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Tibet: or, How to Ruin Democracy

With the Dalai Lama’s visit to Sydney just around the corner, I was naturally drawn to fresh reports that during the past year the Chinese authorities have been experimenting in Tibet with a new political ‘grid’ (wangge) system of neighbourhood information-gathering units, led by ‘grid captains’.

More than 600 street-side ‘convenience police posts’ (bian minjing wu zhan) equipped with computers and video technology have apparently already been set up in towns, rural areas and temples throughout Tibet. These posts are a vital part of the new grid system, which operates 24/7. They are linked in turn to voluntary ‘civilian’ networks called ‘red armband patrols’, whose job at the grass-roots level is to anticipate ‘sudden incidents’ (self-immolations, for instance) and to conduct ‘doorstep interviews’ and searches of Tibetan homes in search of politically forbidden materials, including photographs of the Dalai Lama. The Chinese rulers recently announced that they intend to expand the state-of-the-art surveillance system. They say it is designed to ‘improve public access to basic services’. They describe the dragnet as an important component in the country-wide drive towards ‘social stability maintenance’ (weiwen) and ‘scientifically guiding public opinion’. Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, says the grid system comprises ‘nets in the sky and traps on the ground’. Other Party documents speak of ‘strengthening information and intelligence work to achieve in practical terms smart ears and clear eyes to gain the initiative’.

A Human Rights Watch report meanwhile notes the way the new system targets ‘special groups’, such as ex-prisoners, ‘nuns and monks on the move’, and Tibetans who have returned from exile in India. It quotes a Chinese scholar, who helpfully explains that by means of the new system, ‘information is proactively gathered about people, events, and things so as to build up a database of urban components and events.’ It’s a surveillance system ‘through which relevant departments and work units can proactively uncover problems in a timely manner.’

Outsiders have few extra details of the new data-gathering system. But what’s interesting is how observers and critics of the sophisticated new control strategy reach for worn-out old epithets when describing its modus operandi. Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch points out that the new system ‘encroaches on Tibetans’ rights to freedom of expression, belief, and association.‘ She notes that the point of the new system is 'surveillance and control’. Since its chief flaw is its failure to address popular grievances among Tibetans, she concludes, the ‘Chinese authorities should dismantle this Orwellian 'grid’ system'.

She’s right about the crushing anti-democratic effects of the grid system, except that it isn’t ‘Orwellian’. It’s something new, something more disturbing. It squarely belongs to the early years of the 21st century, to the age of networked communications and monitory democracy, which it’s designed to mimic, to counter, and to destroy. From what we know of the new Chinese grid system, it’s not an ‘Orwellian’ centralised system of control. Yes, it’s chartered with ‘searching for faults, traces, unseen threats, gaps, shadows’, but its methods are ‘networked’. It stands beyond the age of radio and television broadcasting. It most closely resembles a composite of the ‘decentralised’ and ‘distributed’ networks famously foretold half a century ago by the Polish-American pioneer of computer networks, Paul Baran:

Centralised, Decentralised and Distributed Networks Paul Baran, 1964

The institutional dynamics of monitory democracy are different. They most closely resemble a dynamic, multi-dimensional version of Baran’s ‘distributed networks’. Put abstractly, monitory democracy is a complex and open-edged system for taming and restraining arbitrary power, for deciding fairly and non-violently who gets what, when, and how. Its heavily-mediated structures tend to be dispersed. Its ‘agents’ find themselves in multi-dimensional environments produced by the actions and interactions with other agents in the system. Monitory democracy can thus be represented in the following way:

Monitory democracy Giovanni Navarria

Under conditions of monitory democracy, agents are constantly acting and reacting within organised fields of power marked by many different levels and multiple dimensions. Monitory democracy is therefore typically marked by political uncertainties. There is competition, co-operation, compromise, anticipation, refusal and rebellion. In matters political, nothing is ever fixed. It is meaningless to talk of a ‘consolidated’ monitory democracy. Its multiple spaces and complex systems of action and interaction never reach ‘equilibrium’. Agents never find the ‘optimum’. They are constantly in transition, caught up in perpetual novelty.

By contrast, the Chinese-imposed ‘grid’ system of surveillance is top-down, controlling, disciplining, punishing. It is the flipside of monitory democracy, its simulacrum, a perverse mirroring of its distributed networks of arguing and bargaining, a top-down countering of the struggles of monitory mechanisms to undo the follies and evils of arbitrary power. The ‘nets in the sky and traps on the ground’ of the grid are designed to privatise and destroy independent public life in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. In this sense, the grid highlights the fundamental distinction between top-down surveillance and bottom-up public monitoring of power.

The surveillance grid that the Chinese authorities are rolling out in Tibet is undoubtedly the antithesis of the complex model of democratic freedom pieced together by the exiled Tibetan government and a supportive global infrastructure of pro-Tibetan monitory institutions. Inspired six decades ago by the spiritual teachings of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan polity is an unusual example of monitory democracy. Guided by dreams of a future homeland, it features a myriad of globally-distributed monitory mechanisms, periodic elections and a cross-border parliament representing citizens who are scattered across the planet, yet who feel bound together by Buddhist beliefs in an afterlife that is fundamentally at odds with (say) the American liberal vision of self-centred individuals endowed with rights to life, property and liberty.

