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China tech

China needs more 'Xi Jinping thought,' party document says

Party plenum paves way for high-tech surveillance and online opinion control

Buglers perform at a national flag-raising ceremony in Beijing's Tian'anmen Square.    © Xinhua

BEIJING -- China's Communist Party will mobilize big data, artificial intelligence and online technology to solidify one-party rule and educate the public on President Xi Jinping's socialism ideology, a policy document released Tuesday after last week's party plenum shows.

The Central Committee's policy decisions reveal Xi doubling down on the consolidation of power amid the greatest challenges of his tenure: an intractable trade war with the U.S. and mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The internet, with over 800 million Chinese users, will be crucial in the push to reinforce the authority of Xi and his party. Beijing will set rules for administrative use of big data, AI and the like to "promote the construction of digital government," the document said.

Chinese authorities have linked the country's 200 million surveillance cameras to a database with IDs, mobile phone numbers and bank accounts. Beijing plans to process the vast image data from these cameras via facial recognition technology, combine it with information such as smartphone payments and analyze it all with AI to create detailed profiles on the activities of individual citizens, some argue.

The Communist Party also will intensify efforts to shape public opinion online, both inside and outside China, the plenum document states.

A police officer wearing AI-powered smart glasses patrolling on a street in Nanchang, China.   © Reuters

The text urges "arming the whole party and educating the people with Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era." It calls for creating an official system around the party's educational campaign on Xi's ideology, themed on "staying true to the founding mission."

The section on technological innovation avoids explicitly mentioning "Made in China 2025," the industrial modernization initiative that has earned Washington's ire. But it says China will pool capital and technology from research institutions and companies, and continue development of semiconductors and other advancements for which the country now depends on foreign sources.

China will "unwaveringly" develop and strengthen state-owned enterprises, the document says, a statement interpreted as meaning Beijing will accelerate consolidation of these companies to let them compete more effectively on the global stage. The policy also calls for improving security reviews of investment by foreign companies.

On Hong Kong, the document supports the "one country, two systems" framework under which the territory enjoys a high degree of autonomy, but it also asserts that the "two systems" are derived from the "one country."

Though it reiterates the principle of Hong Kongers ruling Hong Kong, the document adds new language stipulating that governance is to be handled mainly by "patriots."

The plenary session was the first to follow the March 2018 National People's Congress, at which China's constitution was revised to remove presidential term limits, opening the door for Xi to rule the country for decades.

With the U.S. trade tensions and unrest in Hong Kong showing no sign of abating, speculation had arisen that Xi might appoint allies and potential successors Chen Min'er or Hu Chunhua to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee during the plenum to shore up his support.

But the policy statement shows that Xi took an entirely different route: further concentrating power in his own hands to overcome the challenges ahead.

Xi said at the plenum that last year's constitutional revisions led to great progress in building governance, state-run news agency Xinhua reported. This comment can be seen as both a jab at critics of his leadership and a signal that the party is united in bolstering the president's authority.

This authority, and that of the Communist Party, would be threatened if Beijing cannot handle the trade and Hong Kong issues effectively -- a prospect that the plenum's decisions suggest is a real worry for the party. The use of digital technology to enhance social control can be seen as a way to head off this risk and consolidate one-party rule.

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