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The TikTok Trojan Horse and China’s Long Arm of Artificial Intelligence: Geoffrey Cain | American Thought Leaders

In this episode of American Thought Leaders, I sit down with Geoffrey Cain, an award-winning journalist, technologist, and author of “The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future.”

“Everybody was constantly being watched by an artificial intelligence system, which was called the IJOP,” says Cain, referring to a pre-crime surveillance platform that the Chinese Communist Party launched in Xinjiang to predictively police the population.

Cain recently testified before the U.S. Senate about TikTok and why he believes the social media app’s troubled emergence in America, its shadowy corporate structure, and its connection to China’s security and data laws make it a unique national security threat.

“It is a disaster waiting to happen because TikTok, though the company denies it, is fundamentally obligated to follow … the laws that were created by the Chinese Communist Party,” Cain says.

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Jan Jekielek:

Geoffrey Cain, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Geoffrey Cain:

Thank you for having me, Jan.

Mr. Jekielek:

I’ve wanted to have you on the show ever since you put out “The Perfect Police State,” which is an absolutely amazing book and we’ll definitely talk about this. Before we go there though, just recently you were in the U. S. Senate giving testimony about social media and national security issues, specifically around TikTok and how it functions in the U.S. and around the world. So tell me, what did you find?

Mr. Cain:

Oh, so much. The problem with TikTok is that it is a national security threat to the United States and to countries outside of China. It is a disaster waiting to happen, because TikTok, although the company denies it, is fundamentally obligated to follow the laws of China, laws that were created by the Chinese Communist Party.

So, here’s how TikTok works. It’s an app that is extremely popular among Generation Z users. It’s like the next Facebook or the next wave of social media and anyone can go on there and create a short 12 or 15 second clip of them dancing to music or showing their cat. You can load up celebrities and see what they’re up to. The app itself seems quite harmless, and there’s nothing about it that at first glance would look particularly nefarious or evil. But beneath the surface, there is a lot going on.

TikTok was originally created by ByteDance, a Chinese company based in Beijing. It had been created by one of the major figures deeply involved in Chinese artificial intelligence technology. It received enormous amounts of funding from a major Silicon Valley investment firm, Sequoia Capital, a company that was trying to expand in China. It wasn’t until about 5 or 6 years ago that TikTok was created by this company ByteDance through an expansion into the American market. 

They had acquired a fellow Chinese company that was developing a music app that was getting popular in America called Musical.ly. ByteDance decided to acquire it and used it to create what we now know as TikTok. Now, here’s the first big red flag, and there are many red flags. But the biggest red flag is that upon this acquisition, TikTok did not notify the U.S. government.

There is a body called CFIUS, which is the Council on Foreign Investment in the United States. This is the body that is charged with reviewing all sorts of Chinese investments in America, and not just Chinese, but also foreign investments in America that might pose some kind of national security risk. CFIUS has reviewed investments in semi-conductors, in surveillance cameras, and military weaponry and components. Anything that could potentially pose a risk to the security of America has to go through a review by CFIUS. 

Now, TikTok, upon entering America, had these grand plans to use data. TikTok is essentially a data-scooping machine. It’s getting your face, your voice, your behavior, your movements, and it’s learning about you. TikTok has not said much publicly about its algorithms, but like all social media platforms, these systems are extremely profitable, because they gather so much data and they use that data to sell ads to consumers.

The first problem here is that TikTok entered the American market trying to appeal to Gen Z, to the next generation, to the celebrities, and trying to build up the cat videos and the dancing videos. This was a kind of mask that covered up some of the darker realities going on underneath the surface. The big problem is that this is a company that is based in China, and upon request, it is a company that will be responsive to Chinese law. 

And yet, they’re expanding in this massive way in America. There wasn’t even a CFIUS review at the beginning. That should sound alarm bells. Why did TikTok decide not to do that review? It is as if they snuck into the market and placed their software in the hands of the next generation.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let me jump in right here. Okay. The fact that they didn’t disclose this for review with CFIUS, doesn’t that somehow create an opportunity to do a CFIUS review? What is the status of this right now?

Mr. Cain:

Back in 2020, the Trump Administration initiated a CFIUS review. Donald Trump wanted to get TikTok banned. So, TikTok challenged this review in court, and challenged some of the decisions. The goal was going to be to probably sell TikTok to Oracle. This would be a forced sale, and Oracle was lining up as the main buyer. This sale was never initiated. The Biden Administration stepped in later, but didn’t completely kill the review. 

For the last year, TikTok has been under a CFIUS review, but they have been very quiet about it. It’s not clear what’s going to come of it. Currently, there are conversations happening between TikTok and Oracle, the American company. I can’t say for sure now whether it’s going to be sold to Oracle or sold to an American company. According to TikTok, there will be some kind of agreement with the U.S. government to ensure that this kind of data sharing with China won’t be possible. That’s their claim, and I don’t totally believe it, but we’ll get into that.

Mr. Jekielek:

There are two areas that I see are hugely problematic, maybe it’s already obvious to our viewers. Number one is that every conceivable data point in these highly sophisticated computers that we call smart phones is being gathered by this app. That’s number one. And this company is subservient to the CCP. The CCP, whatever advantage it can take, we know it will. So, this is not a good recipe. That’s one. The second part which I didn’t see covered as much in your testimony, is that they also decide what you can see or not see.

