearing and constant hand washing would be necessary, now applied to the virus corrupting the normative basis of healthy government. Seventh, it is to that task that our front line workers--the great liberal democratic vanguard must both better understand the disease, and better protect the community of nations from its ravages.
From a discursive perspective, this is an excellent approach to putting forward the political project of the United States and its internationalist project. In a way that parallels the ambitions and perhaps the operationalization of the Chinese Marxist Leninist International project delivered through the bacillus of the Belt & Road Initiative, the United States has not been shy about announcing its now more global friendly America First policy vaccine:
"Since day one, the Biden-Harris Administration has made clear that revitalizing democracy in the United States and around the world is essential to delivering for the American people and meeting the unprecedented challenges of our time. As President Biden has said, defending America’s democratic values is inseparable from advancing our national interest. "(US Dept of State Summit for Democracy ("Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it." Ibid., Quoting President Biden Feb 2021))
In its form as Liberal Democratic internationalism, with the United States as its core of leadership, the U.S. would again its assume its global leadership role, even if, as is becoming clear, it is over a quite distinct imperial jurisdiction that exists beyond the reach of the emerging Marxist Leninist imperial project of the Chinese state organs and its vanguard (The
Problem of Data Infrastructure in an Age of Post-Global Empire--The
Criminal Litigation Against Huawei for Racketeering and Other Crimes). That project requires sharpening difference (liberal democratic normative values versus Chinese techno-authoritarianism) as much as it suggests the need for a theory of difference (supplied certainly by academics on both sides of the border) in the form of (liberal democratic) theories of "authoritarian constitutionalism" (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here) and its judgment of illegitimacy at least from the perspective of liberal democratic constitutionalism). It is no surprise, then, that in the run up to the December 2021 Democracy Summit hosted by the United States, its apparatus, including CECC would focus on distinguishing the higher order values of liberal democracy from what it sees as the threatening characteristics of a coherent competing system. In this case that centers on notions of authoritarianism (for which the CECC hearing add a useful element) to corruption, to to the respect for human rights understood from a liberal democratic orientation (see The December 2021 Summit).
And yet these differences are much more blurred, and it is not clear that the liberal democratic system itself has not already developing a means of living with very similar viruses of a liberal democratic sort. And the liberal democratic virus is as much a threat to techno-authoritarianism as the other way around. Western biometric surveillance is not unknown (Automated
Law-- Microsoft 's "Insight Computing System,' the Power to Manage
Labor, and the Intimacy of Emerging Regulatory Forms
). Nor is privatized surveillance foreign to the management of populations in public-private alignments ( Automated Law--Questions and Answers on Data Driven AI Enhanced Governance and the Emerging Instruments of Social Control
). Techno-control based on data appears to know no ideology (Automated Law: The Problem of Data Integrity Moves (if only for a Moment) to Center Stage
). And crisis appears to make authoritarians of us all ( Automated
Law and COVID-19: Data Driven Measures With National Characteristics In
China and Israel and the Future of the Law-Governance Complex
). To the grand hierarchies of public sector driven techno-authoritarianism, liberal democracy offers the banality of techno-control (Automated
Law: The Banalities of Constructing a Social Credit Style Rating System
with Western Characteristics, One Well Meaning Intervention at a Time
) with an overlay of management by the state (Automated Law--The Empire of European Human Rights Law (May) Strike Back
). AT at bottom--however our master and whatever the elegance of the normative systems put in place to make us feel better about it) lies the fundamental issue of control, and of its power (Automated Law: Who Ought to Have the Right to Authoritatively Misread Emotion?
). The real fear, then, may be of convergence--one that would neither serve the interests of liberal democracy or Marxist Leninist internationalists in their drive for empire (Automated
Law and Social Media Platforms as Private Administrative Agencies: On
Amnesty International's New Report--"''Let us Breathe!': Censorship and
criminalization of online expression in Viet Nam"
). Or perhaps better put--the contests to which CECC (and its Chinese analogues) expend so much energy may in the end be irrelevant to the trajectories of power and its mechanisms ()Data
Driven Pandemic and the Ascendancy of Simulated Reality as the New
Political Space: The Administration of Disease and the Disease of
Administration in the Light of COVID-19
This is not to suggest the absence of normative difference. The gulf between systems is now large and growing again. But method is another thing altogether. And the judgement of the character of the toolkits used may be more complicated even as they reflect and are reflected in the normative values of the systems whose interests they serve. And that may be the most valuable function of these events; not to suggest the obvious, that the Chinese system furthers its norms comprehensively through the application of its political economic model enhanced by the possibilities (sometimes transformative) of tech. Rather its value lies in its ability to distill and highlight what the U.S: sees in itself in the mirror that is China. And then the hard task begins--the task of aligning the ideal extracted from the insights of difference to its practice within the political economic model of this Republic and those others in its camp (Maya Wang, "China’s Techno-Authoritarianism Has Gone Global: Washington Needs to Offer an Alternative," Foreign Affairs (8 April 2021)).
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The Congressional-Executive Commission on China was created by the U.S. Congress in 2000 "with the legislative mandate to monitor human rights and the development of the rule of law in China, and to submit an annual report
to the President and the Congress. The Commission consists of nine
Senators, nine Members of the House of Representatives, and five senior
Administration officials appointed by the President." (CECC About). The CECC FAQs provide useful information about the CECC. See CECC Frequently Asked Questions. They have developed positions on a number of issues.
tends to serve as an excellent barometer of the thinking of political
and academic elites in the United States about issues touching on China
and the official American line developed in connection with those
issues. As such it is an important source of information about the way
official and academic sectors think about China. As one can imagine many
of the positions of the CECC are critical of current Chinese policies
and institutions (for some analysis see CECC).