Chinese Totalitarianism, American-Style

"Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains."--Thomas Jefferson

"China is becoming more like us in very visible ways (Starbucks, Hooters, cellphones that are cooler than ours)," observed Naomi Klein in Rolling Stone in May 2008, "and we are becoming more like China in less visible ones (torture, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, though not nearly on the Chinese scale)."

Klein's expose, "China's All-Seeing Eye," sheds light on how U.S. defense contractors have been helping China build the prototype for a high-tech police state that will be put to the test with the upcoming Beijing Olympics. It's a must-read for anyone who is concerned that one more terrorist attack is all it will take for the U.S. to cross over into a totalitarian police state.

The reach of the technology being implemented is alarming. Think electronic concentration camps, complete with high-tech surveillance systems and internet and cell phone censorship programs. What is more disconcerting is the extent to which U.S. companies have helped China oppress its people.

In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Congress actually passed legislation that was intended to prevent U.S. companies from helping Chinese authorities suppress human rights and democracy. Since then, American corporations have been working to side-step the prohibition while exploiting every loophole and simultaneously lobbying Congress to lift the restrictions and allow them free play in China's homeland security market.

This includes security and communications giants such as IBM, General Electric, United Technologies, Honeywell, DuPont and Motorola, as well as technology giants such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. The motivation, of course, is money. According to Klein, "the global homeland-security business is now worth an estimated $200 billion -- more than Hollywood and the music industry combined." Thus, for the sake of greed, these companies have become turncoats to freedom, completely selling out America's once-cherished ideals of democracy.

Take Operation Golden Shield, for instance, a massive surveillance system tied into a central database containing photos and information on every Chinese citizen. This intelligence project will give the Chinese government the unprecedented ability to track the movements and activities of its citizens. Coincidentally, the American mastermind behind the facial-recognition software being used by China dubbed his plan for a similarly vast security network in the U.S. "Operation Noble Shield."

"The end goal," says Klein, "is to use the latest people-tracking technology--thoughtfully supplied by American giants like IBM, Honeywell and General Electric -- to create an airtight consumer cocoon: a place where Visa cards, Adidas sneakers, China Mobile cellphones, McDonald's Happy Meals, Tsingtao beer and UPS delivery (to name just a few of the official sponsors of the Beijing Olympics) can be enjoyed under the unblinking eye of the state, without the threat of democracy breaking out."

The Chinese city of Shenzhen is serving as the testing grounds for Golden Shield. With more than 200,000 surveillance cameras already installed -- and that number expected to rise to two million cameras in three years, Shenzhen's citizens will likely be the most "watched" people in the world. Every camera in the city will be networked to one central location that will be armed with the latest facial recognition software from the American company L-1 Identity Solutions. The system will be able to scan a face and match it to a picture from the central database in a matter of seconds. To supplement the cameras, Chinese citizens will be required to carry electronic national ID cards that are also linked to the central database, giving China an unprecedented ability to track its citizens -- only one small step removed from a total Orwellian security state.

China, of course, has been moving in this direction for a long time. Its handling of the Tibetan riots earlier this year is just a precursor of what it hopes to accomplish in terms of eradicating dissent, limiting access to "dangerous" information and controlling its population. As Klein noted, "every supposedly liberating tool of the Information Age -- cellphones, satellite television, the Internet -- [was] transformed into a method of repression and control." For example, internet access was cut off and outgoing cell phone calls were blocked, while residents found themselves besieged with propaganda text messages from government officials. Video footage pulled from surveillance cameras was also edited to make the Tibetan protesters appear to be the aggressors; still images were posted on the internet as part of an all-out manhunt to capture the demonstrators.

The amazing thing about all this is that American taxpayers are funding China's authoritarian efforts. Our taxes fund research grants for companies like L-1 Identity Solutions, which in turn sell the technology to China, which then uses it to quell freedom and dissent. Other companies are reportedly just as guilty of selling out: Google built a special Chinese search engine that blocks sensitive material, Microsoft took down political blogs at the behest of the Chinese government, and Yahoo! has handed over e-mail account information that led to the arrest and imprisonment of a high-profile Chinese journalist, to mention just a few.

And if you think what happens in China stays in China, you'd better think again. As Klein warns, "The global corporations currently earning superprofits from this social experiment are unlikely to be content if the lucrative new market remains confined to cities such as Shenzhen. Like everything else assembled in China with American parts, Police State 2.0 is ready for export to a neighborhood near you."

Make no mistake: what we see in China today is the prototype for an electronic concentration camp in the U.S. The groundwork has already been laid. American cities keep installing greater numbers of surveillance cameras. The government continues to amass record amounts of data on its citizens through the use of private data-mining companies. And American telecommunications companies have been given a "Get Out of Jail Free" card, by way of congressional legislation, retroactively pardoning them for illegally turning over customer information to the National Security Agency. If the government can simply order the telecommunications companies to take illegal actions with no repercussions, what's to stop it from ordering them to shut down cellular service during protests in America?

"I don't know of an intelligence-gathering operation in the world that, when given a new toy, doesn't use it," remarked Steve Vickers, a former head of criminal intelligence for the Hong Kong police who now leads a consulting firm. This is as true for the United States as it is for China. If American security organizations are given the same tools as the Chinese, there is no reason to think they will not use them to the same extent.