Mr. Cain:

Yes.

Mr. Jekielek:

And they are very non-transparent about it. This could also be in the realm of what we call ephemeral experiences. In other words, there isn’t someone actually watching what is being served up to people and somehow tabulating it. It’s gone forever, and we won’t know what our kid or our person working in the national security establishment is seeing as they’re using it. So these are the two areas that jump to mind.

Mr. Cain:

Oh, yes. I agree completely. One of the big problems is that the TikTok algorithm does decide what you see. These algorithms in all the social media platforms are very opaque and are seen as protected intellectual property. They don’t want that information to leak out, because they say it will damage their business. But in the past, TikTok executives have admitted that TikTok has been used to suppress bad news coming out of China. 

There was a TikTok executive who testified before the British Parliament saying that news about the Uyghurs in Xinjiang was being suppressed at one point. There are also other examples. Back in 2019, there was a leaked moderation guideline. It showed ByteDance instructing the global TikTok moderators, including in America, to look around for material that might look bad.

That included anything that shows poverty, slums, poor people, and so-called ugly people. It literally was saying these kinds of things. The moderation guidelines said, “You need to suppress this kind of material. We only want to see beautiful people on here who are happy and nice and great to look at and attractive. 

This is an example of abusive censorship because not only are we discriminating against the poor and people who don’t look super attractive, this was being used to tow the party line, to suppress news about the Uyghurs, and to suppress news about human rights abuses in China.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s jump to the data gathering and what exposure that creates. Please give me the picture.

Mr. Cain:

Here’s the problem. The Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that it wants to become a global leader in artificial intelligence, and that AI is going to be a major pillar of Chinese military power and surveillance power. Xi Jinping has made it clear that he’s trying to build this new society that will be driven by this total surveillance state that will know everything that’s going on within China, and potentially outside of China too. 

This is where the TikTok and the ByteDance connection becomes extremely problematic. Under Chinese law and under the Chinese Communist Party, any executive, whether you are at TikTok, the American version of the app, or you’re at Douyin, the Chinese version of the app, there’s not going to be a separation between those two. The Chinese Communist Party will see TikTok fundamentally as a Chinese company and one that needs to report to the Chinese Communist Party.

With the National Intelligence Law of China and National Security Law, these are some very terrifying and totalitarian laws that require people in China to take part in intelligence operations upon request. So let’s say something hypothetically, and indeed this may have happened, but we can’t say for sure because it would be all secret. But hypothetically, let’s say the Ministry of State Security or the Ministry of Public Security, two very powerful bodies in China, issue a demand to Chinese employees of TikTok who are based in China to hand over the data of certain people.

These could be Hong Kong dissidents, these could be American military commanders, it could be anybody who might be of interest to the Chinese Communist Party. Those executives are required by Chinese law to hand over the data. It doesn’t matter if TikTok says, and this is how TikTok responds, they always say, “We are an American company, we’re separate, we’re based all over the world, we’re not the same as the Chinese company ByteDance.” But they also admit that they have employees in China and these employees, as we know, are subject to the harsh and brutal realities of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr. Jekielek:

Please tell me about what is called the master admin.

Mr. Cain:

Yes. This was a part of audio files that were leaked in Buzzfeed, the news website. There were 20 audio files that were taken from various meetings between ByteDance and TikTok software developers. They were just talking about the problems inherent in having Chinese executives who are overseeing them. In one of these audio recordings, one of the executives was talking about this master admin, who is an unnamed figure. 

We’re not sure who this person is, but it said that this person is somebody in Beijing who has access to all TikTok data, all global data. TikTok denies that this is true. They say that there is no master admin, and that there is nobody with this title, but it’s clearly on the audio recording. These are internal meetings and somebody is talking about a master admin. That’s very strong evidence right there.

If you go back through TikTok’s testimony before the Senate, they have always testified that the Chinese company does not have access to American data, and that there is a wall between them. This evidence right here contradicts what they’ve been telling us under oath. This is truly devastating for them, because if they are found to be lying under oath or withholding information under oath, that could put TikTok in big legal trouble. There are a number of executives who have testified, and we’ll see exactly what’s going to happen in the future.

But the evidence that keeps coming out contradicts what they say under oath in front of U. S. senators. So, this revelation about the master admin is the big one. There were also audio files on there, which you could hear people talking about how they had to go through Chinese executives and Chinese developers in China to figure out how the data of Americans was being observed and used. We could go on and on about this, but that Buzzfeed report was particularly devastating. TikTok has come out full blast trying to deny that this is the case, but the audio files are there.

Mr. Jekielek:

One thing we know about AI is that you want to have maximum data to feed into AI to teach it, and to have it to function. This is what I’m seeing from what you’re telling me. We have 80 million American TikTok users. That’s a pretty large dataset and this unlimited data coming from the phone 24/7, because these apps are also collecting when they are not open. And we have the Chinese Communist Party, which is deeply interested in developing AI. You might think there is a prerogative on their side to use that information, given how they function.

Mr. Cain:

Without a doubt, there is a huge prerogative under the Chinese Communist Party to do whatever it can to get that data. We all know that the Chinese Communist Party is a ruthless organization. It is vicious and authoritarian. They have put 1.8 million people in concentration camps in Western China, which is the biggest internment of a minority since the Holocaust. We’re talking about very serious crimes against humanity and genocide here. We know that the Communist Party is not going to care if there is a small legal wall that separates the Chinese ByteDance company from the American TikTok company.

