Meeting of leaders at the Belt and Road International Forum, May 2017, Beijing. CREDIT: <a href=""> Russian Presidential Press & Information Office (CC)</a>
Meeting of leaders at the Belt and Road International Forum, May 2017, Beijing. CREDIT: Russian Presidential Press & Information Office (CC)

China, Surveillance, and "Belt & Road" with Joshua Eisenman

Jun 5, 2019

Just back from China, Sinologist (and fluent Mandarin speaker) Joshua Eisenman discusses the pervasive camera surveillance and facial recognition systems there; the omnipresent power of "the security state;" the effect of the U.S.-China trade war on everyday life and future business; and the expansion of the original Belt and Road project, a term than is now applied to almost any project anywhere in the world.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: From Carnegie Council in New York City I'm Devin Stewart. This is Asia Dialogues.

Today I'm speaking with Joshua Eisenman. He's assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior fellow for China studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

Josh, great to have you back.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: It's great to be here with you, Devin. Thanks.

DEVIN STEWART: You literally just returned from a big trip to China. Tell us, where did you go and what did you see?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Devin, it's great, and it's great to be back from China. I always love going to China. In two weeks I was in five different cities. I was in Shanghai; Nanjing; Changsha, Hunan; Wuhan, Hubei; and then in Beijing.

For most of this time I was traveling around with a Chinese professor. I was speaking only Chinese. All my presentations were in Mandarin. I was presenting on my book Red China's Green Revolution and talking about how the first 30 years of Chinese development under the people's commune [system] was an essential part of the China model and interacting primarily with agricultural economists and people who study agriculture and agricultural history. It was a lot of fun for me.

I was also trying to do more research for more work, but unfortunately this time I was unable to access the same archives that I had been able to access in the past, so there really wasn't the kind of a research opportunity that I thought there was. I was able to gain some research on the 1980s, but some of the archives I had been able to access I was no longer able to access.

Although I enjoyed my interactions with these professors, there was, I believe, some pressure put on them because of my presence, which was really unfortunate and really made me feel bad, although of course I was simply talking about agricultural history. But, I guess, at this time in the U.S.–China relationship the presence of any American talking about anything political economy, even if it's not U.S.–China related, might be sensitive.

But I just spoke about my issues and I spoke about my research, which I believe is actually in accordance with the current line of the Communist Party of China—not purposefully so, but broken clocks.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say pressure put on the people you met, can you elaborate a little bit about what that looked like and what your concern is?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: I know that at least one agricultural economist who had invited me—we're looking at long-term collaboration, sending students back and forth, the real kind of people-to-people stuff that you would expect both sides to want to do—

DEVIN STEWART: Between the United States and China?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: United States and China, us hosting some of their graduate students, them hosting me as a visiting scholar on a yearly basis.

This professor got a visit by the Ministry of State Security who was asking him about why I was there and other things. I thought it was unfortunate because I was there simply as a professor. Maybe it was because when I was in Wuhan at the consulate, I also did some public diplomacy work. In Wuhan and in Shanghai and in Beijing, I was doing public diplomacy for the State Department, meeting with different people at the top institutions in China—the International Department of the Party; the Central Party School; the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), which is the think tank of the Ministry of State Security and others—along with U.S. State Department officials, to try to find an opportunity to get through our current impasse and have some progress because the U.S.–China relationship is in a really tough position right now.

So the opportunity to try to make some connections was another part of this trip, but that was a secondary part, through the presentation of research for my recent book.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you give us a sense of the kind of China that you saw going to several different cities, speaking to people primarily in Mandarin?


DEVIN STEWART: What's the picture today? Where is China at today?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: It's tough to walk into a place for two weeks and walk out, so I don't want to be the ultimate arbiter.

DEVIN STEWART: Dave Barry wrote a comedic book about that [Dave Barry Does Japan]—one week in Japan and you're an expert.


DEVIN STEWART: You shouldn't do that, right?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Well, Devin, there's the old saying: When you're in China for a week you want to write a book; when you're in China for a month you want to write an article; when you're in China for years then you don't know what the hell you're going to write so you don't write anything. That hasn't been my problem. As you know, I've been writing about China for decades.

