Inside China’s High-Tech Dystopia

Inside China’s High-Tech Dystopia


There’s no disputing that Shenzhen has become one of the most important places in the world of tech. Nowhere else has quite as potent a combination of tech know-how, cheap manufacturing costs, and sheer speed. But it goes further than that. Living in Shenzhen is in many ways like living in the future. And not necessarily a utopian future. More like the other kind. Consider Zowee. Zowee operates a factory much like any other in Shenzhen. They make cheap smartphones and other electronics. Like other top manufacturers, they’ve built a complex where workers can live right beside the factory line, work around the clock for a couple of years, and hopefully buy a better life for their families back home. The factories here are clean, and the work is precise. But things are changing quickly in a way that does not favor the common man and woman. All the rest of these lines are staffed by about 80 people, but right here there are new machines coming online that are going to build a smartphone end-to-end completely by robots. The end goal of something like this is to get the quality of the products higher, to bring costs down from less labor, and ultimately to keep China as the manufacturing hub of the world and fend off low-priced competition from places like Southeast Asia. The factory of the future looks like this. It’s a closed off loop where robots pass components among each other, and finished products pop out at the end. All those workers have been replaced by one lonely final inspector. It’s a strong sign that the future of Shenzhen is less for these guys… …and more for these guys. Zowee actually builds these automation machines itself. Behind me are some of China’s best and brightest engineers, hard at work building the machines you see out on the floor today, and the ones that are coming tomorrow that are going to automate the entire factory line. Nowhere will face more turmoil than Shenzhen as the robots rise and send millions of workers to the unemployment line. But it’s not just the working class that’s facing a dark future. There are dystopian innovations that seem to touch every facet of life here. I ran into one example of this while attempting to rehydrate. After some investigation, I discover what’s going on here, and it has to do with these things: QR codes. You know the drill. You scan the code and something pops up on your phone, like a promotion or discount. America laughed these things off years ago, but here, they run the entire economy. Cash and credit cards are history. Instead you scan QR codes to pay for everything: restaurants, groceries, even buskers. On the surface this is all good. It’s the easy, convenient mobile payment system of the future. But there’s also a dark side. The Chinese government can peer into the two dominant payment systems, AliPay and WeChat, as it sees fit. It’s already started tracking behavior as part of a plan to rank citizens and measure how good and obedient they are. The tech revolution may have brought prosperity to Shenzhen but it’s also brought more and more insidious intrusions into people’s lives. To dig deeper into life under the Chinese deep state, I’ve assembled a team of extraordinary foreigners who work at tech startups in Shenzhen. Hopefully a few beers will encourage them to open up about their thought crimes. Living in a very tightly regulated Communist country – does that bother you, or you don’t care? The presumption at least that I got before I came from Australia was sort of like moving into a sort of like a militarized state, like things are going to be really intense. But like, you take a beer, just like walk down the road, hang out in the park, fine. Do that back in my hometown in Australia, like, straight to the cop-house. But then, play spikeball on the grass, and then all of a sudden the cops come and stop you. Well and you got, you jaywalked and you had facial recognition? I actually got this. So I was jaywalking in Nanxian. And all of a sudden I got a fine to my WeChat. Was it instant? It was about 20 seconds after, I guess. I had money in my balance and it just went straight out. This is just for the one thing – it just came straight out. Didn’t even authorize it. That’s crazy. It’s true. Try to jaywalk in certain parts of Shenzhen, and the government’s facial recognition will spot you. There’s even a board of shame, showing the faces of recent offenders. I’m surprised and very very worried that they have your face in the facial recognition – like, the facial recognition system. But they have everyone’s though. When you go across the border they take that picture, exactly, yeah. So it’s all in the system, they know where you are. That’s scary. It gets even scarier. Because big brother is watching what you do online too. Most of the websites we know and love are blocked in China, replaced with Chinese equivalents that the government can monitor: a sort of mirror universe internet. I asked my friend Diane, a Shenzhen native, to help break this down. Appropriately enough, she took me to this restaurant staffed entirely by robots. That’s some gnarly-looking chicken. Is that chicken? Mmm… robot food. I wanted you to help you out with one thing. So if I sorta call out a U.S. tech company, can you tell me the Chinese equivalent? Because you know, you can’t get Instagram or anything here, so. Let’s do a few. So Google would be… Baidu. And Amazon… is like, both JD.com and also Taobao OK. And, and, um. YouTube? Youqu. Youqu, Iqiyi. Facebook? Facebook we have WeChat. Yeah. Do you feel like you’re in a different universe? All the online stuff is such a big part of all our lives. And it seems like China has created its own world. Yeah, that’s definitely like that. But like I said, for for like Instagram, I was surprised to see even – Instagram got banned from China, but all the young people, they’re there. Still go. Yeah. It turns out it is possible to access the freedom-loving internet here, via what’s called a VPN: an alternate internet connection that bypasses the government’s blocks. And you don’t get in trouble if they see that you’re on the VPN all the time? For personal use, I don’t think that’s that big of a deal, yeah. The future will be interesting for how the different worlds are collaborating together. Yeah, and definitely the young generation, they’re not like just, oh, I’m satisfied just to kind of stay inside. Yeah, they’re more curious. I came to Shenzhen hoping to find some kind of ground truth, a clear picture of what China’s growing tech prowess will mean for the rest of us. Honestly though, I’m as confused as ever. The city is full of energy, desire and creativity. But exactly how those traits are channeled in the years ahead remains an open question. My hope is that the best parts of our human nature get a chance to thrive, and that 1984 can wait a few more decades to arrive. And on that note, I leave you with this dashboard dog. Because it’s obviously good and pure and very happy.