One other piece of evidence is in TikTok’s own privacy policy. If you read it carefully, it says, “We can share data with our corporate group.” And that’s in quotes, that’s literally what it says. TikTok was pressed about this in a previous congressional hearing. The senator asked them three times, “What is the definition of our corporate group? Does this include ByteDance in China?” And after dodging the question repeatedly, finally TikTok admitted, “Yes, our corporate group includes ByteDance.” That means, according to their own policies, they might actually share the data of people around the world with the Chinese arm.

Mr. Beckman:

We do hold that to a high standard and we have access controls.

Senator:

Mr. Beckman, we’re going to try a third time because the words that came out of your mouth have no relation to the question you were asked. Your privacy policy says you will share information with your corporate group. I’m asking a very simple question, is ByteDance, your parent company, headquartered in Beijing, part of your corporate group? Yes or no? As you use the term in your privacy policy.

Mr. Beckman:

Senator, I think it’s important that I address the broader point in your statement.

Senator:

So are you willing to answer the question, yes or no? It is a yes or no question. Are they part of your corporate group or not?

Mr. Beckman:

Yes, Senator, it is.

Mr. Jekielek:

YesIt’s all in the fine print, isn’t it?

Mr. Cain:

It is absolutely in the fine print, and that has been TikTok’s strategy. When they come under criticism, when they’re under the microscope, their strategy has been to deflect, to distract, to confuse people and to use fine print and little technical slight-of-hand to try to distract people from the reality and the truth. Even in my testimony, a TikTok public relations officer responded on Twitter, pointed out all these little technicalities like, “Technically ByteDance is not in China. The parent company ByteDance is technically in the Cayman Islands, where we’re technically not reporting to a Chinese company.” 

But that’s absolutely missing the point, that’s just taking my testimony out of context, and trying to smear me and discredit me with these little technicalities. It doesn’t address the underlying reality that TikTok reports to the Cayman Islands company, and the Cayman Islands shell company also owns ByteDance, the Chinese company. They’re all a part of the same corporate group, and there’s no fundamental separation between them.

Mr. Jekielek:

What is the relationship between these large companies like Huawei, ByteDance, and TikTok with the Chinese Communist Party?

Mr. Cain:

In China, there is no separation of private business and the public government like in the United States. Here, Google does not have to report to the American government, and Tesla does not report to the White House. They might have their relationships and their lobbying, but the White House cannot call Apple and tell them what to do and what not to do. Apple even built in a feature that prevented the FBI, for a long time, from breaking into phones and gathering data. 

So, there’s a clear separation between government and private business, which is quite healthy. In China, it is not the case at all, and that is absolutely a line that does not exist. A company might look like it’s private on paper, and it might have all the legal fixtures in place that give the impression that ByteDance or Alibaba is a separate entity from the government, but the Chinese system is so different from America.

In America, we have separation of powers, and we have three branches of government. In China, everything is ruled by the party. It’s simply the Communist Party. There is one single party that runs everything. All laws are underneath the party, and the judicial system is underneath the party. It’s not rule of law, it’s ruled by the party. That is why the Chinese Communist Party is just so threatening and forceful when it comes to forcing these companies to follow its dictates. 

We’ve seen in recent years, with various cases of the Chinese Communist Party cracking down on tech companies. Jack Ma, the head of Alibaba, had disappeared for quite some time. Others were being sentenced and arrested. There was a lot of action in this area because the Chinese Communist Party did not want companies going outside of its dictates. They wanted to remind private companies, “Ultimately, you work for us.”

Mr. Jekielek:

Yes. And that was actually a very interesting moment. I mean, one of the analyses I heard was, “Well, you got a little bit too independent there, Jack.” Right?

Mr. Cain:

With that whole crackdown, the Chinese Communist Party was just concerned about the wealth being amassed by these private technology tycoons. These tycoons were amassing their own followings in China, they were perhaps even rivaling the Chinese Communist Party in many ways. But ultimately, the Chinese Communist Party is the one in charge and they want to have access to that AI, to that data, they want to have access to those private technologies being developed by ByteDance and WeChat and Alibaba. So, if they do get too far away from the party core, which is Xi Jinping and the Politburo, they will always reach out and try to bring them back in, back into the center, back into the fold.

Mr. Jekielek:

There’s people that believe that TikTok should be banned. It almost was, as we mentioned earlier, and then there are others that say, “Hey, it’s a free market, that’s unfair, unreasonable to do. It’ll have other negative downstream consequences.” Where do you stand on this?

Mr. Cain:

My stance is that TikTok should at minimum be sold to an American company. We cannot have major Communist Party-connected companies in China running massive social media platforms in America. It is the Trojan horse, it’s the mole, it’s everything that you do not want in a modern democracy. It’s also a new problem, because we now live in this age of smartphones and software. This kind of problem did not exist in the past in the Cold War, we were more concerned about the hardware aspect of it. So, the missiles being pointed at each other and the potential for nuclear war, it’s still a possibility, it hasn’t gone away, but there’s this added element now of the way that we use software and social media and the way that it exposes us to major foreign threats from hostile powers who are looking to undermine us from the inside.

