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In the not-so-early twenty-first century, I’ve found myself in Shenzhen, “China’s Silicon Valley,” home to tech giants Huawei, Tencent, DJI, and ZTE. Here, I’ve had to negotiate the tensions between the city’s technological realities—Big Data, AI, robotics, fintech, and the digital surveillance state more generally—and my Western democratic ethos. Neither rejecting nor blindly acquiescing to my technologized existence, I’ve instead come to see technology as a danger to and deliverance of my truths. Often, I reflect on those conflicts between my technologically-infused Shenzhen experiences and pledge to American-style liberty. For flashpoints in my daily life often disclose the limits of my freedoms and my philosophical commitments to them. These conflicts just might serve me as a “royal road” to my existence. The following is a composite sketch of various regular events and experiences, a hymn to my technologized being.
6:30-7:00am: Welcome to the Machine
After waking up, I grab my smartphone beside my bed. Checking news and my Gmail account is a daily annoyance, one that, back in 2016 when I arrived in Shenzhen, I believed I was prepared to accept. The problem with consuming Western media in China is not the WiFi connection in my apartment, however. The issue is the “Great Firewall”—that is, China’s internet censorship. To freely access, say, American news, I need to turn on my VPN, or Virtual Proxy Network, which, by hiding my Chinese IP address, produces an encrypted tunnel for data and shields my online identity. My VPN uses a Hong Kong IP address, a rich irony. But VPNs are never wholly reliable—mine requires frequent rebooting, compelling me to consider my firm dedication to the principles of press freedom, the free exchange of ideas. Almost every time the VPN fails, Enlightenment thinkers’ sayings flit across my mind—such as the one wrongly credited to Voltaire, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”1
7:00-8:00am: Mobile Censorship
I only have a half hour of peace before construction—a fact of waking life in our megalopolis—commences right outside my window. During the fleeting respite, I dress, eat breakfast, and choose: listen to Vinyl or stream music via YouTube, Apple Music, or Spotify. The electronic option it is, though this choice requires a VPN as well. Yet even with this workaround, I cannot download songs through Apple Music. Spotify was blocked in 2020; it isn’t for me today. We Westerners understand why overtly politically sensitive information is restricted—such as an article about the Xinjiang internment camps—but we never truly know the rhyme or reason behind most Chinese Communist Party decisions. With a flick of a switch in Beijing, in fact, internet access to anything other than official party organs can be completely blocked, as it routinely is during the yearly meetings of the National Congress of the CCP. Ignoring this censorship is impossible, especially because technology infuses almost every aspect of my life. I could, it’s true, turn to Chinese media alternatives, for example, Bilibili, a Chinese video streaming website, the nearest thing that China has to YouTube. Obviously, the content is not the same. There’s also the language barrier.
8:00-8:30am: Mobile Surveillance
It is time to walk to work—that is, to lower campus. Every elevator is surveilled. During the early days of COVID, from January to March 2020, public safety posters plastered elevator walls, while campus security officers monitoring those elevators via cameras reprimanded those who did not conform on WeChat, a social messaging app developed by the Shenzhen-based technology conglomerate Tencent. Security guards are, in fact, ever-present, not just during big political events but at entrances to most public spaces, such as malls and restaurants. Those guards check the QR-code on our smartphones that alerts them whether we have visited COVID hotspots or been protected by a China-approved vaccine. A comfort washes over me when observing these precautions, especially when hearing stories about what’s gone on back in the States, while such checks simultaneously clash with thoughts about the Big Data purposes to which personal data is put, such as potentially restricting my movement.
8:30-9:00am: Facial Recognition
To exit upper campus, I pass through pedestrian gates, opened with a now habitual wave of my campus ID across an electronic sensor or by being identified by a facial recognition system that matches my face from a digital image stored by university officials. This system tracks and allows entrance to and exit from campus buildings, above all libraries. Then, I walk by a small park, in which drones buzzed and blared public health messages and directives during the height of the 2020 lockdown. I don’t use a crosswalk, knowing full well, as reported in South China Morning Post, that Shenzhen traffic police employ AI, Big Data, and facial recognition technologies to name, chasten, and fine jaywalkers—by way of text.2 A credit rating and blacklist rolled out in 2014, China’s Social Credit System, disregards any claim one might have made to their right to privacy.
9:00am-12:00pm: The (Hazardous) Ease of E-Cash
My trek clocked in at around twenty minutes. Having made my way down to lower campus, I pass by a university “surveillance room” (yes, its English name). The room has tinted windows; I’ve never been inside but, at night, see the glow of screens. I then purchase my morning coffee at “Symposium,” a student-run coffee shop named after Plato’s famous text. This requires using, not Rénmínbì notes or coins, China’s official currency, but WeChat Pay (via a QR-code), which is linked to my Chinese bank account. With another now habitual wave of my smartphone, payment is frictionless, and I’m off. My resistance to WeChat Pay once ran deep, and, until a year or so ago, I only gave cash to cashiers—they responded with furrowed brows. My defiance was, admittedly, partly because of habit, but it also stemmed from measured apprehension about just how e-cash is easy to track and simply from frustration. I wanted to shout, “This is legal tender, people!” Eventually, I make my way to my office, where I prepare for my afternoon classes.