One thing that I can say is this. I saw facial recognition software in action. I was traveling by train. Everyone who gets on a train in China has to put in their ticket, and there's facial recognition, and if the ticket corresponds to the face, then bing the light goes green and you walk through; if it doesn't, then you can't.

DEVIN STEWART: That sounds pretty advanced.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Yes, it's very advanced. This was in all of the train stations that I was in.

Not for me because I'm a foreigner, so I handed them my passport and they had a passport security check, but every Chinese had to use the system. So there's no such thing as scalping a train ticket anymore, at least for the high-speed trains, High-Speed Rail—which is a lovely system, by the way. It's extremely efficient.

But I was surprised to see the AI and facial recognition so advanced and so intermingled with the national ID card system that they have there. There is camera surveillance everywhere. On one side, people can say China is a very safe place right now. But on the other, I can tell you that there was at no point in my time there that I did not feel that there wasn't at least one or more cameras on me.

I think that, obviously, has a chilling effect on communications, freedom of speech, and other things, if people are going to want those kinds of meetings and communications. There's no way out in these cities that I was in, which are major cities—Changsha is the capital of Hunan Province, one of the largest in China, and Wuhan is the capital of Hubei Province. These are massive cities, multi-million-people cities.

At no point did I ever look up and not be able to identify multiple cameras that were at every angle. And it wasn't me, everybody is under that security. So, many people I talked to just said, "Look, we can't control any of it. We're just trying to live a better life and get by."

DEVIN STEWART: What do they mean that they can't control it? You mean there's no recourse from being surveilled? Is that what they mean?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Yes, there's no recourse, right. There's no way for them to control that.

DEVIN STEWART: The average citizen?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: The average citizen, yes. They're just going about their business, trying to do the best they can under the environment.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you give us a sense of comparison? There was a big New York Times special that was a sort of multimedia presentation of the surveillance state in China. Some of my colleagues, I think fairly, pointed out: "Well, is it really that much more intense in China than it is, say, in London or New York City?" Can you give us a sense of comparison or context?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Well, let me put it this way. Anybody who would say that just simply doesn't understand the political environment that China is in. There is no democracy. There are no protections.

There was when I was in China the discussion of a massive crackdown going on. So they were, for instance, picking up Africans or other folks that they were concerned with who were smoking marijuana, or concerned they were, and saying, "Look, we can poke a hair out of your head and test this and then send you to jail in China or you can give us 10 names." You know, 10 names and 10 names, and before you know it you've got thousands of people, and you round them up.

That kind of thing only happens because of WeChat, it only happens because of surveillance, and it can only lead to "give me 10 names" because you don't have democratic protections or any kind of rule of law that's going to ensure the protection of people who are arrested.

I'm sure the rejoinder to that is, "Well, China's a very efficient state in that regard, preventing the drug use." But people like you and me, Devin, who are liberals and who believe in rights and protections and freedoms, are appalled by it. So, anybody who would suggest that what goes in London and New York is equivalent to what's going on in China is ignorant or worse.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned before the podcast your concern about what you call "the security state" in China, its power over society. Can you give us some details on what you're concerned with? First of all, what is a security state and who controls it and why are you worried about it?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Well, if we go into Chinese history not too far back and we look at the relationship between Mao Zedong and the head of his security state, a guy named Lin Biao, we saw that towards the end, 1969 and 1970, there's reason to believe that Lin Biao had actually become more powerful that Mao Zedong, that he had rendered Mao Zedong as the bald eagle of China, where everyone studied Mao Zedong's thoughts but what Mao Zedong knew and his ability to control things was questionable. So, when Lin Biao dies in a mysterious plane crash in 1971, the accusation is he tried to usurp the power of the Party and the state.

Similarly, under Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping took out a guy named Zhou Yongkang and a guy named Bo Xilai, and both of them were accused of essentially facilitating the security state's control over the Party. Zhou Yongkang was the head of the security state; he had been accused of tapping Hu Jintao's phone and of doing other things which were extra-Party—that the Party wasn't controlling the security services, the security services were controlling the Party. These were things I bring to you as things the Party itself has said had occurred.