Mr. Jekielek:

Well, it’s interesting that you say that. I just want to briefly mention the work of Dr. Robert Epstein, who basically has looked at how certain Big Tech companies, multiple different ones, are able to influence public opinion in many cases without the people realizing themselves that they’re being influenced. Some of the work that he’s done has shown that you can, for example, for someone that’s undecided, this isn’t for people that already know exactly what they want to do, you can shift how someone will vote without them even being aware that they’ve been shifted by doing basically extensive, double blind tests on how people’s preferences change and so forth.

This work, to me, is incredibly disturbing. And by the way, he also shows that it has been done by American companies in different contexts. And I’ll mention this, one of the most stark examples, and I don’t think the company even realized at the time that it was doing something like this, but Facebook at one point basically sent out, “Hey, come out and vote.” Basically to the Hispanic community and it worked, it increased the voting.

And they actually publicized this saying, “Look, we’ve been really effective at doing this.” Of course, the reality is that a political actor or someone who wants to act in a political way might say, “Oh, look, this group in particular, votes a particular way. Let’s get them to come out because we want a particular political outcome.” So now, let’s forget about America for a second. The reality of this kind of power, which is all in these ephemeral experiences, where people get things projected to them, no one will ever know that they saw it except that person, is now potentially in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. Now, that to me is a wild threat.

Mr. Cain:

It is absolutely wild. It’s a threat that we haven’t taken seriously enough until now. I do think that as Americans, when we’re dealing with hostile foreign powers, we tend to be naive. And that’s because we forget that being an American and growing up in New York or Chicago, life for you is quite different from life for somebody in Russia or China or somewhere that has always been underneath this authoritarian government and might not have the same outlook on life. We just have to remember that not all of the world is a liberal democracy, that there are different systems around the world and that we can’t simply trust TikTok coming from this authoritarian background, within an authoritarian country to simply, automatically follow American laws as they are written. It’s just not how the world works, it’s not how the system works and it’s something we need to be mindful of as we deal with the TikTok problem.

Mr. Jekielek:

There is this fine print and in this case, you’ve shown how the fine print exposes a really crazy reality, I would argue. But with the Chinese Communist Party, I’ve never seen any evidence that they’ve been interested in caring what that fine print is, if they can get away with it. The WTO finds that it’s illegal, that there’s this required technology transfer when American companies come into China. They’re required to transfer their technology to be able to get market access. That is illegal, and I didn’t even realize this until I read it in your book, that this is actually an illegal act by the WTO. But has China cared? No. How many American companies have agreed to transfer their intellectual property? Hundreds. I is billions upon billions of dollars of intellectual property.

Mr. Cain:

Yes, billions and billions of dollars. This is something that the Chinese Communist Party has mastered. It is looking for ways to extract technology and intellectual property from companies that want to do business in China. The Chinese government advertises China as having a major consumer market, with its 1.2 billion people. It’s been growing wildly, there’s a lot of money, a lot of profit to be made. But here’s the catch, once you come to China, if we decide that you have to do it, you’re going to have to transfer that IP to a local Chinese company. Just so many American companies have tried operating in China over the years, major companies, including Google, but they’ve ultimately been shown the door. It’s as if they try to open the door to China, and compete with local companies. Maybe sometimes they’re idealistic and believe that they’re trade or their economic engagement with China will open the way to reforms and potentially democracy in the future, when the rising middle class will want to rise up and change the government.

These are all a fantasy, none of this has happened at all. Google is perhaps the best example of this repeatedly happening in China because Google originally tried to enter the Chinese market, they left voluntarily, but also they were harassed and shown the door by the Chinese government. They were out of favor compared to Baidu, which is the Chinese equivalent. But the experience of Google and the experience of major American tech firms trying to enter China is that, “Look, China doesn’t want your values. The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want you to open up a major search engine that’s going to be open and hopefully uncensored in China.” They don’t want any of that, they want you out of there. And that’s the major lesson that we’ve learned in the past decade or so trying to engage with China, that we become more like China rather than they become more like us, which is a point that you’ve made very well.

Mr. Jekielek:

Okay, so we definitely need to talk about that. Is it bizarre to you? It’s bizarre to me. That’s why I’m asking the question this way, that Google may have an AI development arm functioning in China. Given everything we’ve talked about, we know that the Chinese military and the regime itself is, if not deeply intertwined, is watching it very closely, and almost certainly deeply intertwined. Yet they’re not as quick to work, for example, with the U.S. military. I just find this a really bizarre endpoint in how a company of this stature, of this size, of this influence in the U.S. and globally is functioning.

Mr. Cain:

Yes. American companies, they really trip over themselves when they try to justify what they’re doing in China. They will often try to cover up their tracks or maybe try to keep the information in Mandarin, Chinese, and just hope that nobody’s translating it. But there are people translating it, there are lots of investigators looking into this. They trip over themselves and attempt to make it look like they’re working harmlessly in China. But then you lift the veil, and at least I’ve found that there’s quite a lot of activity going on that should be better monitored and potentially should be illegal in some respects. One example that you mentioned is Google, with this possible AI laboratory there. Microsoft is another excellent example of a company that set up a major artificial intelligence laboratory. This is Microsoft Research Lab-Asia, that’s the name of this laboratory, opened up under Bill Gates.