12:00-1:00PM: “Smart” Social Media
Lunchtime, a stretch of the day when I find most others texting and checking current events or media—all on the WeChat app. I eat with friends; one, a European who lived in Mexico for upwards of a decade, protests the ubiquity of smartphones. To my friend’s eyes, most are simply disengaged. A new Australian word, yet to be adopted by fellow Americans, has only recently entered my vocabulary, “Phubbing”: the act of snubbing someone by looking at your phone in a social setting. But WeChat culture, another friend objects, has serious “real world” consequences. For example, when China closed the LGBT WeChat accounts of Fudan University’s Zhihe Society and Tsinghua University’s Wudaokou Purple in June 2021, the Chinese were divided; most whom I knew courageously opposed the government’s decision on WeChat – without the little rainbow flags in people’s profile pics and WeChat’s in-built English translation option I might have never known.3
1:00PM-1:30PM: “Smart” Consumption
My own phone usage has undoubtedly increased since moving here. One can’t live or move around without QR-codes being checked regularly. In America, traveling alone somewhat ensures one’s anonymity and ease of movement; it’s a way not to be noticed. In China, in contrast, traveling with a group is precisely what allows for easier movement, whereas traveling alone attracts authorities’ attention and the required wave of the smartphone and checking of QR-codes. In this way, I have been forced to acclimate to my technologized reality. I’ve yet to be fine-tuned nevertheless: when a friend makes an expensive e-purchase on Alibaba’s TaoBao app, it, shockingly, snaps a photo—without consent—to confirm the buyer’s identity. I cringe; this technological moment sends a surge of discord running up and down my spine. Yet the convenience of this e-commerce in China is clear: the item will be delivered via the world’s largest courier delivery system, with vendors dispensing the goods to a network of self-service package drop-off and pick-up stations (there are 170,000 banks of lockers in China) run by Hive Box, established in Shenzhen in 2015. At the pandemic’s peak, the Chinese came to believe that this system was essential, a part of public health protocols.
1:30-5:30pm: Lost and Found at the Lectern
My classes run smoothly. When a student nudges me to broach a politically sensitive topic, I avoid it, partly out of an acute sense that I am but a guest here. However, this caution is also a shift from how I might have responded when I first arrived a half decade ago. Since then, the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, triggered by the proposed legislation of the Hong Kong extradition bill, have changed the political (and personal) equation. Nearly two million joined one June 2019 demonstration in Hong Kong; a significant portion of the disruption was organized by university students. Video cameras, like in my apartment building’s elevator, hanging in the corner of every lecture hall ought to make me pause, though I’ve never much felt the danger about who’s watching. More than once, in fact, I’ve been glad they’re there: I’ve forgotten belongings—a zip drive (a technological relic) or my smartphone are two good examples—on the lectern. Having been raised in New York City, I expect that in such cases the item will be gone for good. But whether I return to the scene of my forgetfulness a few hours or a few days later, voilà!—the forgotten item is always there, waiting. To what extent does the constant surveillance deter, by way of instilling caution, theft?
5:30-6:00pm: The Way Home, Hopefully
My walk home is similar to my morning walk down—except that a self-driving car, developed by the campus Robotics and AI Lab, almost runs me over. This is a literal threat to my Shenzhen existence. My commute is also interrupted by security guards, who, in response to a minor COVID outbreak in a neighboring province, check my temperature with a temp gun and give me a thermal scan via the facial recognition system. Per China’s zero-tolerance policy, a temperature over 38 °C would have forced me into weeks of quarantine. This coordinated and now standard response to COVID has spread the reach of the Chinese government, and I remain, at least regarding public health measures, ambivalent about it. In the end, with daily reminders of how technologically-infused Shenzhen experiences could have sent me elsewhere, I safely make it home.
Expatriates from Western countries I’ve met circulate a truism to soothe the pain of cultural disorientation: “You don’t change China; China changes you.” The saying makes me not only chuckle, but also wonder about the unresolved tensions between the technological realities around me and my commitments to Western liberty. By freedom, we Westerners chiefly mean self-realization through choice—that is, forging the self within an open vista of possibilities, one neither limited by “instincts” nor by a repetition of the past. Such a freedom seems, to me, in ways increasingly distant from my life in Shenzhen.
In particular, academic freedom isn’t something to be fought or recovered here. It simply doesn’t exist the way we know it in the West. Westeners and Chinese faculty all know which hard lines not to cross, but some boundaries are less clear. Even writing this I have murmurs of misgivings in my mind. Have I triggered the bots? Regardless, private reflection on the decaying public discourse in America and fellow citizens’ irresponsible uses of their freedom of speech and press dismay me.
And yet: working hand in hand with this palpable loss of freedom and agency in Shenzhen has been a freedom from the anxiety of life as a member of the academic precariat, a social class that I had belonged to for my entire adult life. Further, my technologized being-in-Shenzhen has opened my eyes to shifting geo-political dynamics. German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel saw Napoleon as “the world-soul on horseback,” as embodying how the human world was changing in the early nineteenth century.4 Does the spirit of world history pass before my eyes, with every smartphone swipe, every AI algorithm, every facial recognition system?
Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 15 Waterloo Pace, 1906), 199. ↩
“Jaywalkers under surveillance in Shenzhen soon to be punished via text messages,” https://www.scmp.com/tech/china-tech/article/2138960/jaywalkers-under-surveillance-shenzhen-soon-be-punished-text, accessed November 3, 2021. ↩
See “China divided as WeChat deletes LGBT accounts from platform,” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-57759480, accessed November 4, 2021. ↩
G.W.F. Hegel, October 13, 1806 letter to F. I. Niethammer, number 74 (p. 119) in Briefe von und an Hegel, ed. Hoffmeister, vol. 1 (1970). ↩