So there is a concern right now, and I have no way to know, but I can tell you that there are—for example, the head of Peking University is now the former Ministry of State Security vice chairman of Beijing, and that's a funny guy to put in charge of a university. And in other universities I have heard that you have increasing Ministry of State Security personnel put in leadership positions. Of course this is going to have a natural chilling effect on freedom of expression. These aren't academics. I would say that's one thing.

As I mentioned to you before, these security guys showing up at this university to harass this poor professor who was just an innocent guy who had invited somebody to talk about Chinese agricultural development in the 1970s—I can think of nothing more innocuous to talk about than that—and he had received some pressure. So, I'm concerned because how can we have a people-to-people relationship if it's uncomfortable for people?

I know that at some institutions, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center being one of them, they are seeing increasing security state presence. There shouldn't be. There should be Nanjing University and Johns Hopkins University—I'm an alumnus of that school, you're an alumnus of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)— and that school should be seen as what it is, as an important place for U.S. and China dialogue to continue. The fact that many Americans are having second thoughts about engaging in those kinds of programs, that they are finding it hard to recruit—whether it be Duke Kunshan University, New York University Shanghai, or others—it suggests that it's having a chilling effect on the relationship.

So what we need to do is get the security state out of these university relationships. We need to protect them. They are one of the most important parts of the U.S.–China relationship that has worked. If we allow the security state to come in and poison that, then we will have an entire generation of students who know nothing of each other and know nothing of China.

And that's not good for China. There won't be a Josh Eisenman to go there and give presentations in Chinese—not that I can say there will be anyway, but I can guarantee you there won't be without programs like this to encourage that kind of interaction. That would be a shame.

DEVIN STEWART: By some accounts U.S.–China relations are the worst that they have been in a long time in terms of tensions—trade tensions, mutual suspicions, a lack of cooperation, and a lack of optimism as well.

Is President Trump doing the right thing by ratcheting up the trade war to the degree he has? I think you mentioned earlier before the podcast you have actually seen some signs of the effect of the trade war on the ground in China.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Let's start with the second one first. The price of fruit in China soared. I was paying $1 an apple, and this is in Middle China, in Changsha. I gave the woman who cleaned my room a few apples and she was thrilled. The price of cherries is basically unreachable. The price of pork has gone up substantially. That could, I would guess, be mostly due to the swine flu—I don't want to attribute it all to the U.S.–China trade tension—but I think that there is some result of that because the feed prices have gone up. So there is an effect.

As one observant economist in China said to me, "We know there's a problem because the newspaper keeps saying there is no problem and that suggests there's a problem."

The U.S.–China trade relationship is more important to China than the United States, and that's just a matter of numbers because they just do so much more business here.

There are people who are looking to offshore their China business. My view is that China has a very narrow window of opportunity where it can keep these businesses in China or they're just going to move to Vietnam and Bangladesh and elsewhere, where they can have an environment that isn't subject to these vicissitudes of politics and, therefore, a more protected and more stable business relationship. China has, in my opinion, a short window of opportunity when it can do something to keep those businesses there.

In terms of your first question, which is a very important question—let's put it this way—both the Democratic and the Republican parties since Kissinger and Nixon have engaged China in a multi-pronged effort to make China a more friendly country to the United States. I do believe there has been an element of conversion of liberal proselytizing, which I've always disagreed with, as part of that effort, and it had failed. And, worse than failed, as you and I wrote, it opened numerous avenues of influence which we were loath to really address.

What Donald Trump has done is he has turned over the table. He didn't like the way the cards were dealt and he turned it over. The reason it was possible was because of malign neglect of both parties for too long. The story about Elaine Chao and others underscores the point. So Donald Trump was able to turn over the table.

I think that the Chinese were very surprised at that. They had said to me prior to his election that "he's a businessman and we know how to deal with businessmen." What I think that they had forgotten was that Donald Trump is more than just a businessman and his comments about the Japanese and the Chinese in the 1980s and 1990s are views that are deeply held in his mind.