100 thoughts on “Inside China’s High-Tech Dystopia

  1. We are way behind. Why are we call a first country. Next to china we are mostly considered a 3rd country or a country in development.

  2. The way I see it: In China the government is the almighty. Therefore they able to control almost everything in China. Whereas in the United States the corporations are the almighty. If you really think about it the internet companies Google and Facebook in the U.S , invade people privacy, collect people data and benefits of them. Corporations also ran the US government with lobbyists money and back door deals, politicians is just puppets on a string and policies are all written to benefit the top 10% which all of the top 10% are on the board of director for these corporations.

  3. Stroothe, listen to the brainwashed people not recognizing the golden cage they are in, trying to convince themselves it's an exaggeration. Dystopian fascism! .

  4. Funny ppl don't know that facebook was banned from China because it would not remove a violent terrorist group (Turkestan radicals). FB ignored Chinese govt. back in 2009 when this group brutally killed lots of Chinese civilians on the streets. The horrific attack was coordinated on facebook. As a country's leader what would your response be then if Facebook refuses to block the terrrorist group that is hurting your people? Double standards here in the west. Don't even bother to find out why and claim it is to do with 'freedom'. Well, all the press are having a field day with anti-china propaganda. Why the heck would a country go back to FB when there are so many 'I hate China' facebook groups and even 'Nuke China' Facebook approved comments.

  5. It would be interesting to look at countries comparable to the USA to see which is implementing policies that similarly raise eye brows.

    Australia passed laws meaning the government can request data from ISP's in full secrecy. This makes Australia as questionable as China when it comes to what the government can request and the secret nature of it.

    China plays with it's cards mostly on the table.

  6. China: Every step openly monitored by only votable party, all online actions eagerly evaluated, tons of things censored, active propaganda, jailed journalists and opposition, forced sterilization of undesirables.

    US: Apple doesn't even unlock a phone when the FBI pressures them, but there are maybe 40 people in Guantanamo so its exactly as bad.

    > ccp bootlicker logic

  7. WHAT THE FUCK THERE'S A BOARD OF SHAME!?!?!??!?! Made by the government? I bet so geniuses in america just cannot fucking wait for this. To "protect" us.

  8. One thing u dont know we chinese call ur weastern cities as big villages.cause u guys are so backwards and lagging behind the times.

  9. So how does this system defend against government corruption? Say you do/say something like you enjoy freedom of speech, and a red flag is triggered and you're fined $80,000. People then don't want to raise any issues because they don't want to be fined themselves, what then?

  10. 美国应该更安全点,把4G变3G吧,不用担心网络黑客了The United States should be safer, change 4G to 3G, don't worry about hackers

  11. If people working no longer is the means for providing and living , there must be a replacement. That’s the dilemma , they aren’t concerned with a replacement.

  12. It is silly either to trust people too much or do not trust at all. By the same token, the internet regulations and facial recongnition technologies are not necessarily evils (just like the internet itself). What is problematic is what they are used for. If the government uses them solely to purge deviants and to promote a bigoted ideology, then it is already in trouble. If it uses them to ensure the safety and convenience of life and restrains from controlling people's lives too tightly, then it should be fine.

