Kowtow is one of the relatively few words English has borrowed from Chinese. It means to prostrate oneself obsequiously to a superior power. It was once the custom that people approaching the Chinese Emperor had to bow and knock their head against the floor nine times.
Eventually the practice fell into disuse, spurred by European diplomats who refused to perform an act they regarded as degrading. Nowadays, though, the kowtow seems to be coming back in a new form with the rise of a digitized, assertive, and techno-totalitarian China.
One recent example of the digital kowtow had to do with a tweet supporting Hong Kong protests by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey that led to an apology to the People’s Republic by the NBA. There has been much discussion of the cravenness of the response, none of it helped by NBA stars becoming willing spokesmen for the Chinese Communist Party line.
Kai Strittmatter, a German journalist who has spent many years in China, has written a new book, “We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State,” that gathers many threads of oppression into a troubling account of recent events in the People’s Republic of China.
He begins starkly: “The China we knew no longer exists. The China that was with us for forty years — the China of ‘reform and opening up’ — is making way for something new.”
With the ascendency of Xi Jinping in 2012, the Chinese Communist Party has vigorously reasserted itself, aided by digital surveillance technology, changing the country from an authoritarian society back toward a totalitarian model.
It’s not Orwellian totalitarianism based on fear and terror; rather, it’s more like Huxley’s vision of a world where distraction and mindless consumerism supply a docile population with entertainment and material rewards at the cost of any individual thought—and of truth itself.
Many of these troublesome trends have been covered in the Western press, but events like the Houston Rockets imbroglio have caused average Americans to start noticing that what starts in China does not stay in China.
Strittmatter’s book goes over some familiar territory, but even if you have been paying attention, his putting it all into a concise and focused narrative highlights the depth and audacity of what is going on in China.
It has seemed on several occasions that the Chinese Communist Party might relax its grip on power. Those hopes were crushed by tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Later it seemed that the advent of the Internet had allowed average Chinese people to communicate with each other outside official channels. That’s ended. The party has embraced and policed the Internet.
Unlike earlier versions of totalitarianism, the Chinese crackdown has not yet resulted in mass killings. The prospect of losing jobs and material well-being has been sufficient to stifle dissent.
Time after time companies have buckled to Chinese demands. More troublingly, the Chinese are underwriting Western scholars who study China. If they don’t parrot the party line, their ability to work and their careers are threatened.
All this activity is coordinated to be in the service of the party. They are throwing a lot of money into spreading their propaganda and disdain for democracy.
We thought market economics would lead to freedom in China. We were wrong. What now?