The final point I'll make on this is that now that the table has been turned over, the question is, what policy should we pursue?


JOSHUA EISENMAN: I believe that the policy being pursued is not the correct or most correct policy that could be pursued, but it's better than doing nothing. If the idea is, whether it be through the monied interests here in New York or the folks in Washington or the folks in Beijing, that "if Donald Trump goes away our problems go away," then that is a very big mistake.

And it would be a big mistake for the Democratic party and the Democratic candidates to ignore this issue. As I believe you have observed, foreign policy is a winning issue, and if they do not address this issue, then they will have it thrown back in their face. So this is a really important moment for the Democratic Party to see what it's got, in terms of does it have a China policy which can address the concerns the American people have. Donald Trump used this issue to great success, and he used it because it was there and the American people were upset about it, and he will continue to use it. The Democratic party not really showing up on this issue is going to cost them at the polls if they don't realize how important it is to put forward a China strategy which addresses the concerns. If it simply becomes "Donald Trump wants tariffs, tariffs are bad, equals China equals good," then that is a loser, a big fat loser. What has to be is a well-thought-out China strategy.

The people who have led us astray for so long, the old China Hand community, these people need to be sidelined. If we are going to go back to these people who have given us the problems that then brought about Donald Trump, if we're going to give the ball back to them, then we are going to end up with worse than Donald Trump at the end. That is not a viable strategy.

DEVIN STEWART: Would you say it's a stone-cold loser?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Stone-cold loser.

DEVIN STEWART: That was the epithet Trump used today, by the way, in his tweet, I think.

You mentioned Elaine Chao. That's a very interesting story that you brought up in passing. I'm just curious. She's secretary of transportation, wife of Senator Mitch McConnell. I'm just curious what your interpretation of the meaning of that story is. Can you get into that a little bit?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: I have to tell you, because I just got back from China, I haven't really read the story. I saw the headline. I'm still jet-lagged so I don't want to speak too much.

But that's a relationship that has been well-known in the China-watching community for a long time and brought about great concern.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think that the newspaper—The New York Times is pointing it out as something for the public to know about—do you think that's fair?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: I think every single person on both sides of the aisle with close and continuing relationships with the people who are leading China right now should be a part of our discussion if they are going to serve the U.S. people.

Let's put it this way: What if there was a member of the Chinese leadership who had equal close and continuing relationships with American firms and political interests? I don't think that person would be able to serve in the Chinese leadership.

DEVIN STEWART: How do we avoid turning that into like a purge, like going after our fellow Americans, or even accusations of anti-Asian discrimination?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Devin, you've had Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian here on the program. She had said to us once that she has a strategy for evaluating this, and I found it quite convincing.

I think it begins with saying: Is this a person with close and continuing contacts to agents of foreign influence? That's step one. I have that, Devin, so just because somebody fits into that doesn't mean they are. That's step one.

Step two: Do they take money from the agents of foreign influence? I do not have that, so that would be a nix for me. But there are people who do—United Front group operations, the China–U.S. Exchange Foundation, etc. So that's number two.

Step three: Do they continually show up in Chinese propaganda spouting Party propaganda and defending the Party line?

I found that her argument on that was quite convincing, that if a person has these contacts long and continuing, takes this money, and then shills, you know what? That quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, looks like a duck.

If that is the kind of rigor that we're holding this to, then I think we're okay. But I think that we have to make sure about those connections first. But not everybody who knows Chinese people or knows people in the Chinese government, or even knows people in the Chinese Security Service, is necessarily an agent.

So I'm very attuned to your concerns on this issue. But once you are paid by somebody, you work for them. That's how the world works. Devin, you are paid by the Carnegie Council, so you work for the Carnegie Council. I'm paid by the University of Texas and the American Foreign Policy Council, so I work for them. Therefore, there's a loyalty that goes with working for somebody.

