Thursday, February 3, 2022
It's Thursday, February 3rd, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
China, Covid, the Winter Olympics, and the Surveillance State — Totalitarianism Tightens its Grip
We're going to go to China, first of all, today because the winter Olympic games of 2022 will be beginning on Friday, that's tomorrow, and of course is taking place in the area of Beijing but also in the environs around it, the Olympic games are a massive endeavor. In this particular case, we confront a host of moral issues, most of them beginning and ending with the word China, with the name of that nation.
With the realization that this Olympiad is going to be held in Beijing at the very moment that it is becoming absolutely impossible to deny the malign influence and designs of the Communist party in Beijing, at the very same time. It has now basically re-militarized to an extent that was not even foreseen by American intelligence, a matter of just a couple of decades ago. We see the repression of Hong Kong, the absolute denial even of the treaty obligations under Hong Kong, the absolute crushing of democracy groups there. We also see threats against Taiwan. We are looking at a very assertive China under the direction of the Chinese Communist party, and we also see President Xi Jinping becoming basically the autocrat for life, at least, to this point, as the leader of the Communist party and as the leader of an increasingly openly repressive state.
When we're looking at China, we're looking at a state that was already repressive. We're looking at a Communist party that has already intruded into the most private decisions of life. It reminds us of the necessity of the word totalitarian, a word that basically became known to most people in the west only in the 20th century. There are people yet who use the word and don't understand what it means. Let's just go back to, say, the medieval monarchy. Was the monarch a totalitarian leader? Rarely so, almost in most cases not so. When you go back to the Roman Caesars, were they totalitarian? No, not really.
So, if you're talking about the Soviet regime being totalitarian, if you're looking at regimes such as Bonito Mussolini's Italy and Fascist Germany as you are looking at China today, or say North Korea, and we talk about a totalitarian system, what are we talking about? What makes a totalitarian system totalitarian? Remember the word total, that is the basis for the term, means that there is an erasure of public and private. It means that there is a total claim of power, authority over all that is made by the government. It means that in a totalitarian regime, there is no zone of the private. That means not the family, that means not individual conscience, it means no voluntary associations, it means not churches. It means that the state, and the state alone, makes an absolutely total claim.
The wreckage of the 20th century in the former Soviet Union, and right now in what we can see, in places like North Korea and China, what we see is full evidence of the fact that totalitarian regimes are based upon a basic idolatry of the regime. Most of them, especially those rooted in Marxism and in Communism, are officially atheistic. That doesn't mean that there is no claim of ultimate authority. It just means that it has been shifted from God to the state. In the case of China, Xi Jinping is the representation of the state. When it comes to North Korea, even when there is acknowledged state worship of the leader, you're looking at Kim Jong Un as someone who is actually recognized as a deity, not just the dear leader.
But as you look backward in history, it may well be true that many of those governments would have liked to have been totalitarian, but they just couldn't pull it off. That points to something else. Totalitarianism, in the sense we know it today, is only possible in the modern world. It's only possible with modern transportation, modern communication, modern propaganda. If you go backwards in history to the ancient world, just think of, say, Alexander the Great or the Roman emperors, if you go to the medieval world and you think about the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, you just go even into the early modern world, why was totalitarianism less possible then?
It was because they didn't have the apparatus of surveillance. It's because they did not have the technologies of control. It is because, given the organic nature of the fact that society was overwhelmingly agricultural, the family was simply made very clearly instrumental if you wanted to have a crop. If you want to feed your people, you're going to have to respect the family. But modernity has brought new opportunities for the emergence of true totalitarianism, and there is no example currently in the world for us today on anything like the scale of China but China.
As you're looking at China, you recognize that you're looking at a population that simply defies imagination. You say, "How could that government, how could the Communist party, how could all of its apparatus claim to have any kind of realistic control over the individual and private lives of hundreds of millions of people?" And the answer is because they break it down with a diabolical order.
A recent report in the New York Times tells us that government agents are broken down with local responsibility so that there is one surveillance officer for every 250 people. Now, just think about that. Think about the expanse of China. Think about the population of China. Think about how many surveillance officers are required to get to that ratio of one to 250. But there's more to it than that because modernity has also brought the technologies of the modern surveillance state.
