Inside China’s High-Tech Dystopia

Inside China’s High-Tech Dystopia

There’s no disputing that Shenzhen has become one of the most important places in the world of tech. Nowhere else has quite as potent a combination of tech know-how, cheap manufacturing costs, and sheer speed. But it goes further than that. Living in Shenzhen is in many ways like living in the future. And not necessarily a utopian future. More like the other kind. Consider Zowee. Zowee operates a factory much like any other in Shenzhen. They make cheap smartphones and other electronics. Like other top manufacturers, they’ve built a complex where workers can live right beside the factory line, work around the clock for a couple of years, and hopefully buy a better life for their families back home. The factories here are clean, and the work is precise. But things are changing quickly in a way that does not favor the common man and woman. All the rest of these lines are staffed by about 80 people, but right here there are new machines coming online that are going to build a smartphone end-to-end completely by robots. The end goal of something like this is to get the quality of the products higher, to bring costs down from less labor, and ultimately to keep China as the manufacturing hub of the world and fend off low-priced competition from places like Southeast Asia. The factory of the future looks like this. It’s a closed off loop where robots pass components among each other, and finished products pop out at the end. All those workers have been replaced by one lonely final inspector. It’s a strong sign that the future of Shenzhen is less for these guys… …and more for these guys. Zowee actually builds these automation machines itself. Behind me are some of China’s best and brightest engineers, hard at work building the machines you see out on the floor today, and the ones that are coming tomorrow that are going to automate the entire factory line. Nowhere will face more turmoil than Shenzhen as the robots rise and send millions of workers to the unemployment line. But it’s not just the working class that’s facing a dark future. There are dystopian innovations that seem to touch every facet of life here. I ran into one example of this while attempting to rehydrate. After some investigation, I discover what’s going on here, and it has to do with these things: QR codes. You know the drill. You scan the code and something pops up on your phone, like a promotion or discount. America laughed these things off years ago, but here, they run the entire economy. Cash and credit cards are history. Instead you scan QR codes to pay for everything: restaurants, groceries, even buskers. On the surface this is all good. It’s the easy, convenient mobile payment system of the future. But there’s also a dark side. The Chinese government can peer into the two dominant payment systems, AliPay and WeChat, as it sees fit. It’s already started tracking behavior as part of a plan to rank citizens and measure how good and obedient they are. The tech revolution may have brought prosperity to Shenzhen but it’s also brought more and more insidious intrusions into people’s lives. To dig deeper into life under the Chinese deep state, I’ve assembled a team of extraordinary foreigners who work at tech startups in Shenzhen. Hopefully a few beers will encourage them to open up about their thought crimes. Living in a very tightly regulated Communist country – does that bother you, or you don’t care? The presumption at least that I got before I came from Australia was sort of like moving into a sort of like a militarized state, like things are going to be really intense. But like, you take a beer, just like walk down the road, hang out in the park, fine. Do that back in my hometown in Australia, like, straight to the cop-house. But then, play spikeball on the grass, and then all of a sudden the cops come and stop you. Well and you got, you jaywalked and you had facial recognition? I actually got this. So I was jaywalking in Nanxian. And all of a sudden I got a fine to my WeChat. Was it instant? It was about 20 seconds after, I guess. I had money in my balance and it just went straight out. This is just for the one thing – it just came straight out. Didn’t even authorize it. That’s crazy. It’s true. Try to jaywalk in certain parts of Shenzhen, and the government’s facial recognition will spot you. There’s even a board of shame, showing the faces of recent offenders. I’m surprised and very very worried that they have your face in the facial recognition – like, the facial recognition system. But they have everyone’s though. When you go across the border they take that picture, exactly, yeah. So it’s all in the system, they know where you are. That’s scary. It gets even scarier. Because big brother is watching what you do online too. Most of the websites we know and love are blocked in China, replaced with Chinese equivalents that the government can monitor: a sort of mirror universe internet. I asked my friend Diane, a Shenzhen native, to help break this down. Appropriately enough, she took me to this restaurant staffed entirely by robots. That’s some gnarly-looking chicken. Is that chicken? Mmm… robot food. I wanted you to help you out with one thing. So if I sorta call out a U.S. tech company, can you tell me the Chinese equivalent? Because you know, you can’t get Instagram or anything here, so. Let’s do a few. So Google would be… Baidu. And Amazon… is like, both and also Taobao OK. And, and, um. YouTube? Youqu. Youqu, Iqiyi. Facebook? Facebook we have WeChat. Yeah. Do you feel like you’re in a different universe? All the online stuff is such a big part of all our lives. And it seems like China has created its own world. Yeah, that’s definitely like that. But like I said, for for like Instagram, I was surprised to see even – Instagram got banned from China, but all the young people, they’re there. Still go. Yeah. It turns out it is possible to access the freedom-loving internet here, via what’s called a VPN: an alternate internet connection that bypasses the government’s blocks. And you don’t get in trouble if they see that you’re on the VPN all the time? For personal use, I don’t think that’s that big of a deal, yeah. The future will be interesting for how the different worlds are collaborating together. Yeah, and definitely the young generation, they’re not like just, oh, I’m satisfied just to kind of stay inside. Yeah, they’re more curious. I came to Shenzhen hoping to find some kind of ground truth, a clear picture of what China’s growing tech prowess will mean for the rest of us. Honestly though, I’m as confused as ever. The city is full of energy, desire and creativity. But exactly how those traits are channeled in the years ahead remains an open question. My hope is that the best parts of our human nature get a chance to thrive, and that 1984 can wait a few more decades to arrive. And on that note, I leave you with this dashboard dog. Because it’s obviously good and pure and very happy.

