A chilling look into China’s surveillance state

SURVEILLANCE / The Chinese surveillance state in a tale of technology, censorship and abuse of power in the 21st century.
Director: Jialing Zhang
Producer: FILMTANK GmbH
Distributor: Cinephil
Country: Germany, Netherlands

Captivating and chilling at the same time, the brand new film by Jialing Zhang (One Child Nation, In the Same Breath) takes us deep into the Chinese surveillance state that dynamically and «creatively» combines traditional, XX-century methods of social control with new technologies, developed for the needs of XXI century, truly modern, the world’s-only land of the Communist Party rule. It is the observational documentary at its best, following the characters discreetly and insightfully, accompanying them in everyday situations and moments of reflection, which are punctuated by snippets of the official Chinese TV coverage, commentary, and instructions intended for a wide public.

Total Trust Jialing Zhang
Total Trust, a film by Jialing Zhang

Improper intentions

The featured characters are families of two lawyers and a journalist, all accused of improper intentions towards the Chinese state and imprisoned. Weiping Chang, a lawyer, was charged with «incenting subversion of state power» and imprisoned in January 2020, soon after he met with a few colleague lawyers at a private meeting to discuss their cases, careers, and situation in the country. His wife, Zijuan Chen and little son Tutu try every possible means – tens of petitions, protests, video clips posted online – to know where he is being kept and in what conditions. The only answers they get are surveillance cameras installed in their apartment, security officers checking their every move, and a change in their official status in a government-controlled app serving for gaining access to various public spaces, like shops, transport, or roads.

Weiping Chang’s family is in the middle of a situation that has already been an experience for another lawyer and his family – Quanzhang Wang and his wife, Wenzu Li. He was arrested in 2015 during the 709 crackdowns in the country when 300 lawyers were taken away, and after months of interrogations, 27 of them were ultimately imprisoned. They were accused of accepting foreign funding, schooling, and instructions on manipulating the public perception of the Party’s activities. Many of them, under pressure, admitted their «mistakes» and showed active remorse, allowing them to be released. However, those like Quanzhang Wang, who did not, were put into prison and disappeared for years. Throughout this time, Wenzu Li was attempting to get from the authorities any information on her husband’s lot. Tens of hours were spent at various detention centres, petitions, and requests for visits, most of which were left unanswered. Finally, Quanzhang Wang left prison in 2020 after five years of secret detention and torture. Next, we see the family’s current life. After revoking his lawyer’s license, he can take only minor cases in the provinces. The Party’s grid officers and the neighbours closely monitor their every move, and sometimes their doors are barricaded so that they cannot leave an apartment. Their cell phones and apps are tracked, changes are made in their social media profiles and online posts, and even photos from family gatherings are deleted from the net if they include their faces. Their 8-year-old son has to change schools every semester as he is being discriminated against as the son of a dissident.

The journalist – Sophia Xueqin Huang – who met Weiping Chang, her future lawyer, at the occasion of the metoo movement, wrote about sexual abuse at universities among influential professors and was charged with libel. In 2019 she covered the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests. At this time, the authorities took samples of her iris, fingers, hands, and voice and installed a security camera in front of her apartment. The samples let authorities identify her everywhere she goes on the basis of her voice or iris. She realized that it was a crime to write about certain, unacceptable for the Party topics. But what are these topics are left to «common sense» and «judgment» of the people and the authorities. It is not explicitly defined, similar to an allegation of the «incenting subversion of the state power», which does not have a clear definition. The police determine it on a case-to-case basis.

It is the observational documentary at its best

Mass court cases

The mass, exemplary court processes of certain social groups were a common trait of the communist regimes in the 1940s and 1950s, and the bloody Chinese Great Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the 70s brought about a specific institution of public social control carried on by specialized officers of the Red Guards. These control measures have been continued throughout the decades, and they seem to be deeply rooted and internalized. The XXI century’s new technologies breathe new air into this social construction of the XX-century totalitarian state. In 2012, China introduced a pilot program for controlling the population, based on the work of the 4,5 million grid officers. The people are divided into grids under constant observation. The officers note inhabitants’ movements, behaviours, and customs and pass the information down to the Party’s officers responsible for analyzing public moods. The novelty is an individual, centrally controlled digital social credit system in which every citizen is graded according to one’s behaviour. There are 190+ ways to gain points, like volunteering, denouncing improper actions of others, or active remorse, and 1040+ to lose them, including protesting, petitioning to government, or extravagance at a wedding or funeral. The number of points affects one’s ability to travel by plane and train and access schools, jobs, and public projects for commercial firms, among others.

Total Trust Jialing Zhang
Total Trust, a film by Jialing Zhang

Constant observation

People who petition the government are under constant observation – the grid officers and volunteers take notes on where and when they go, what they talk about, and with whom. The new, installed in every apartment house CCTV public surveillance allows everybody to observe neighbours and pedestrians on a TV set in the «comfort of their home.» Facial recognition systems are ever-present – at public transport, gates to apartment complexes, and local grocery shops and bars. Big data gives the Party total control over the public space. It leaves no area inaccessible to strangers and creates unbearable psychological pressure. Families’ costs – children growing up being followed by the police and forced to move from school to school; terrified parents asserting the Party’s importance; the neighbours scared and aggressive – go deep into the DNA of the next generation, further strengthening the already persistent internal censorship. The celebrations of the 100 years of the Communist Party of China in 2021 marked the unprecedented history of an uninterrupted social experiment in a mostly cruel, brutal, and blood-soaked attempt at gaining total control over hundreds of millions at once. As the Party’s officials proudly announced, it resulted in total trust – 98%-99% approval of the Party’s actions by the public. They call it a historical success, while in the background, we can hear inhuman screams of people being caged in their apartments during the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

Total Trust is a CPH:DOX World Premiere and screens in the Movies That Matter Camera Justitia competition.

What about a donation, for full access and 2-3 print copies in your mail a year?
(Modern Times Review is a non-profit organisation, and really appreciate such support from our readers.) 

Aleksandra Biernacka
Aleksandra Biernacka
Anthropologist and sociologist of culture. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

The first signs of war

UKRAINE: A compellingly grim account of the country's descent into war.

Filming the right-wing with ‘an open heart’

HOMOPHOBIA: Polish Prayers unravels the trajectory of a young Pole as he journeys away from the homophonic, ultra-conservative Brotherhood

Growing up under the approaching storm clouds of war

UKRAINE: The lives of ordinary teenagers in Ukraine's Donbas region as they navigate adolescence, dreams, and the devastating impact of conflict on their futures.

A frozen art for futile times

ART: With the slogan ethics before aesthetics, a group of Serbian artists collectively looked to draw attention to the negative social trends of the time.

Where civilisation began

NATURE: Embark on an awe-inspiring journey through space and time while honouring the majesty and fragility of our planet's waterways.

Coming of age in times of war

UKRAINE: An achingly tender film about growing up and a moving contemplation on life itself.
- Advertisement -spot_img

You might also likeRELATED
Recommended to you