several days ago, i read naomi klein’s article china’s all-seeing eye and viewed the accompanying photographs by thomas lee. since then, i have been thinking about how seriously to take her claims, how shenzhen functions in her argument, how shenzhen appears in lee’s images, and the cultural politics of guan (管), which are importantly similar to and different from the cultural politics of foucault’s panopticism.
in “all-seeing eye”, klein discusses globalization in terms of the cooperation between u.s. and chinese companies to develop and integrate surveillance technologies. according to the article, the goal of “golden shield” is to make it possible to cross-reference data from cellphones, computers, cameras, facilitating the surveillance of chinese citizens and, in institutions, workers. in turn, the goal of these companies is to sell the technology back to the united states, where it would be used.
shenzhen functions in this argument as the new kind of place that makes this kind of development possible. neither chinese nor american, but rather the place where china becomes more like the united states and the united states more like china, shenzhen is the place where capitalism and totalitarianism are reworked into “market stalinism,” which is then redeployed throughout the rest of china and exported to the united states. on klein’s reading, “market stalism” combines the worst excesses of both socialism and capitalism and is the inner logic of globalism. in this argument china stands for socialism and the united states for capitalism.
rolling stone published lee’s photos to illustrate klein’s report. the photographs’ formal composition and klein’s article become a reader’s primary tools for interpreting shenzhen. however, here’s the rub: in an interview, klein states that her goal is to “show how u.s. and china more and more alike, creation of a middle ground”. however, the photographer, thomas lee invoked the aesthetic conventions of creative photography to organize photographic composition. in these pictures, people in the foreground are blurred, while the background is in focus. consequently, the images show a shenzhen that is depersonalized and off-kilter. for an american viewer, these pictures do not provide common ground, rather its opposite—a looming gulf that threatens to swallow anyone who would dare cross over.
for foucault, jeremy bentham’s panopticon is the paradigm of how surveillance technologies secure modern power. the panopticon is not a thing, but rather a particular organization of space, specifically a prison. at the center of panoptic space is a tower, which is surrounded by buildings, divided into cells, where large windows allow the supervisor to observe the inmates of the prison. importantly, although the inmates can see the tower, they cannot see the supervisor. moreover, the arrangement of the cells insures that the inmates are isolated from one another.
the panopticon illustrates several important aspects of modern power. first, it operates even if no one is in the tower; inmates cannot know when they are and are not being watched. this means that they must act as if they are always being watched. second, the supervisor is also placed in power relations; the supervisor must also assume that he is being watched at all times. indeed, it is more likely the case that the supervisor is always being watched than any one inmate. third, the environment is designed so that no one individual can assume power, instead the inmates and the supervisor are placed within a physical environment that is itself the form of power; both the supervisor and the inmates are subordinated to the requirements of the environment.
the connections between klein’s “all-seeing eye” and the panopticon are relatively clear. the new surveillance technologies enable government officials, police officers, and management to use the built environment to monitor citizens and workers. in addition to cameras, these technologies include accessing individuals through their cell phones, internet practices, credit card records, and digitalized data banks. in addition, those positioned as “supervisors” are themselves also subject to surveillance. finally, the ability to monitor others is diffused throughout the system, making all members of society variously positioned supervisors and inmates. thus, the key distinction between citizens is how deeply one is embedded in these relationships and, by extension, how much control over the use of these technologies one has. however, no one member of society has absolute access to and therefore absolute control over the surveillance apparatus.
how do the cultural politics of panopticism (so glossed) differ from the cultural politics of guan (to be glossed)? in shenzhen, guan refers to practices of taking charge, ranging from teaching a student how to hold a pen through organizing social events to directing traffic and enforcing laws. like panoptic methods, guan practices target human bodies. teachers routinely hold a student’s hands when she is learning to write; the organization of events often entails mass calisthenics or the performance of many bodies in coordinated action—at our school, marching is considered one of the signs of effective pedagogy; directing traffic and law enforcement both entail the placement of bodies with respect to each other within a given environment. this is important: like panopticism, guan authorizes certain forms of violence in order to bring bodies into alignment with society. both tian’anmen and currently, tibet are examples of guan. moreover, like panopticism, guan practices presuppose constant monitoring. the image of chinese students doing homework, while their mother, father, and grandparents watch and intervene exemplifies guan.
however, unlike panopticism, guan practices draw legitimacy from the understanding that disciplining bodies is a form of caretaking. in this sense, guan requires the physical presence of those who guan and those who are guan-ed. as such, there are many instances of people excessively guan-ing those in their charge. excessive guan-ing makes for tiring social relations. both the guan-er and the guan-ed find themselves in constant negotiation. for many teachers and students at my school, for example, guan-ing a student’s homework is a necessary evil. nevertheless, guan is unquestionably better than the alternative, which would be “not to guan,” leaving the child to do whatever she wanted to, but failing to help prepare her to take high school and college entrance exams. a similar logic characterizes many chinese criticisms of the government. if schools collapse in an earthquake; it is a result of a failure to guan. if those who failed to guan continue in power, it is also a failure to guan. hunger, unemployment, social unrest—all are symptoms of governmental failure to guan.
