Shanthi Kalathil Testifies Before Congressional-Executive Commission on China on “Tiananmen at 30: Examining the Evolution of Repression in China”

testimony to congressional-executive commission on china and the tom lantos human rights commission

shanthi kalathil, senior director, international forum for democratic studies

june 4, 2019



I would like to thank the Congressional Executive Commission on China, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee for the opportunity and privilege of presenting testimony here today.

On this day, we grapple with the events of Tiananmen – both the hope and the bloodshed – and their legacy thirty years later. Part of that legacy is an unsettling disconnect. Even as people have grown more connected, and our collective access to information has expanded exponentially, there has been a curious muffling surrounding the world’s remembrance of June 4th. Over the years, as vigils diminished and stories grew more hushed, a Tiananmen Square-sized gap emerged not only inside China, but outside as well.

The excising of Tiananmen not merely from Chinese history but from the world’s collective memory is, in fact, no accident. As Reuters recently reported, Chinese internet firms now use machine learning, image and voice recognition to detect and block Tiananmen-related content, with previously unimaginable levels of both accuracy and automation. Tiananmen – alongside a broader swath of topics deemed sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party – has disappeared down what the scholar Glenn Tiffert, borrowing from Orwell, calls the CCP’s memory hole, with pernicious effects on the entire historical record. Tiffert has documented how Chinese academic databases have redacted their holdings and sanitized historical narratives to serve present political purposes. The effect is not limited to the technological realm: two authors who have written about Tiananmen, Louisa Lim and Ilaria Maria Sala, have noted “how successful the party-state has been in pathologizing reporting on Tiananmen, seeding self-regulating, self-censoring mechanisms, even among foreign journalists.”

This memory hole constitutes just one aspect of a vast apparatus designed to shape the broader information ecosystem around the world, in ways that will help solidify the CCP’s rule at home as well as reshape the global order to favor this outcome. This apparatus – which encompasses the party-state’s vision and direction, the firms engaged in developing technology, the application and popularization of that technology, the regulations governing its use, and the setting of future standards – is hardly a flawlessly functioning machine, even within China’s borders. It is not impervious to economic shocks, shifting political winds, or bureaucratic inefficiency and infighting. Yet its cumulative impact both within and outside China’s borders is likely to reinforce authoritarian norms and institutions, and undercut democratic ones, on a global basis.

Informatization and Intelligentization

The Chinese party-state is keenly aware of the transformative, value-laden role of information, and has always viewed the harnessing of information as fundamental to its power. It successfully – and against all expectations at the time – centrally steered the country’s entrance into the modern information age in the early 2000s, allowing for the gradual, widespread, and innovative spread of the internet while managing the political impact of its use. Initially linked to modernizing economic production, the term “informatization” (信息化) gradually became synonymous with a complete rethinking of how information technology would both penetrate and power economic, political and social development. This indicates a party-state that, rather than simply fearing information, fears even more the implications of not mastering it.

With the advent of new tools, informatization has proved crucial in the implementation of China’s modern surveillance state, with some observing that it is impossible to overstate informatization’s role in the development of public security intelligence over the past twenty years. With the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI), informatization has been joined by the newer “intelligentization”(智能化), with its corresponding augmentations and implications. Even the projection of capabilities that might not actually exist yet represents the logical development of longstanding CCP thinking on information, surveillance and social control, predating the advent of modern apps and social media.

As AI evolves and becomes seamlessly integrated into the normal functioning of society, it will become increasingly invisible – and thus, in societies that are not alert to its ramifications, increasingly open to abuse. Crucial questions about democratic rights and standards are correctly being asked and debated in democracies by policymakers, companies, developers, scholars and activists. China’s authoritarian system, however, restricts what type of questions are allowed to be asked about the praxis and governance of technology, who gets to ask those questions, and, ultimately, who decides. It is cause for concern when “standards for research on the latest technological frontiers are being set by a government that has always prioritized power over ethics,” writes physicist Yangyang Cheng. For technologies designed to both disappear into and dictate the rhythms of everyday life, the effect may be to imperceptibly manipulate debate and shape individual behaviors in an increasingly targeted way, buttressed by millions of data points that enable previously unimagined specificity. More than that, it will present those affected by CCP-guided AI enhancement – including not only Chinese citizens, but millions around the world who may be wittingly or unwittingly participating in Chinese government affiliated smart city projects – with an imperceptible fait accompli that subjects them to the standards of the CCP information ecosystem.

This is not only of relevance in the far future. To some extent, it is happening already, including with the platforms that are widespread within China and around the world. Existing platforms such as WeChat have become indispensable for Chinese citizens, providing the allure and convenience of deftly integrated communication, services and amenities – even as this convenience is backed by an equally seamless surveillance and censorship apparatus. With these platforms increasingly being used in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere for news, political communication and other purposes, it is imperative that users understand and interrogate these issues, not simply through the lens of consumer benefits, business models or economic competition, but through the prism of implications for rights and governance.