‘Autocratic Connectivity’ In China And India

The ruling parties of the world’s two largest nations are fusing high-tech tools with old-fashioned patronage and local wardens.

Ibrahim Rayintakath for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

The more we know or learn through connected networks, the more is known and learned about us.

The same apparatus that enables unprecedented connectivity enables unprecedented surveillance.

Such systems are invasive by design, recording and storing every digital transaction from an online purchase to chatbot queries to uploaded photos in giant databases that are searchable, not least by snooping governments, aggressive marketers and the large language models of Big Tech.

The other side of the coin of connectivity is sousveillance, the capacity of citizens and consumers to monitor authorities, professions and businesses from below to expose abuse, corruption, complacency, incompetence, dissembling or outright lies. (One recent example that springs to mind is the fracas over pro-Palestinian encampments on the U.C.L.A. campus where journalists and students correlated online personal data with facial recognition tools to identify violent counter-demonstrators while law enforcement dawdled.)

Information gathered through connective surveillance is also a means for tracking the pressing concerns, discontent or shifting attitudes of publics that out-of-touch private companies disregard at the risk of their consumer appeal and unresponsive governments or ruling parties ignore at the peril of losing popular legitimacy.

Inundated by junk emails and pop-up ads, most of us are all too familiar with how surveillance capitalism works. But something more is going on in China and India, where the state and ruling parties are wiring a new kind of body politic for the digital age by combining connective capacity with the old stalwarts of allegiance and control — local wardens and the spoils system of patronage.

China: A High And Low-Tech Panopticon

China comes closest of any country to a new ideal of totalitarian control through a hybrid model that pairs the latest tracking technology with the low-tech eyes and ears of sundry informants keeping watch over their domain and reporting back to the cloud.

Companies are required to register their employees in police databanks. China is also said to have 700 million surveillance cameras, one for every two citizens. Facial recognition systems reputedly log in the visage of hundreds of millions.

What was feared might emerge from the digital coding system through mobile apps introduced to track Covid infections among nearly all urban dwellers during the pandemic is now coming to pass: Every resident’s political allegiance is set to be monitored in the same way.

As the New York Times reports, in the new governance model called “Fengqiao,” named after a town during the Mao era where residents were encouraged to “re-educate” the politically incorrect, neighborhoods are divided into “grids” where loyal cadres observe and report the behavior, attitudes and comings and goings of individuals and households. Citizens are then designated by color code: green for “trustworthy,” yellow for “needing attention” and orange for “strict control.”

President Xi Jinping extolls the Fengqiao model as a means to create “zero distance” from the people so the Communist Party can be tuned in and responsive to their daily needs and concerns without resorting to freedom of expression or periodic elections as in Western-style democracies.

In his insightful book, “The Chinese Communist Party As Organizational Emperor,” Zheng Yongnian gives some credence to this “zero distance” approach. Looking at the “reform and opening up era” of the post-Mao decades, he calls it “inclusive hegemony,” a “dual process of legitimation and domination” that has mutually transformed both the Party and civil society.

“By taking into account the interests of other social forces and linking it to its own,” Zheng argues, the Party has necessarily been “self-transformed” as a service provider responding to public concerns, thus cementing its dominance. In that way, a kind of systemic accountability is established where allegiance is tested if the Party doesn’t deliver on its promises.

The Australian scholar John Keane has observed that, in some ways, China could be considered a “phantom democracy” in which, paradoxically, “the fear of democracy forces a style of political management that in many ways mirrors and mimics electoral democracies, where the fear of elections puts leaders in a constant campaign mode.”

This system of “adaptive authoritarianism” seems to have worked in the years from Mao’s demise to Xi’s rise when China climbed rapidly to the top ranks of the global economy. One must wonder whether it will fail in the future if Xi’s Fengqiao model becomes only a one-way street where repression replaces adaptation and hegemony is enforced from the top instead of legitimated through inclusiveness from below. 

India’s Digital Patronage Apps

Over the last 10 years, India appeared to be headed toward a de facto one-party state presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Though his high personal popularity returned the autocratic-minded leader to office in elections concluded this week, his ambitions appear to have been dented for the moment by a stronger-than-expected showing by the opposition parties — most likely due to the overreach of Modi’s polarizing Hindu supremacist rhetoric against Muslims in an ostensibly secular state.

Still, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party remains by far the dominant player, receiving the vast share of votes and dwarfing all other parties in parliament. The B.J.P. accomplished this in no small measure by effectively utilizing a national database linked to cash handouts and provision of staples from the central government to secure votes in a country of 1.4 billion that is still 80% rural and poor.

According to the New York Times, during the COVID pandemic, over 820 million people became entitled to 11-pound sacks of rice or wheat each month, a program the Modi government has spent $142 billion to extend, even putting his face on the deliveries. The B.J.P. government has also helped build millions of small houses as well as expand the availability of toilets and safe drinking water while announcing plans to raise the minimum wage nationally.

In 2014, Modi established “P.M.” branded bank accounts for all Indians who didn’t have them, registered through universal digital-biometric IDs, thus providing financial data on many millions of families to the government.

With that information, a program of “direct benefit transfers” (small payments in the range of $70-$80) into the accounts of the poor was set up to bypass disbursement through corrupt local officials and convey that the welfare handouts came from Modi himself. The B.J.P. government thus established a direct link with households in the deepest reaches of the enormous nation by responding to the real needs of so many who were left behind.

Without doubt, Modi’s programs have improved the lives of the poorest, especially in the so-called Hindu-heavy “cow belt,” appreciation for which he has sought to reap through their political allegiance. To do so, local party workers in the campaign used an app called Saral to access the personal profile of dispersals to all voters in a given polling zone through information gathered from the record of various transactions. Those voters were then contacted personally to remind them of Modi’s beneficence when heading to the polls.

Conjoining the newest technologies of connectivity with old-style politics — ward bosses to keep constituencies in line and patronage in exchange for loyalty — is the dream of autocrats everywhere who seek to perpetuate their rule or the rule of their parties, elections or not.

To the extent that what we may call “autocratic connectivity” remains an adaptive two-way street where feedback from below is heard and heeded, such a system appears politically sustainable without the liberal freedoms so cherished in the West.

If it works in the two largest nations on the planet, others may see it as their future as well.