  13. Califiornia is more dystopian. At least the Chinese dont have homeless shitting in the street, massive drug addiction, violence and terrorism.

  14. What you described didn't match what you concluded….Bloomberg, u are falling into the Fox pattern now, judging with emotion and prejudice : (

  15. Yeah now let's hear those idiots in support of socialism…..actually no they need to stfu because it's one more step toward this type of government…..one of the last steps before we all are living the 1984 movie for real !

  16. Public shame ! that's fucked up … public bullying that's really going to have some major backlash …. that's just so morally wrong

  17. You're never going to get real and accurate responses from Chinese citizens ….no one is going to say anything no matter how little, against their Chinese government.
    They would not just loose some points on their social credit their going to be fined outrageously and jailed and very likely death penalty if it's really bad. I mean think about it… If a guy gets automatically fined for Jay walking like that 1 Guy did…
    imagine if a Chinese citizen got on national TV and just slandered the government they would be a dead man or woman.
    Let's hear from the Chinese person that left the country because of the Chinese government. That's the only way to get an honest reply of "this sucks big time"

  18. Cellphone. SUVs. food made by robots. We've pretty much isolated ourselves from other human contact. So basically life has become meaningless. We have become true demons.

  19. Why China imposes censorship? With all these negative views on China here young people are bound to start a revolution.

  20. Soo they work to build the robots that eventually is going to put them out of work and take theyre job .. yeah that sounds dumb

  21. I would like to say that the city with most security cameras in the world is Beijing, and the second is London. I lived in Beijing for 18 years before I came to London 1 month ago. In those eighteen years I was never robbed or steal on the street. There were few cases of stealing a few years ago but recently it was ok. I came here, one of my classmate's wallet was stolen, two almost had their phone taken, one was robbed with knife.

  22. Fuck。这个大哥那这个visa还是amex就来刷刷不过就表示要屈服于泄漏隐私的qrcode,大哥你好歹拿个银联卡再来刷啊,中国内地刷不了visa的啊,bloomberg在上海香港也不少年了,还能拍出这么个玩意是反讽吗。。这大哥跟个弱智一样像是来演猴戏

  23. Don't compare the US to China.. we aren't even close to this.. heading that way, yes.. but not even close right now.

  24. I am not Chinese, but I feel that our country is also entering the dystopian era.

    Since 10 years ago, many jobs have disappeared in our country, and the gap between rich and poor has increased by 20%.
    The government continues to regulate and control the media and press.
    What is surprising is that our country is never a poor country. Nevertheless, we looks at the dystopian era.

    I don't know who can solve this huge problem.

  25. 0:35 – LOL. In Germany the minimum of distance between two (appartment-) houses has to be the sum of the half the height of each.

  26. Don't be jealous, Chinese is better than the US 100% at least they're police are not killing innocent people in their own home.

  27. If you think this is a dark future. Well, it's not. Machines were made to help us revolutionize the humankind. Not for our conveniences, so you can chill, and be lazier. No, you're totally wrong if you have that thought. It's so we can leverage machines instead of humans, and let those humans work on something else. That's more complex, and important right now. Therefore, please think ahead. For if you don't believe me, you'll get left behind. And soon, you'll be one of those laid-off workers.

  28. no such thing as full creativity or not, @Gex no such thing as foreign idea or not, cepu, think, can think any no matter what

  29. Thinking about packing up my stuff and going to China to build my drone company. Any advice out there from people who did it?

  30. the end of low productivity jobs and replacement with robots is awesome, that is how living standards increase. Or fancy being tossed into the typist pool and making 15 pounds a year?

  31. New technology called cement…. communist: build a wall to keep their citizens from leaving and shoot those that try Capitalist: build a highway for citizens to go about their life and create GDP while doing so …….. pick a side folks!!!

  32. Great video. The fact that China does this publicly is scary, but when other countries do this secretly is even scarier.

  33. As a Chinese, I want to say something. I've worked in the government, but I've also use VPN. Before you enter the government, China has political censorship. I've said a lot of anti-government words on some social media, but I'm ok,and i entered the government. It's not as serious as you said. The national monitoring is mainly limited to the most sensitive issues, not the 1984 ones. Although I have read the novel 1984,and i love this novel.The most common thing they do is delete your comments, not monitor you. Because it's easy to think that if you want to monitor, you don't have enough people and investment,there are too too much comments you need to deal with.

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