Now, before we just look at China's responsibility and how it is using and abusing the surveillance state, how it is basically coming up with the state-of-the-art surveillance applied to virtually all of its citizens, we need to recognize that to some extent, we are all in danger of living in a surveillance state. We're being watched all the time. You're looking at the fact that we have smart phones that follow us wherever we go. You are looking at the reality that there are towers, cell towers, and communication towers that can quickly plot someone's location. You're looking at so much that is being loaded into our cars, into our vehicles, into our plane reservations, into our purchases made online. For that matter, not even just online. Your credit card knows where you are and where you have been and what you're buying and what your habits are.
But then you also have the fact that increasingly, people in western nations, including the United States, appear to be tolerant of having cameras put at road intersections, cameras looking at sidewalks, cameras watching consumer activities in stores, cameras going all the way into the most intimate areas of private life. Every new technology brings new opportunities for employment in the surveillance state. Apple's AirTags, as they are known, are now assumed to be widely abused by people seeking to track the movement and location of others.
As you go to many major cities around the world, you at least should be aware, maybe you're comforted by it, maybe you're threatened by it, you should be aware of the fact that cameras are watching very many of your moves, if not virtually all of your moves. One recent report said that the city of London has so many cameras that it is impossible for anyone to disappear for long in that city. At least, if they're going to come up for air, they're going to go out to eat, they're going to go to the grocery store, they're going to go to any kind of medical clinic, they're going to go to any place of business, they're going to be seen. Facial recognition software makes it possible to identify people on a scale that was never even imagined by the totalitarians of the 20th century.
The Ratchet Effect and a Warning: When Government Claims New Powers, It Almost Never Gives Them Back
But there's yet another issue that has changed the entire equation, and you just need to think about this for a moment. The other big game changer is COVID. COVID became the pretext for so many governments around the world to vastly increase the intrusion of the surveillance state into private life. The New York Times article's actually about the era of COVID controls continuing after the virus. Now, by the way, that gets to a very major insight, a principle. It's very important to worldview analysis. We should be thinking about this. It's often referred to as the Ratchet Effect.
The Ratchet Effect comes down to this. When you have a ratcheting, it doesn't often loose. When you have a government that ratchets up to say it's meeting this challenge, it gains new powers, it claims new authority, it concocts new forms, it charges new taxes, it keeps new records. When the crisis is past, the government does not retreat. It ratchets up, it never ratchets down.
That is on a Communist scale what's going on in China. That means unapologetic to the service of the Communist party and the regime. You have a trio of reporters, Chris Buckley, Vivian Wang, and Keith Bradsher, and they're telling us, "The pandemic has given Xi Jinping, China's top leader, a powerful case for deepening the Communist party's reach into the lives of 1.4 billion citizens." Again, that is 14-hundred-million citizens. "Filling out his vision," says the paper, "how the country is a model of secure order in contrast to what the Chinese describe as the chaos of the west. In the two years since officials isolated the city of Wuhan, in the first lockdown of the pandemic, the Chinese government has honed its powers to track and corral people backed by upgraded technology, armies of neighborhood workers, and broad public support."
Now, as you're thinking about those three issues here, we're told that this is backed up by, number one, upgraded technology. You can figure that out. The technology moves in one direction, more control, more sophistication, more intrusion, more powers, including, just to give that example, facial recognition software. So, the first issue here is upgraded technology. The second is what I referred to earlier, armies of neighborhood workers. A surveillance state has a bureaucracy, a massive bureaucracy. You do the math. You're talking about 1.4 billion people and one of these officers for every 250 people. You're talking about a massive army of surveillance workers.
Now, remember that this is the same Chinese Communist Party that back during the period from the 1970s until very recently had the notorious one-child policy that basically told couples they could have only one child and then came forced sterilization, sometimes forced abortion, sometimes forced infanticide to enforce what should be left to the decision of the family, and not to mention just the animus against life in this case. But again, the Communist Party makes a total claim, and that means that it is most valuable, not human life.
The very essence of totalitarianism is a denial of human dignity and the sanctity of human life. By the way, I also have to come back and say that the very essence of totalitarianism really does imply secularism because you have to idolize the state. You have to turn the state into an idol. Any acknowledgment of God on the part of the government, even on the part of the people, is a fatal compromise to the totalitarian vision.
Now, how does COVID play such a direct role here? The New York Times tells us, "The foundation of the controls is the health code. Local authorities working with tech companies generate a user's profile based on location, travel history, test results, and other health data. The code's color, green, yellow, or red determines whether the holder is allowed into buildings or public spaces. Its use is enforced by legions of local officials with the power to quarantine residents or restrict their movements."