Can this novel experiment in handling power survive the onslaught of gridded systems of surveillance and control? Will the citizens of Tibet, those who are living inside and outside of China, allow themselves to be drawn, slowly but surely, into a top-down, bottom-up system geared to ‘searching for faults, traces, unseen threats, gaps, shadows’? These are among the big and vital political questions facing Tibetans and the peoples of our wider Asia and Pacific region.

Join the conversation

13 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Marriott

    logged in via Twitter

    John, thank you for this fascinating and well written article. I've just discovered your "Field Notes" on TC and very much appreciate the insights offered.

    The strength of distributed networks is their responsiveness to local conditions/events and their resilience - in the context of politics (as you suggest) a means to tame arbitrary power. It now seems the Chinese regime has studied this phenomenon and its experimenting with counter-measures to nullify it. No doubt they've been watching the events of the Arab Spring carefully, noting how social media and technology enabled dissidents and protesters to organise and share information.

    If I may be so bold to suggest, such developments seem to mimic evolutionary processes. I'm mindful of the Red Queen hypothesis which proposes organisms must constantly change in order to adapt to changed environments and opposing organisms - not merely to propagate but simply survive.

  2. Trevor Kerr


    What a lot of effort, when Rupert Murdoch would have *given* them Newspoll, and absolute guarantees of a socially stable democracy.

  3. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    From a westerners perspective, the Chinese grid system of information gathering is anathema to our view of democracy perhaps because it reminds us of Stalin's brutal regime that relied on 'denunciations' and the Siberian gulags to maintain control. China's citizens however have lived under the grid system since Mao's rule and it has become part of Chinese private life, business and politics. To them, the grid system is 'situation normal'.

    As an exporter, we witnessed their system in intriguing…

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  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Whether it be the distributed network or the monitory democracy illustrations though the latter would seem to be non existent for China, both have in common a huge net, a cargo net or that which is used to throw over or drop on a wild animal, so yes a net from the sky to trap.

    We can explore the political psychology all we like for it is very clear what the chinese politicians want to do and that is to keep the thumb screws turned so to speak in minimising any anti Chinese feeling by Tibetans…

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  5. Tony Xiao

    retired teacher

    Neighbourhood patrols by local residents reporting on security etc are common in China. In the more troubled areas the security surveillance is certainly taken up a notch and because of language barriers, it will be Tibetans monitoring Tibetans.

  6. Garry Baker


    " Will the citizens of Tibet, those who are living inside and outside of China, allow themselves to be drawn, slowly but surely, into a top-down, bottom-up system geared to ‘searching for faults, traces, unseen threats, gaps, shadows’? ""

    Of course they won't, but it will happen anyway. Meanwhile our Neanderthals running the show in Canberra express no opinions about it, yet a blind man can see this is Genocide in the making - Indeed, a real time extinction process.

    What isn't widely understood is China's internal security budget exceeds that of their Military spend. In Tibet's case, it is imperative to lock in control, where it is commonly referred to as "our Chinese Water Tower" given the wealth locked up in the Himalayan waters.

  7. Reg Olives

    logged in via Twitter

    At an attempt at humour, the monitory democracy figure you show looks like a Star Trek symbol; with the supporting text it sounds like the Star Trek universe (Federation space, anyway).

    What is not funny is the method of surveillance that is being applied in Tibet. So thank you for the clearly explained insight. I hope it is not successful and not replicated directly or even subtly in other parts of the world.

  8. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    It doesn't seem particularly new. America has been trialling something along the same lines since 2001

    Before getting too worried about the Tibetans I would be more curious about how those 1500 employees of ASIO spend their time.

    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      " Before getting too worried about the Tibetans I would be more curious about how those 1500 employees of ASIO spend their time. "
      Too much time on their hands preparing for Sunday lamb roasts is it Sean!

      I'd not reckon so and in fact ASIO gets saddled with quite a bit of what we may consider to be mundane tasks such as security checks for immigration purposes and as irrelevant as most may seem to be when it comes to how quick we are letting supposed asylum seekers into the country, people applying for more normal skilled or family visas have enormous waits just for immigration to receive security checks, six months and more, likely longer because of resources being applied to asylum seeker cases.

  9. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    With the focus on China, it would be interesting to see a learned comparison between it and the foundation Totalitarian system of the Medieval Church in Europe.
    I'll repeat, the foundation totalitarian system which Chinese Communism, ultimately, has copied.
    China may be open to a market economy but is very intolerant to rival totalitarian systems such as Tibetan Buddhism and Roman Catholicism.
    Fire fighting Fire.
    That part of the West which has not fallen victim to modern Totalitarianism has…

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to James Hill

      Australia: or, How to Ruin Democracy.
      Totalitarianism at work; the names are irrelevant.

  10. Yoron Hamber


    I would like to say no, but it depends on how ruthless the Chinese may be in their efforts. They can try for what Stalin did, as a worst case scenario. Move the Tibetan people from their roots, and scatter them amongst their own population as some second hand citizen. But faith has an ability to stay with people, if it comes from the inside, so even then I would expect 'Tibetan identity' to exist, even without a own land. There are several examples of this, Jews, Kurds, etc. As I understands it the Kurds still honor a homeland they lost for 4 500 years ago.

    I wish we could stop centralizing everything. Earth was more fun, and stable, before that sort of thinking came into vogue.