on foucault’s reading, guan is not a modern form of power. however, most of my Chinese friends don’t trust abstract monitoring; they believe in the physical absence of a guan-er is an untenable. they point to the fact that many of the surveillance cameras don’t work, cellphone sim cards are bought, sold, and disposed of at unregulated street kiosks (i.e. cellphone numbers are unregistered in china), and its relatively easy to hack around the great firewall. in other words, the clearest difference between the cultural politics of panopticism and guan is the assumption of how successful surveillance actually can be. insofar as the underlying metaphor of panopticism is incarceration, it presupposes human bodies are always already at the disposal of surveillance operations. in contrast, guan presupposes that human bodies constantly allude surveillance operations.
chinese parents and teachers repeatedly lament that little bodies may be placed at desks and isolated from other little bodies, and yet the supervisors still cannot guan their charges, whose “hearts are not in place (心不在焉)” and “spirits absent themselves (出神)”. at the social level, it is even more difficult to ensure proper guan-ing. most of my friends assume that if something is being guan-ed, it is because someone has a penchant for excessive guan-ing (like a busybody), has been forced to take charge (by public opinion), or has a private agenda (internal politics). indeed, many have resigned themselves to the impossibility of successfully guan-ing children and colleagues, let alone the country. “can you guan it (管得了吗)?” they frequently sigh in a social world where peasants frequently protest change, students and netizens argue for increasing freedoms, and tibetans continue to protest han rule.
panopticism infuses klein’s interpretation of new surveillance technologies. her critique draws its power from the fact that no one wants to be locked up, monitored, and isolated from human companionship. indeed, the panopticon provides a working model of how to deny human beings our humanity. in contrast, the underlying metaphor of guan is disciplinary care-taking; as a form of social power it draws legitimacy from the fact that all of us has been guan-ed. indeed, guan provides a working model of how to transform babies into social beings, and individuals into “company men” and “citizens”.
as an american, i have a visceral aversion to the world that klein describes in “all seeing eye”. as a resident of shenzhen, i wonder how likely it is that such a world can come into existence. i have difficulty imaging how many supervisors would be needed to actually make such supervision effective. after red lights have been run, cellphone numbers regularly changed, and great firewalls hacked, it seems interesting to ask how effective surveillance technologies can be in the absence of social support for them. i find it easier to imagine that these technologies might be used to target certain individuals and groups.
that is to say, that in order for surveillance technologies to function, one must also circumscribe freedom of movement in order to successfully monitor and through this monitoring, control the actions of a group of people. when moving surveillance into an undefined space, it seems necessary to limit the number of surveillance targets an institution can successfully monitor. i can imagine searching for one or two people; i have difficulty imagining how one would monitor several thousand, or ten thousand, or three million. consequently, i believe that the successful use of surveillance technologies necessitates the concomitant targeting, monitoring and isolating specific groups of people such as workers in a factory, students in a plaza, monks in a monastery, travelers on an airplane, residents of apartment complexes. in this sense, effective surveillance requires some form of social consent in addition to the construction of an environment in which everyone might monitor everyone else–a time and place more like a cultural revolutionary chinese work unit than it is like contemporary shenzhen.
in shenzhen, the most blatant and pervasive surveillance abuses occur at work, where supervisors control workers’ bodies by placing them on assembly lines or at desks. supervisors further control these bodies through compulsory overtime. factory dormitories also give supervisors off the clock access to worker lives. but again, on the clock, if supervisors physically leave the premises, workers talk, relax, head off to the restaurant. in mandarin, they say “superiors have policy, inferiors have counter policy (上有政策，下有对策)”. and, of course, off the clock, workers leave the factories and head into unsupervised spaces.
what concerns me in klein’s argument is her assertion that becoming more like china means becoming more totalitarian. i believe her when she says that these technologies are being built. i believe her when she argues that their are chinese and american officials who want to install more effective surveillance technologies. however, i also believe that if one’s goal is to turn society into a prison, it is not enough simply to install these technologies. one must also convince a population to accept monitoring of themselves (at work or in an airport, for example) and of targeted individuals and groups (middle easterners and tibetans, for example). in this respect, totalitarianism is not only a set of architectural practices, but also and more fundamentally, a set of social practices that are not uniquely “chinese”.
i support klein’s anti-totalitarianism. however, i also hope that the effectiveness of her rhetoric does not depend upon reducing the diversity of chinese people to the stereotype of “unthinking subjects of a totalitarian state”. the united states can only become more totalitarian through the actions of our citizens and leaders, not through the actions of people anywhere else, our cultivated fear of them, notwithstanding.