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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.