It was a public relations attempt to build a stronger relationship with the Chinese market, but it ended up evolving into a laboratory that was almost autonomous, and that didn’t report as it should to the Microsoft parent company in America. And in the process, it became the breeding ground, and the training ground for the future leaders of China’s artificial intelligence sector. Many of its alumni had gone on to found major Chinese companies that were involved in human rights abuses and in various national security and military abuses and who are now sanctioned by the U.S. government as a result of their efforts. So, it’s an indirect line. Bill Gates didn’t pick up the phone and say, “Please train the future of AI officials in China.” But he did set up the institute there that is now being used against us by training all these people who go into these malevolent companies that are acting against American interests.

Mr. Jekielek:

Right. And this was one of the originals, it was originally named China and then they renamed it Asia to make it sound a little more innocuous.

Mr. Cain:

A little more neutral, yes.

Mr. Jekielek:

When I read your book, it caused me to go into a state of deep introspection about many things. Because you actually had a guide at one point and he told you the three steps, and I thought it was amazing that this guy was so astute in his observations. But there’s basically three elements of the perfect police state effectively. So maybe if you could reprise that to me, and explain to me this police state? What are the elements? And then we’ll get to, how is it that Xinjiang became that?

Mr. Cain:

Yes. So, the perfect police state. Then I was writing the book, one of the most interesting things I found was that many of the Uyghurs who I was talking to, including my guide in Xinjiang, were not just awash in propaganda. They were well aware of what was going on. They were informed about what was happening around the world, and they were not simply in the dark. They were not simply suffering like these passive sufferers who the Communist Party is just acting against and they’re just going to camps and that’s it. They were very sharp on what was going on around them.

My guide told me that it was a three step process, and that he had been observing it very carefully. The first step was this process of ensuring that technology, these social media apps, these various technological apps and websites were in the hands of everybody. They were in the hands of regular people and then they were being used to blast misinformation at them that there’s a major terrorist threat. The terrorist threat comes from the Uyghurs and we have to do something about this, the Chinese government, the Communist Party must act. That was stage one. It was a process of alienating and othering this particular group and just blasting out the propaganda to the point where people started…

Mr. Jekielek:

Through this new technology that’s basically ubiquitous, you can’t live without it. And we’ll get to talking about social credit scores, but now you have apps that you need to be able to function in society on these phones.

Mr. Cain:

Yes. Now you are chained to your phone. You must rely on WeChat to purchase items at the local 7-Eleven convenience store. There was so much that was happening, just a sea change of technology in China at this time. The Chinese government exploited that to feed people with misinformation, to spy on them, to gather data on them. But people didn’t really have a choice.

Mr. Jekielek:

And then to other this one specific group of people. Okay, what are the other two steps?

Mr. Cain:

The second step was to create these artificial categories. So this goes back to the othering that I talked about before, looking for ways to separate the population. For example, to bulldoze cultural artifacts, to clear out certain neighborhoods and move people, move the local Uyghur population to different areas from the majority Han Chinese population. This is also something that the Nazis were very good at in terms of moving Jews out to the ghettos.

Mr. Jekielek:

Creating ghettos.

Mr. Cain:

… creating ghettos. It’s the physical and the digital separation of these two groups, of othering them and making it clear that they are the national enemy, they must be tamed or they must be oppressed in order for the nation to survive.

The final step, the third step was what my guide called the panopticon. This is an old term that influenced George Orwell in 1984. It’s this concept of a…imagine that there’s a circular prison camp and there’s a guard post in the center and there’s one guard in this post who can look out at all the prisoners, he can see all of them because it’s a giant circle around him. But the way that it’s set up, the prisoners can’t see the guard looking at them so they can only guess if they’re being watched at any moment. And maybe they are really being watched, maybe the guard is looking at them intently, or maybe he’s watching TV and taking a nap, there’s no way to know. But this is a very good system for controlling the prison population, because everybody is scared of being watched and nobody wants to get in trouble. This is the system that the Chinese Communist Party set up in Western China back in 2016 and 2017.

It was a digital panopticon in which everybody was constantly being watched by an artificial intelligence system, which was called the IJOP or the Integrated Joint Operations Platform. And this platform would gather data from smartphones based on people’s usage. It would gather data from cameras. This region had cameras that covered almost every square inch. They would track everybody, track everything that they’re doing and try to create this sense of fear that the party is watching and you have to fall in line. Now, a lot of times the AI turned out not to be that sophisticated, the software would make silly predictions, like someone’s going to become a terrorist because they bought too many cigarettes that day. It would make these silly predictions that didn’t make sense, but the point of that was to scare people. You never knew if you’re going to be the next target, so it’s better just to fall in line, and become a robot for the Communist Party to survive.

Mr. Jekielek:

On this show, maybe not that often, but I’ve talked about the film, The Lives of Others. It’s been maybe 15 years ago that it came out, of course, talking about East Germany and showing what living in a police state might look like. What struck me about that film is that for the first time I saw something that might explain to people who grow up in a free society, where you’re not expecting everyone and every device to be spying on you, to understand what it’s like to be in a society which is structured that way. Back then, the Stasi were arguably the best at it, but the technologies weren’t so efficiently advanced that every aspect of your life could be scrutinized or might be scrutinized.

So I’m going to plug that film, folks. Go see it if you haven’t, it’s a very important film. But now what you’re describing is this taken, they say on steroids, but it’s even more than on steroids, because it’s almost like your gate. Are you moving in a way that might seem like you’re drunk? Everything about what you’re doing is now in some way being categorized and sent to a central repository where an AI studies it and determines things almost in this, and I’m thinking of another film, Minority Report, this sort of pre-crime way. And actually this idea of pre-crime figures into things here. So tell me about this.

