Shanghai is reportedly coming out of lockdown this week, moving toward some modicum of freedom after two months of residents locked inside their apartments with little to eat, parents forcibly separated from COVID-positive toddlers, and all around a blatant authoritarianism that many young Chinese people have never personally experienced.
It's doubtful that Beijing has anticipated how those younger generations might be inclined to respond. Draconian strictures have "prompt[ed] a rethinking of life plans among the young," the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday, relaying stories of young Chinese adults who have decided to skip having children, abandon their career plans, move back in with their parents, give up on finding love. "Let it rot" has joined the anomic "lying flat" as a catchphrase among disillusioned 20- and 30-year-olds, the Journal reports. Threatened by authorities with consequences that would last generations, a young Chinese man in a since-banned video verbally shrugs: "We are the last generation."
China's lockdowns in Shanghai and beyond were far more severe than those seen anywhere in the United States, including in COVID-hawk nests like California and New York. No one here walled off neighborhoods or killed dogs with shovels in the name of fighting the virus; we have constitutional recourse China's residents lack; and it's hard to suppose Americans would react to this degree of totalitarianism with the resignation of "let it rot."
But it would be a mistake to see these lockdowns as just a foreign oddity. Much as with Chinese mass surveillance, they should be a warning about the modern state's capacity and tendency to oppress.
That comparison is particularly apt because this kind of control can't happen without surveillance. A Shanghai-style lockdown relies in part on brute force: neighborhood walls, family separations, and hazmat-suited enforcers snatching people off the streets.
But it also relies on information: where people go, whom they meet, what they say. The Chinese government has invested heavily in surveillance cameras and thermal imaging (to detect fever, among other uses) during the pandemic, scaling up an already uniquely pervasive spying regime. COVID controls in Shanghai, though temporary, eerily echo social controls in Xinjiang, argues Asia tech columnist Li Yuan at The New York Times, down to the reuse of slogans.
Mass surveillance is by nature self-preserving—the cameras watch you try to take them down; the censors hear you arguing against them—but for any invasive state apparatus, expansion is a natural preservation mode. Absent sturdy limits of law, this is how it goes: A security measure turns into social control; an entitlement becomes a means of regulation. A social credit system comes in handy when you have a pandemic; the USA PATRIOT Act finds a second life in the drug war.
Chinese-style autocracy probably isn't right around the corner. The police aren't about to wall off American neighborhoods. Big Brother here is not that big, compared to the Chinese equivalent. But he's capable of a growth spurt, given the right turn of events. The post-9/11 era was one such moment, and the digital and transit surveillance state it gave us—now, for most Americans, just part of the scenery—makes future spurts easier.
That rapid acceptance of major new intrusions into our lives is why trusting that Americans won't take tyranny "lying flat" is naive. There are substantial cultural and political differences between the United States and China, yes, but relying on something as amorphous as culture to stave off authoritarianism is a fool's errand. Cultures change. People get scared, and sometimes fear prompts them to protest government overreach, but sometimes it prompts them to beg for it.
However, the same inertia that makes overgrowths of state power difficult to reverse also gives legal protections of our liberties real staying power. Law usually doesn't rapidly follow the whims of public feeling, nor does it immediately shift to accommodate new technologies of surveillance and suppression. It's law, more than culture or circumstance, that stands between us and Shanghai. And it's lawmaking—bolstering constitutional safeguards of our civil liberties, heading off power grabs before they're entrenched—to which this shocking omen from Shanghai should have us turn.