Let's go back to what Christians have known about the Communist Party in China. It's repression of Christians. It's cracking down of churches. It's destruction of church buildings. It's imprisonment, and even at least in the early years of the regime, it's execution of Christians. It's absolute insistence of a totalitarian atheism at the very center of Chinese identity. We're looking, of course, at the continued genocide against the Uyghur people that is going on right now. The Uyghurs are an oppressed Muslim group. The total state has to make a total claim. It can only exist if it is an official idolatry in the place of any acknowledgment of a transcendent God.
But the biggest issue here ought to be our surprise that the first issue we are told in this new upgrade of the government control in China is the technology. The second is armies of neighborhood workers. The third is broad public support. Now, that's where we need to pause for a moment. The surveillance technology and the surveillance workers, those would make sense as we think about how a government would work with this intention. Interestingly, this came up, just in a report that arrived in the last couple days about Vietnam, where we are told that Vietnam has been quite "successful," put that in quotation marks, in confronting the challenge of COVID, and it is because the government has taken control of even more of the society. That has come with broad public support.
That raises the question, what kind of people would go along with this? Who thinks this is a good idea? Well, this is where we need to understand that the propaganda aims of the totalitarian regimes and the totalitarian forces of education, they have been remarkably successful. The Chinese Communist Party, using all the apparatus under its control now for so many decades, has been incredibly effective at telling people that their reason for existence is the service of the state. In telling people that the most important parent is the communist party, not their biological parents. In telling people that they must surrender their own personal autonomy, their personal liberty, even their personal identity, even their most intimate personal information to the service of the state.
A figure such as George Orwell in the 20th century understood that one of the powers of a totalitarian regime was its power to convince people that their subservience to the state would bring about a greater good. Of course, once you have the state in that position, the state also gets to define what is the greater good. That is the horrifying circle of a totalitarian ideology. Eventually, the government becomes so total that it defines reality even for citizens who can see with their own eyes that it's not true. If the party says it's true, it's true.
But then this week, along comes a report by Christian Shepherd in the Washing Post, the headline is, "China's Finally Crafted Web of Digital Surveillance for the Beijing Olympics has been Years in the Making." So, put this together, it's really important to recognize that on the one hand, we're looking at the fact that China's been building this surveillance state for a matter of decades and COVID fast-forwarded the acceleration of the intrusions into personal life, where the average Chinese citizen can now be tracked everywhere he or she goes with everyone he or she meets. Tracking everyone and every business transaction, every social engagement, and using the power of the surveillance state to say, "You can gain entrance to this building. You can come into this city or you can't. You can get on this train or you can't. You can fly on this plane or you can't. You can see this individual or you can't."
But then it turns out the international community has just given the Chinese Communist party an additional incentive to expand and explode the power of the surveillance state, and that was awarding Beijing the Olympics. The Beijing Olympics, as this report in the Washington Post makes very clear, is going to be a remarkable demonstration of the threat of digital surveillance. For that reason, by the way, many westerners have been told, "Do not even take your own cellphones into the country. Buy a so-called burner phone, traditionally used by criminals. Don't take any kind of technology into the country that could be used to track you before or after. Just understand that while you're there, the state is going to know everywhere you are, with everyone you meet, everything you write, everything you say, everything you hear. You just have to assume that is all being surveilled. It's all being collected. But if you take your own technology, eventually that may follow you when you go back to Paris or Budapest or Boston."
Christian Shepherd, in this report, says that in trying to justify internally and externally this vast expansion of the surveillance state with the Olympics, the Chinese Communist party's just come back to say, "Well, this is necessary to assure the protection of the Olympics, the security of the Olympics, the well-functioning of the Olympics." You add the Olympics and COVID together and you have this massive coercive effect. Remember that Ratchet Effect? This massive ratcheting up of the government right in public and with the international community cooperating by sending its athletes to compete.
But at this point, my guess is that our consideration of this issue has been uncomfortable and of concern for, say, American Christians or Christians in free countries, but we thought that's not really about us. Well, ask yourself seriously, is it? What about our own country? What about our own increase of the surveillance state? What about the use of COVID and COVID, especially, although there are other impetuses, but COVID particularly for the state to claim it has the authority to collect even more information on you to track your movements, to enforce your social distancing. What about all of this?
There are many who say this is just a matter of a far-right conspiracy theory to say that we should be concerned about this. But let me just ask you honestly, how can we be concerned about this in China and say that we're not concerned about it in the United States? Now, to be sure, it's not the same thing. We're not looking at a Communist Party claiming totalitarian control, but it is the same thing when you look at the technology if it used in the same way. If you're not thinking about this, I think you should be thinking about this.