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100 thoughts on “Inside China’s High-Tech Dystopia

  1. Soo they work to build the robots that eventually is going to put them out of work and take theyre job .. yeah that sounds dumb

  2. I would like to say that the city with most security cameras in the world is Beijing, and the second is London. I lived in Beijing for 18 years before I came to London 1 month ago. In those eighteen years I was never robbed or steal on the street. There were few cases of stealing a few years ago but recently it was ok. I came here, one of my classmate's wallet was stolen, two almost had their phone taken, one was robbed with knife.

  3. Fuck。这个大哥那这个visa还是amex就来刷刷不过就表示要屈服于泄漏隐私的qrcode,大哥你好歹拿个银联卡再来刷啊,中国内地刷不了visa的啊,bloomberg在上海香港也不少年了,还能拍出这么个玩意是反讽吗。。这大哥跟个弱智一样像是来演猴戏

  4. Don't compare the US to China.. we aren't even close to this.. heading that way, yes.. but not even close right now.

  5. I am not Chinese, but I feel that our country is also entering the dystopian era.

    Since 10 years ago, many jobs have disappeared in our country, and the gap between rich and poor has increased by 20%.
    The government continues to regulate and control the media and press.
    What is surprising is that our country is never a poor country. Nevertheless, we looks at the dystopian era.

    I don't know who can solve this huge problem.

  6. 0:35 – LOL. In Germany the minimum of distance between two (appartment-) houses has to be the sum of the half the height of each.

  7. Don't be jealous, Chinese is better than the US 100% at least they're police are not killing innocent people in their own home.

  8. If you think this is a dark future. Well, it's not. Machines were made to help us revolutionize the humankind. Not for our conveniences, so you can chill, and be lazier. No, you're totally wrong if you have that thought. It's so we can leverage machines instead of humans, and let those humans work on something else. That's more complex, and important right now. Therefore, please think ahead. For if you don't believe me, you'll get left behind. And soon, you'll be one of those laid-off workers.

  9. no such thing as full creativity or not, @Gex no such thing as foreign idea or not, cepu, think, can think any no matter what

  10. Thinking about packing up my stuff and going to China to build my drone company. Any advice out there from people who did it?

  11. the end of low productivity jobs and replacement with robots is awesome, that is how living standards increase. Or fancy being tossed into the typist pool and making 15 pounds a year?

  12. New technology called cement…. communist: build a wall to keep their citizens from leaving and shoot those that try Capitalist: build a highway for citizens to go about their life and create GDP while doing so …….. pick a side folks!!!

  13. Great video. The fact that China does this publicly is scary, but when other countries do this secretly is even scarier.

  14. As a Chinese, I want to say something. I've worked in the government, but I've also use VPN. Before you enter the government, China has political censorship. I've said a lot of anti-government words on some social media, but I'm ok,and i entered the government. It's not as serious as you said. The national monitoring is mainly limited to the most sensitive issues, not the 1984 ones. Although I have read the novel 1984,and i love this novel.The most common thing they do is delete your comments, not monitor you. Because it's easy to think that if you want to monitor, you don't have enough people and investment,there are too too much comments you need to deal with.