So I would say that I would more or less adhere to Bethany. Look, if you showed me a person who actually fit those three and somehow you could make the argument they weren't an agent of foreign influence, I would listen to your argument, but I would be dubious at the beginning because it seems those three things are good indicators.

DEVIN STEWART: Josh, let's wind up by talking a little bit about China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As you know, you and I are about to go to speak on a big panel with Impact Capital Forum, our partners who helped us put this together. It's basically a big panel on looking at the ethics of the Belt and Road Initiative as it relates to development, economics, and the ethics of countries that are receiving investments from China.

Give us a little bit of the sense of what are the politics behind the Belt and Road Initiative in Beijing, and then maybe a little bit about any of the field work you've done in countries that are receiving partnerships or investments from China and what you see on the ground there.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: In China the Belt and Road has come to mean almost everything. It has essentially become China's foreign policy now. Countries that had not been along the initial Belt and Road paths which had been published by Xinhua in the earlier period, pre-2015—now it has expanded well beyond that, and at the recent Belt and Road Forum you had countries that were well afield of that geographically.

But also it has come to be more than simply debt infrastructure finance, which when you and I wrote our Foreign Policy article a couple-or-three years ago, it was about debt infrastructure finance.


JOSHUA EISENMAN: So we were looking at the productivity of those projects, whether those projects would be efficient, and whether or not they would yield positive results.

But now the Belt and Road has grown to encompass far more than simple infrastructure finance. The question then for us—which we'll discuss tonight but we'll be discussing for years—is how to evaluate the success of Belt and Road. If the Belt and Road has grown beyond what we had initially imagined, then our markers of success need to change too.

And even the name has changed. When we started looking at this, it was the One Belt, One Road. When you change it to Belt and Road Initiative, that is by definition making it bigger. It's not "one" and "one" anymore. By the way, in Chinese the name remains the same.

But still, the issue in terms of the branding—it has become a branding exercise. I spoke at the Belt and Road Institute at the Beijing Normal University. There are institutes of Belt and Road studies now all over China.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the brand? Is there some message behind the brand and where is China using that brand to influence people's opinions?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Well, everywhere and anywhere.

DEVIN STEWART: All over the world?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: It's an international brand, it's a domestic brand; people in China know that something "Belt and Road" has the imprimatur of the government. It carries kind of the gravitas of Party support. It also can often carry money with it, supporting funding for programs like the new Belt and Road Center at Beijing Normal University where I lectured to the African students there. It can also fund the student exchanges. It's basically everything.

So it has become China's diplomacy. China's outward-focused relationships are rooted in the Belt and Road Initiative.

DEVIN STEWART: What sort of stage is the Belt and Road Initiative in right now? There's talk of the "Digital Belt and Road" and the "Arctic Belt and Road." Where is it today and where is it heading in terms of becoming more software and less just big bridges and belt roads and things like that?

JOSHUA EISENMAN: The Belt and Road, as I said, is encompassing everything both domestically and internationally in ways that make that question almost impossible to answer. You illustrate my point when you say the "Arctic Belt and Road" and the "Digital Belt and Road."

What is Belt and Road? It's everything and therefore it is nothing. This is the question of how to gauge it, how to say if it's a success or a failure. We're changing, the rules are changing, the programs are changing and expanding.

DEVIN STEWART: I think the technical word used was that it was a "Blobule."

JOSHUA EISENMAN: "Blobulism," if there is such a word.

DEVIN STEWART: I don't think so. I looked it up. But I think maybe you could coin it.


DEVIN STEWART: It is evocative, that word.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: It is like the old movie The Blob: it is growing larger as it's encompassing more and more.

DEVIN STEWART: Wasn't that an anti-communist movie? It probably was. [Laughter]

JOSHUA EISENMAN: It may well have been.

DEVIN STEWART: Everything back then was an anti-communist message.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: That's right, and of course the blob was red.


JOSHUA EISENMAN: I think that one of the most telling quotes I've heard recently was that the Communist Party of China at this point is packaging national socialism as communism like a guy on the side of the road packages dog meat and sells it as lamb. This is a very interesting moment we're in, where people can stand under the hammer and sickle and essentially make ultra-rightist nationalist arguments that Mao Zedong himself, I think, would be shocked to hear made in such a venue.