Mr. Cain:

Yes. The AI system, the IJOP is a pre-crime system. It’s gathering all this data about everyone it can in the region of Xinxiang, because it wants to predict who will become a terrorist and what kind of behaviors are indicators of who exactly will become a terrorist. I’ve gone through lists. The Chinese Communist Party is extremely boastful about what it’s done despite its being a very dark and heavy topic. We’re talking about genocide and crimes against humanity. But surprisingly, Communist Party officials are very blase about putting this on the internet and bragging about everything that they’re supposedly accomplishing. I’ve looked at lists of behaviors that the IJOP does not like. One example would be going out and buying a tent.

Suddenly purchasing a tent is something that regular people don’t do often, so the AI system is trained to look at someone who buys a tent and to see that as something that’s somehow suspicious or indicative of a terrorist mindset. This is predictive policing. This is the goal of being able to create a total security state, and that’s what China wants. It’s a total surveillance state that not only documents what people are doing right now, but is supposed to know what people are going to be doing one week from now. The goal is to eradicate all crime, all terrorism, create like this Truman Show world almost, in which all of life is plotted out and planned in the future. It’s truly dystopian.

Mr. Jekielek:

How far away is that from what you have seen in Xinxiang, and from how you understand Xinxiang operates right now, and frankly, other parts of China, which are, as I understand it, adopting the model to various degrees?

Mr. Cain:

It is already spreading throughout China. Back when I was writing the book, I had started researching it back in 2016 when this police state was starting to emerge. I had seen reports and I was alarmed at the reports that were coming out, so I decided to go out there and see it for myself. It was absolutely a dark, horrendous, scary sci-fi movie. It felt like Minority Report with Tom Cruise, as you said, where the systems are trying to predict what people are going to do and they’re taken away to concentration camps if they’re believed to be suspicious. This system has already been spread around many parts of China, Tibet has been enacting some of these measures. Also, Inner Mongolia, another region that is often not really examined as much as the other regions.

Also, the rest of China has now been engulfed in the system of social credit, which they’re not as repressive as what is happening in Xinxiang, because they’re not targeting the minority in these other parts of China. But they’re repressive in the sense that they track people’s purchases and credit histories and to see if they can be reliable enough to buy a house. Should you be allowed to purchase an airplane ticket and travel overseas? Do we trust you, the state, enough to give you this privilege to fly to America for two weeks and then fly back? What is scary is that even if there are no concentration camps in Beijing, in the capital right now, there is a system of total surveillance that has enveloped the whole country and most recently has done so with the COVID lockdowns in China, which are very extreme.

Mr. Jekielek:

Exactly, and we’ve seen footage of people lining up in mass trying to get their vaccination status updated, for example. And we’ve seen also examples of how this vaccination status has become a key piece of this surveillance regime. In fact, there are other examples where we’ve seen where people, obviously for political reasons, had their vaccines header swapped from green to red all of a sudden because they did something wrong politically. So it’s almost like we’re seeing the application of this technology. But here’s the reason why I became introspective about this type of technology. It’s not only in China now that this is being applied.

Mr. Cain:

No, it’s not. It’s spreading, it’s going everywhere. And this goes back to the problem of TikTok. What is it that separates TikTok and ByteDance operating around the world from what’s happening in Xinxiang? ByteDance, they might not be literally running the concentration camps, but they’ve been involved in suppressing and censoring news about these atrocities. They’re using fundamentally the same technologies as what the Chinese government has been using to monitor and surveil its people. The lockdowns have only been more alarming in China, because they’ve been just so repressive to an extreme that it’s like all humanity has been stripped away in the major cities of Beijing and Shanghai.

There are these videos that you’ve probably seen of people standing on their balcony during the lockdowns and the police drone will come by and order them to go back into their room, just because they’re on their balcony for just five seconds, and that supposedly is a major pandemic threat to the Chinese nation. The real reason for these lockdowns, and I’m sure people in the Chinese government know that they’re ineffective, and they’re not going to stop COVID, but it gives the sense of control. It makes it clear that we are the ones who have power over you and you have to do what we say, even if the lockdowns themselves do not have that intended effect of stopping COVID.

Mr. Jekielek:

The AI and the system being wrong is actually a feature, not a bug as they say, right? Because that creates this sense of insecurity, “I might be next, I didn’t actually do anything wrong. Or am I doing something wrong?” And this is a very weird mental state to be put into and it obviously affects people living in this kind of panopticon.

Mr. Cain:

It does. This is the riddle of Chinese Communist Party rule. The riddle is, where is the line and how far can I go before I’m crossing the line? The Communist Party never makes the line fully clear, it’s simply if they want to target you and they want to make an example of you and they want to oppress or surveil you in some way, then they’ll draw the line. But they’re always going to draw the line far behind you, you’ve already stepped over it. So nothing you do is going to prevent them from taking you to a concentration camp. Nothing you do is going to prevent the Communist Party from arresting you on a lockdown violation. If they want to harass you and threaten you, if you are a dissident in Hong Kong or you are a Uyghur Muslim practicing in the West, they will do everything they can to make your life as difficult as possible.