Gerard Baker, writing in his influential column at the Wall Street Journal, remember this is the Wall Street Journal, offered a recent warning with the headline "COVID Restrictions and Other Overreach Bring America Toward a Libertarian Moment." Now, Baker offers a hopeful side of this. That is that maybe Americans are waking up to this kind of threat and understanding that, not just when it comes to COVID policies but many other things, government overreach is simply what government does. Without the vigilance of the citizenry, it's what government will continue to do. So, he's writing with at least some hope that all of this has awakened Americans to what he calls a libertarian moment, that is to understand not so much that they want to join some kind of libertarian movement but that they must act to protect liberty.
Baker references the Ratchet Effect. He does so this way. "The rising fear among American conservatives since the early days of the COVID pandemic has been that the nation would emerge from the crisis significantly less free." He explains it this way, "It's an unease rooted in the historic reality of one of the most powerful laws of human governance, the Ratchet Effect. Once introduced, rules almost always get more expansive, seldom more limited. Taxes levied for a temporary exigency become perpetual obligations. Government agencies built to administer some specific function are absorbed into the permanent bureaucracy."
If you're looking at this just in crass political terms, the bureaucracy almost always wins. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, pledging to end the Department of Education, to put it out of its existence. By the time he left office, the Department of Education not only continued to exist, it had grown in its funding. But then you ask yourself the question, "How could this overwhelmingly popular Republican president who had made this pledge seriously, how could he fail in eliminating the Department of Education?" Well, it's because as you look at how bureaucracies work, over time, too many people owe their jobs, owe their status, owe their salaries, they owe some kind of benefit to the Department of Education. That includes members of Congress, without whom nothing like this could fundamentally change. That explains why government is virtually never reduced in size and scope and spending. Even when you have Republicans talk about cutting back spending, they're usually only actually cutting back increases in future spending. The bureaucracy always wins.
Baker ominously raises the fact that in the United States, this Ratchet Effect has included not only matters of the expansion of bureaucracy and the intrusion of information and the collection of data about Americans, but he writes, "Worst of all, the authoritarian instinct this time has reached deeper into the once-sacred field of free speech. We have the marginalizing and even outright ostracizing of heretics who dare challenge the authority's narrative."
It's exactly what's going on.
The Bureaucracy Always Wins: How Covid Has Served as an Catalyst For Growth in Government Size and Spending
But finally today, as we think about these issues, I want to end with an explicitly Christian reference. I want to think as Christians about totalitarianism and recognize, I want to make a thesis. My thesis I want to offer is this. Without robust Christian faith, totalitarianism is inevitable.
That's because the Christian faith, deeply rooted in belief in a sovereign God understands that there could be no ultimate allegiance to any human entity, to any human authority. Not only to any human being but to any human government. It is theism, most fundamentally, and thankfully there are those who at least hold to some form of theism around the world, who understand that ultimate allegiance cannot be given to the state.
That's why my thesis comes down to a second thesis. That is that in an increasingly secularized culture, totalitarianism, both in its subtle and less-than-subtle forms becomes a far more powerful temptation. The big question in the United States, by the way, is whether or not we can now see the emergence of an even new form of totalitarianism, something that was unexpected and could only have arrived with Silicon Valley and the technologies of the digital revolution. We're looking at the fact that it may not be, in the case of our society, that the only entity we have to watch in terms of control is government. It may be that you're looking at some forms of big business, big Hollywood, big entertainment.
Just think of everyone who knows exactly what you're streaming on your digital devices and exactly what interests you. Just consider the fact that totalitarianism might come in more than one form. Just consider today's cancel culture and recognize that right out in the open you have political and cultural authorities saying that they should judge whether you can even watch what you watch, hear what you hear. Just extend that from the world of entertainment into the world of your local church meeting or you trying to establish a Christian school that would actually be established on Christian principles and operate on Christian truth.
My friend, Rod Dreher, sometimes refers to this as soft totalitarianism. I think he's right, but I don't think that's the right term because I don't think totalitarianism is ever soft. I'll simply say that I see it as seductive totalitarianism. When it comes, it won't be soft. It'll be just as hard as the Chinese Communist Party, although perhaps a lot more subtle and a lot more seductive.
Plenty for Christians to think about.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to Twitter.com\albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.