I'm not sure where it's all going, but I can tell you that it ain't about the "worker-peasant alliance" and it's not about the "workers of the world unite." So it's concerning to me how when you match this level of security and this level of technology, with what we have seen before, which is an ultra-rightist nationalist ideology—and so I'm concerned about where it's going.

I think that there is this immediate lure that a lot of people in dictatorial regimes might have if their leaders say, "I can use this technology to confirm and assure my regime's survival." But what I don't think they recognize is that all that information is being collected and, therefore, the same thing that is ensuring their regime's survival makes them increasingly dependent on foreigners, and, therefore, if the foreigners do not like them at some point, that same information can be deployed against them. There's nothing that says that the camera that is collecting information and sending it back to Shanghai cannot then be used against you at a future date.

So I think there's a lot of shortsightedness going on and I think that kind of the Nth degree of that is that we've seen these large BRI programs and projects being built in countries that have very low literacy rates. That makes me question their sustainability. You can't skip the first rung of the development ladder. You need to have an educated population.

Just to give you a sense, Devin, on my way here I looked up some numbers. In 1982—this is just after the Mao era was over—China was a 65.5 percent literate country; in 1950 it was a 20 percent literate country. This means that the vast majority of African countries—and I could sit here and rattle off 20 names—are all well below where China was in 1982 in terms of literacy. China is a much larger country of course.

So can you come in and bring in very high-technology infrastructure—ports, rail, etc.—that is above where the actual development level is of the country and have it sustainable over the long term if you don't have the workers, the knowledge, and the basic ability to put it together?

As one Chinese expert said to me, "One Chinese worker is worth 10 African workers." That sounds racist, but it's not. What he's saying is in terms of the level of education, nutrition, focus—I mean there's a hundred reasons why that's the case, but it's not about race necessarily. It's about the system structure supporting it.

My research and the point that I was making—to bring us back full circle—as part of my Red China's Green Revolution presentation was that the key lesson that developing countries need to take from the China experience is that if you do not educate your population and teach them basic skills first, then high-level development is not going to be successful.

China needs to teach the lessons of its Mao-era experience in order to make Belt and Road successful. The problem is, how do you sell that to China's state-run firms who would love to export their ability to build ports and rail but they don't have the necessary ability to go into an African country and teach little girls how to read? So you've got a kind of dysfunction or disconnection between what the bureaucracies and state-owned enterprises want to do, which is to deploy excess capital abroad in order to be productive in order to remain efficient and remain profitable, and what these countries need, which is a lower level of development support such that they can then reach the first rung of the development ladder to pull them up to the second.

If you bring these ports in, beautiful though they might be, without the base of the economy to support them it may well be nothing but a person standing in front taking a picture in terms of the leadership of that country, but doesn't bring the kind of long-term development that was so successful in the case of China.

I think if the Chinese side really wants Belt and Road to be successful, it needs to bring with it the basic support for development. But—and this is not for China to answer—I don't know any instance where a foreign country has brought in basic development. The Americans, the Europeans, the Chinese, the Japanese—they did this for themselves. They bootstrapped it. They educated their own children. They set up systems to do that.

Whether or not a foreigner—the Chinese in this case—can come in and turn Niger, which is 19 percent literate, or Mali, which is 38 percent literate, or Liberia, which is 47 percent literate, into a literate country both in terms of basic math and reading—I don't know that we should expect that China can do that and I don't know that we should be disappointed if they can't. It has never been done. It would be very impressive if they could. But the problem is the consequence of that, the sustainability of Belt and Road, is at risk without that base.

So this is a kind of a tension the Chinese are facing with regard to Belt and Road and how to ensure its success. But how can they go into Chad and ensure that the Chadian people are literate when they themselves speak Chinese? You can see immediately the systems-level tensions that emerge there.

DEVIN STEWART: Josh Eisenman of the University of Texas at Austin, thanks again for coming back and I hope to see you again soon.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Thank you, Devin. It's been great to be here.

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