Mr. Jekielek:

A number of our viewers, I know, will be listening to this whole conversation and thinking to themselves that they’re worried that they’re seeing the seeds of this sort of thing happening in this country, in my home country of Canada, and in the West. We have emails that show that the CDC, Center for Disease Control in the US, essentially colluded with social media, in this case Facebook, to basically censor dissident voices around these lockdown policies in America, the people that wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, which turns out, were extremely important voices that weren’t heard, and which may have basically prevented these cataclysmic policies from having been put into effect economically and socially. We’re just beginning to see the ramifications. But when you talk about all this, I start thinking about how government and corporate seem to be somehow colluding and working together. Are you worried that we’re seeing these seeds of what’s happening in China happening here?

Mr. Cain:

Yes. This is something that worries me, and something that I’ve been thinking a lot about too. At what point does what’s happening in China start to also look like what’s happening in America? We have a handful of social media giants that control our platforms, that control the flow of information, which does give them enormous power. We have a White House that might not always be the most responsible in terms of its own decision making. But at what point does what’s happening in America start to look like the collusion of government and corporations to create a very over-moderated information environment?

And it’s true what you’re talking about. Going back to the pandemic, there were voices that were censored or shut down because they were deemed to be spreading misinformation. But now that some years have passed and now with the benefit of hindsight, we’re looking back and saying, “Well, actually what the CDC was saying was not entirely accurate at the time.” Even Dr. Fauci just said this recently at an event that one of his regrets was that he wishes that he would’ve said at the time that we’re making decisions based on all the available data we have. We don’t know everything yet and once more data comes out, then we’ll know what’s going on. That’s essentially the gist of what he was saying.

This is one of the problems with the label of misinformation and it’s something that worries me. At what point does a fair criticism or a fair point being raised suddenly become misinformation? If you go on Twitter or Facebook and you’re questioning a U.S. government policy or a Facebook deplatforming policy, at what point are you spreading something that’s totally reckless versus spreading information that is just simply heathe lthy questioning and skepticism that we should have in a democracy? And especially, the Left in particular has gone too far on this. They’ve attempted to use the term misinformation as this blanket term for anything that might hurt someone’s feelings or offend somebody. This whole misinformation debate is spreading into something different.

Mr. Jekielek:

I mentioned to you that a certain former U.S. senator told me at one point that he really believed, and I believe him, he believed that we could change China, and help it become a more democratic, more fair, open system, a free system. And then he said, “Well, actually, but I think they changed us.” And I agree with that.

Mr. Cain:

I think so. The Chinese system has changed us and I think that you can get the answer to that by asking any major corporate CEO of any major company operating in China, “What do you think about China’s human rights record?” Just go to Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, who about a year ago announced a major expansion into the Chinese market, which was widely criticized in the finance community and ask somebody like that, “Well, what’s your stance? Do you condemn the genocide of the Uyghurs? Do you consider it a genocide? What is your stance on the lockdowns in Beijing and Shanghai? What is your stance on Tibet, on Taiwan, on Falun Gong, and on all these different groups?” The typical response that these executives will give is that they’re not diplomats. They’ll often say, “We’re not human rights activists, we’re not diplomats, we’re just here to do business.”

What they’re admitting is that they don’t care, they just want the money. And this is problematic in America because we are a democracy. We are supposed to care about our values, and those values should be embedded in our companies too. It’s not simply that you push aside your values when profit is suddenly being discussed. This is a debate that goes back through American history. This is not new to our times. But the question of the corporation and its role is something that we need to pay closer attention to today, because a lot of big corporations are acting against America and turning us into something more like China with this vow of silence that we are not allowed to criticize China, we’re not allowed to raise the problem of human rights, and we must take a vow of silence in exchange for the promise of profit.

Mr. Jekielek:

This is actually quite interesting. You’ll recall back in 1999 when the Chinese regime outlawed Falun Gong, and started persecuting practitioners, I was thinking about the othering you were describing. They didn’t have the pocket tools for othering people at the time, but they did have the whole TV media. There were 500,000 pieces of state propaganda that went out demonizing these people, and basically making them enemies of the state, just a reason to show why it is okay to persecute these people.

American companies went, in some cases, there’s been multiple court cases on this, basically advertising themselves to the regime that they can help them find Falun Gong practitioners. We know where this has gone. This whole organ harvesting regime was created with this huge prison population in the labor camps. Anyway, terrible things happen and to me, the logical conclusion of all of that, because we didn’t act, because we just kept quiet, as you say, is Xinxiang today is the perfect police state. If a regime is doing this sort of thing, how can we trust a regime? Even if you’re a company, let’s say I’m Larry Fink or whoever it is that wants to put a lot of money in there, how can I trust them if I know, and of course they know, the horrific things they’re willing to do to people?

Mr. Cain:

You can’t trust them, I think that’s the only answer. Companies go in on the assumption that China will change for them, that China will open the red carpet and welcome them in and help them make a lot of money, but a government that does this to its people cannot be trusted. That same government, they might welcome you today as a company operating there, but tomorrow they might show the door to anybody. They could show the door to BlackRock and Larry Fink. They could say, “Well, thank you for the IP.” Going back to what we talked about earlier, BlackRock is a good example of a company that has some major IP in the financial technology area, the predictive analytics relating to where to invest your money. BlackRock has a system that goes back in time about 50 years and that documents all major news around the world and then attempts to predict how news events today are going to shape the market. It helps move around people’s wealth based on that.