  15. automation is bad? exactly why?
    why is it so important to be a slave, we should just have better distribution of resources and we'll be fine

  16. Interesting how these guys think the facial rec is scary in China – it's happening all over the world – the Chinese are just more overt than we are in the west. It's very covert hidden in the west, but it's there….NSA – GCHQ to name the 2 most obvious ….do we all think they are storing holiday snaps with the vast data collecting infrastructure that's been operational for many many years.

  17. 5:50 listen to what guy said, he j walked and cash was taken out of his account 20 sec later, this has been the plan for the last 20 yrs.. full control over us and our cash. we can't allow this for the future with the slow indoctrination to this end game goal. it sick. china is the test spot, cause they have no rights.

  18. Every American city will be dystopian. Drug addicts, drug dealers, predators, and homeless people will rule the streets. They and cops will be the only people walking around. Everyone else will stay inside buildings or vehicles out of fear and use the internet for work and shopping.

  19. All of that productive effort wasted in service to the CCP. How prosperous china could be without their psychotic leadership.

  20. I would be interested to know what measure authorities would take if they charged you with a fine for jaywalking and you didn't have any funds in your account to pay for it.

  21. Recently in China, I visited a waterfall scenic area with 3 other westerners. We were scanned for Facial Recognition when we entered the park and were re-checked at 5 different locations around the park, with turnstiles and recognition cameras. The hotel in Anshun (a big one) would not accept Master Card. They wanted We-Chat pay but (reluctantly) took cash. All of the metro (subway) stations i n Guangzhou have had 95% of their ticket machines replaced with QR code scanners. You have to look very hard to find a remaining 1 or 2 machines per station that will dispense RFID tokens for 5 or 10 RMB cash notes. Foreigners are being squeezed out of the country by restricting what goods and services they are able to buy.

  22. I have been a fan of the Bloomberg but as a Shenzhen native and a person lived in the U.S. for 5 years, I would say this video is too biased to be convincible and not informative, when you are even implying automated production line is a bad thing. Of course there are a lot human right problem you can write about in China, but not being able to use an AMEX credit card here is obviously not one of them. I would love to see more episodes of video on China's issues but you have to lay down the facts and be objective to convince people


  24. Of all people, I fell like an american is the least qualified to talk about "dystopia". I mean, he lives in a country where you could literally go bankrupt if you fall ill and where they have to put metal detectors at schools entrances.

  25. See China is far far better than US and India but both the countries seem to malign the image of this beautiful and nice country! They are better they know that human beings need a big brother to stop their evil acts not thoughts!

  26. Just to be fair AMEX isn’t very popular in Europe, either. Try using your AMEX in Amsterdam, you’ll get the same rejection. Do your homework before traveling, and stop pretend to be that naive. You can not possibly be that ignorant to believe that AMEX is THE universal payment on Earth. What’s the last time you left USA before this trip?

  27. it's not a dystopian when malevolent behavior is penalized, and law compliance is the accepted norm

    in the west, the unmonitored freedoms for anarchy, vandalism, violence, criminality is "celebrated" no matter who gets hurt, as if it's a machismo "rebel" cool-factor

    many who enjoy being a "real bad-ass" (opportunistic predator, misfit, preying on who they can harm, monetarily or physically) are not welcomed nor celebrated … go elsewhere to ply their dirty antics deemed their specialty "craft"

    if you think you can afford to "jaywalk", then go right ahead, until you get someone hurt

  28. If they can do facial recognition on Asians that's gotta be #1 facial recognition in the world just saying.
    Governments around the world strive to implement the same control to have you by the balls 125%, only difference is that the CCP gets to implement everything unchecked and unquestioned under an one party system.

  29. It is scary that Americans (if not the West in general) think they are 'better' than China in this regard.

    For example, look at the part where he learns that payments are centralized within two services. THIS IS IDENTICAL TO ANY CARD PAYMENT COMPANY i.e. VISA/Mastercard. Not the mention that twofold if you are using Google/Apple Pay. That is just one example. Pretty much all of the points brought up here can be mirrored to the West also.

    Like holy fuck, have people forgotten Snowden? That was what, 5 years ago? They are both the same, just the illusion of freedom in the US is much broader. The bastardized 1st & 2nd Amendment is the only thing the US populace has over China and yet their own citizens are willing to give up these freedoms LOL

    And of course the US is the only Western country with these freedoms. The UK is extremely close to a dystopian state

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