To understand why Americans and our allies must rally together in defense of democracy, we have to be humble enough to admit we might not be winning and creative enough to imagine a scenario in which Beijing’s global strategy succeeds.
Today it seems unthinkable, but it may be coming: totalitarianism expressed through a state-run, artificial intelligence system that knows billions of people better than they know themselves. What would that even look like? To avoid the numbness that comes with abstract, hypothetical thinking, open up your mind and make it a personal vision. Imagine you are part of the next generation. It’s you that’s being born into a future where China’s government has AI supremacy and global domination.
In such a world, an automated system has been collecting your DNA and all your family’s personal and “private” medical data since before you first opened your eyes. Let’s call that notional system the Central Automated Records Litigator (CARL). As you grow, CARL absorbs and analyzes everything from doctor notes about you to blood analysis measuring your individual responses to vaccines and advanced pharmaceuticals. CARL is always there, eating a digital ocean of your test results and medical documents.
It digests every word you write and speak. In school, online, at camp, on vacation, inside the confines of your car and bedroom, your kitchen and VR headset.
CARL thrives on your gossip and drama. It sees how you act around others, and how they act around you − both to your face and behind your back. It knows what everyone around you writes and says about you in private. It’s watching you though thousands of tiny cameras. It can sense the dilation of your eyes in response to certain images. It understands what the quickening or slowing of your pulse and blood pressure in various situation probably means.
CARL knows if you are straight or gay (or somewhere in between) long before you do. It knows all your tastes: in food, music, movies, sports, books, clothes, games, humor, politics. More than that, it actively shapes them, matching your tastes to what the collective wants you to think is cool, while steering you away from things it wants you to believe are uncool. It understands your desires, your fantasies, your fears, your strengths, your limits, your blind spots. It knows your IQ, EQ, SAT scores, and your blood pressure, average resting pulse, cholesterol count, and all your performance measurements.
CARL experiments on you endlessly. It sends you images and places you in all kinds of situations to see your reactions. It can collect and make sense of mind-crushing volumes of data. Before long, it knows what unique buttons to push to give you intense emotional pleasure or unbearable pain. It can make you laugh, cry, and tremble with rage. It can give you nightmares when you sleep. It can also deny you deep sleep for as long as it takes to achieve the necessary results.
CARL is extremely effective at providing the types of rewards and punishments that condition human behavior. It trains you to do what the collective wants. Who to befriend, who to outcast, who to hate, and, of course, when to feel nothing and be numb to those around you. With every passing day as you age, it can predict with ever increasing levels of statistical precision how to influence what you will think and do in a given situation. In the end, this government-run AI super system owns your mind, your body and soul.
Now imagine all of this and think about the youngest human being you know. If the CCP is successful at racing past the United States and achieving world domination, that little person is going to see CARL and its terrors in their lifetime. If you live for another decade or two, so will you. But there’s a big difference between you and them: they won’t even be conscious that it is there. Just like millennials don’t know what the world was like before the personal computer and Internet, they won’t know that anything existed before CARL. Unlike you, they will have never read the words on this page (and so many other words you have read). All “incorrect” words will disappear. They will take CARL for granted, just as you take a world without AI-enabled thought control systems as a given today.
If you think such a scenario is pure science fiction and could never happen, you are far from alone. But you could be wrong. The CCP has already developed early prototypes of CARL (under different names, of course). And even without the help of AI supremacy, Beijing has already created a world in which the wisdom of crowds has been corrupted so that increasing numbers of people are divorced from facts and objective reality. Even the U.S. government has been rendered unable to think logically about China (more on that later).
We already live in a world in which the CCP can systematically commit ethnic genocide against Muslim people in China and still win the praise and cooperation of Muslim leaders across the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. We already live in a world in which churches in China are bulldozed, bibles destroyed, and Catholics imprisoned and tortured, and the Pope in Rome stays silent on the crimes. Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics in China submit to the laws of an atheist regime, and (so far) has refused to meet the Dalai Lama or President of Taiwan out of deference to Beijing.
We already live in a world in which major American corporations know that their PRC competitors are stealing from them and aim to destroy and replace them in the global marketplace, but refuse to pull out of China and save themselves. These same corporations often lobby on behalf of Beijing in Washington. Near-term gains in China’s colossal consumer market seem too good to pass up. Many CEOs apparently believe it would be impossible to forecast future profits without China. American businesses are addicted and dependent to the China market. The majority appear convinced that they have to stay on Xi Jinping’s good side just to survive. Just ask the NBA.