This kind of IP is enormously valuable. And I don’t personally know what kind of system BlackRock has in place to protect that IP, but that’s just one example of something that the Chinese government would love to have its hands on. I’m sure there are Chinese employees in BlackRock who are thinking about this already, “The Communist Party is instructing us to steal the IP, so just go into BlackRock and see if we can take it.” If they treat their people that way, if they abuse their human rights, they’re also going to abuse foreign companies. They don’t see that as a separate issue.

Mr. Jekielek:

I’m going to ask this question again and you’ve already answered partially, but how do we change policy to try to address this threat that we seem to keep bolstering?

Mr. Cain:

Yes. It’s a tough question, because the question of how to counteract a major international threat is always a hard one. How do we counteract China without accidentally starting a war, for example? Personally, I’m a China Hawk and I am in favor of stronger sanctions and protections. The U.S. government has done a good job of putting certain groups of refugees at the front of the line. So, if you’re a Uyghur, there’s a new bill that’s going through Congress that is going to push them to the front of the line. This should be extended to Tibetans and Falun Gong, as you’re saying. I think that we need to recognize what’s going on. Part of the issue is that China is an extremely opaque nation. It’s also hard to get information there. And I think that one of the solutions that I’ve been thinking of recently is, is there a way that we could form underground communications networks that get information in and out, that bypass censorship on people’s smartphones to tell dissidents in Hong Kong or wherever what exactly is happening around the world? What is going on?

This is more than a VPN. I’m not talking about just setting up a VPN and loading Google. But is there a way that the U.S. government can actively circumvent censorship? So, if a conflict were to break out over Taiwan, is there a network that we could use to ensure that reliable information about that conflict is getting to the Chinese people, and they’re not simply being deceived by the Chinese Communist Party? That’s just one idea. There’s a lot more we could do, like export controls and sanctions. I think that we need to sanction China harder.

One major issue concerns the farmland being bought up by Chinese Communist Party-connected companies. If conflict does heat up in the future, that is land that can be used against us. It can be used to spy on us. A lot of that land is right near sensitive U.S. military installations. There’s a bill going through California at the state level right now to attempt to ban these kinds of foreign farmland buyouts. But I think that we need to do more with our laws to ensure that it’s hard for these bad actors from the Chinese Communist Party to actively be here undermining American democracy.

Mr. Jekielek:

The Chinese regime has a massive lobbying arm in Washington DC, and furthermore, as you astutely mentioned earlier, many companies are really beholden to the regime, especially if they’re very active there and they have a lot of money or manufacturing invested. There’s nothing of this nature in the other direction that I can see, so this is a very asymmetric type of leverage that the regime has over this country and the West.

Mr. Cain:

It is. Asymmetric is the right word. Chinese government entities can hire American lawyers and lobbyists to work for their behalf in Washington DC, but can the American Pentagon hire a lobbyist in Beijing who is going to go knock on the door of the Politburo and tell them what they want? 

Mr. Jekielek:

It’s preposterous to think about, right?

Mr. Cain:

It’s preposterous.

Mr. Jekielek:

It’s hilarious when you say like that, I’m just laughing to myself.

Mr. Cain:

Yes.

Mr. Jekielek:

What? That’s impossible.

Mr. Cain:

Yes.

Mr. Jekielek:

That’s just so out of…

Mr. Cain:

And it’s not just lobbying, but going back to farmland. Chinese companies that are shown to be connected to the CCP can buy vast acres of farmlands right next to U.S. military bases, but could the opposite happen? Could American investors go to China and open up a giant farming plant near the South China Sea, near all the islands that are being filled in there, all these fake islands, and just watch Chinese naval movements in their free time? That would be preposterous, it would be absolutely ridiculous. So, why is it that we have this open system of laws and procedures that allows countries like China to use against us, but then we can’t do the same thing there? I think that reciprocity is an important concept here. If Americans can’t buy farmland in China, for example, then people connected to the Chinese Communist Party are barred from buying land in America too. That’s just common sense.

Mr. Jekielek:

Final question as we finish up. Some people who are on the hawkish side would say, “Really, the only thing that’s possible is to really foundationally decouple the economies.” What do you think?

Mr. Cain:

I do agree that we need to decouple to a large extent. But realistically, I don’t think we’re going to be able to decouple completely, because the world that we live in now with all our technology and our interconnected networks and all the globalization that’s happened over the past 20 years, it’s not something that we can realistically do in a short amount of time. I do agree that we should work towards decoupling, we should decouple strategic industries. Semiconductors should be decoupled, surveillance equipment certainly decoupled, and anything with a military application should be decoupled.

But realistically, there are other areas that maybe just can’t be decoupled anymore. There are a lot of American companies that operate in China that have manufacturing plants there and they don’t want to move their plants because of the costs. One possibility is the U.S. government could help subsidize the movement of plants out of China into Vietnam and India and other places. But I haven’t heard that proposal yet in Washington DC. It’s something that we should look into. I think that it would help enormously to ensure that our supply chains are not tainted, that we are not buying products made with slave labor, and that our equipment is not spying on us because it was made in China.

Mr. Jekielek:

Geoffrey Cain, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Mr. Cain:

Thank you, Jan.

Mr. Jekielek:

Thank you all for joining Geoffrey Cain and I on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek. TikTok did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

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