We already live in a world in which the United Nations goes against its founding principles by supporting Chinese dictators over Western democrats. Today, U.N. agencies are helping the CCP export its tools of mass surveillance and oppression to the developing world. They are using the trust bestowed upon them by the international community to grant Chinese tech giants access to places, people, and data they would not otherwise have. They are giving Beijing leverage to use against its ideological enemies. They are repeating Chinese talking points and censoring voices of opposition.
We already live in a world in which the United States violates its own founding principles by actively opposing the Taiwanese people’s attempts to exercise their fundamental right of self-determination. Since 1979, Washington has gone so far as to deny the very existence of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as a legitimate country, even though the ROC government in Taipei has always been independent from the PRC, and Taiwan has become a liberal democracy that enjoys popular sovereignty. Taiwan now ranks as one of the top ten democracies in the world. Nonetheless, diplomats in Washington and other capital cities across the West take great pains to pretend Taiwan doesn’t exist as a nation-state out of deference to the CCP.
If this is the world today, what will the world of tomorrow look like if China’s comprehensive national power continues to grow? Nothing America and other countries are doing is stopping a still relatively weak PRC from growing. Who will stop a much stronger China in the future?
It has been estimated that China loses billions of dollars each year to outflows of cash. Every official in China wants to buy property abroad and send their son or daughter to school overseas as an insurance policy against regime collapse. Often overlooked is how much money the CCP has gained by selling counterfeit goods and pirated software while at the same time stealing the developed world’s intellectual property and trade secrets. No one knows just how much that might be, but the FBI estimates the United States loses up to $600 billion per year from PRC theft.
In recent years, the FBI has arrested hundreds of Chinese agents for stealing everything from Dupont’s secret formula for the creamy white filling of Oreo Cookies to GE Aviation’s jet engine technology, and from the Navy’s drone designs to American Superconductor’s source code for software controlling wind turbines.
If we assume that other advanced economies are suffering to the same degree, the total scale of the theft should amount to well over a trillion dollars per year from just the leading economies. Yet, in reality, the losses incurred are not evenly distributed. Other countries are far more vulnerable than the United States. The next most powerful economies are Japan, Germany, India, England, and France. Cases of Chinese espionage (economic or otherwise) are almost never reported or prosecuted in any of these great nations.
Compared to its allies, the U.S. government has been extremely aggressive in its efforts to protect against CCP economic warfare. In January 2022, FBI director Christopher Wray said the federal government had over two thousand counter-intelligence investigations underway, and the FBI opened a new China case on average once every twelve hours. “The scale of their hacking program, and the amount of personal and corporate data that their hackers have stolen, is greater than every other country combined…. It’s like the surveillance nightmare of East Germany combined with the tech of Silicon Valley,” Wray said.
If the U.S. government admits to losing half a trillion or more each year, we can only imagine how much worse the situation must be for other democratic countries with weak protections and far less confrontational policies toward China. It seems probable that the PRC economy would be fundamentally unsound if left to its own devices. The Chinese government’s violation of basic economic laws, market-distorting behavior, legal malpractices, and real estate bubbles are all well known.
But China’s economy does not appear to be fundamentally unsound. Even if it stagnates for a time during the pandemic, economists believe China could rally and grow again. The CCP is orchestrating a global trading system that makes China stronger even as its foreign “partners” waste away. Beijing does this by targeting elite political and business decision makers the world over, finding ways to enrich, influence, seduce, and control them. Once captured, elites then allow Chinese monopolies to outcompete foreign rivals and impoverish their societies.
It’s too early to say whether China’s global strategy will ultimately work. But it could work and, so far, it does seem to be working more or less in the way Xi Jinping and other CCP strategists say they designed it. Despite America’s more realistic approach to China, labeling it a strategic competitor and treating it as a hostile trading partner, the United States government has made only tentative moves to address the existential national security crisis. China’s power is growing, and it could surpass the United States. The Soviet Union may have lost the first Cold War, but that is no guarantee that the PRC won’t win Cold War II.
For Washington and its allies, there is an incredible amount of national security work to be done. Perhaps the first step is to accept difficult truths and acknowledge what might happen if they remain inert while the CCP continues to race ahead.
Ian Easton is a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy. The above is an excerpt from the author’s new book. You can follow him on Twitter: @Ian_M_Easton.