Byung-Chul Han: We have been China for a long time – only we don’t want to admit it

WBecause of the danger of terrorism, we are now also tolerating humiliating security measures at the airports without resistance. With our hands raised, we let ourselves be examined with the body scanner. We also allow our bodies to be scanned for hidden weapons. Each of us is a potential terrorist.

The virus is an aerial terror. It is a much greater threat than Islamic terrorism. It is almost logic that the pandemic will result in measures that permanently transform society as a whole into a security zone, into a quarantine where everyone is treated like a potential virus carrier.

In the middle of the pandemic, Europe and the USA are losing their radiance. They stumble. They are apparently unable to get the epidemic under control. Asian countries such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea or Japan, on the other hand, have brought the pandemic under control relatively quickly. What is the reason? What are the system advantages of Asian countries? In Europe and the USA, the virus meets a liberal society in which it spreads effortlessly. Is liberalism to blame for Europe’s failure? Does the virus feel comfortable in the liberal system?

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It will soon be recognized that in order to combat the pandemic, it is necessary to proceed in small parts, that is, to take a look at the individual. But liberalism does not allow this to be done easily. A liberal society consists of individuals with freedom who do not allow government access. Even data protection prevents small-scale surveillance of individuals.

Since liberal society does not have the option of making the individual subject the subject of surveillance, it is only left with a complete shutdown with massive economic consequences. The West will soon come to the fatal realization that a bio-policy that allows unrestricted access to the individual prevents the shutdown from protecting protected privacy from being a protective space for the virus. But this realization means an end to liberalism.

The Asians approach the virus with hardness and discipline unimaginable for Europeans. The individual is the focus of surveillance, which is the main difference to Europe’s pandemic control. Their rigorous procedures are reminiscent of those disciplinary measures that were taken in Europe in the 17th century in the face of the plague epidemic. Michel Foucault describes it impressively in his analysis of the disciplinary society. Houses are sealed off from the outside. The key must be handed over to the authorities. People who secretly leave their quarantine are punished with death. Walking animals are killed.

Those who move risk their lives

Monitoring is seamless. Unconditional obedience is required. Each house is monitored individually. During the inspection, all residents of the house must appear at the window. A window is assigned to those who live in the back yard. Everyone is called by name and asked about their state of health. Those who lie must face the death penalty. A complete registration system is being set up. The room solidifies into a network of impermeable cells. Everyone is tied to their place. Those who move risk their lives.

In the 17th century, Europe developed into a disciplinary society. Biopolitical power penetrates the smallest details of life. The whole society turns into a panopticon. It is penetrated by the panoptic view. The memories of those disciplinary measures are completely faded in Europe. These are actually much more rigorous than the measures China is taking in the face of the pandemic.

But you could say: Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries is China today. China has now established a digital disciplinary society with a social scoring system that enables seamless, biopolitical surveillance and control of the population. There is no unobserved moment in everyday life. Every click, every purchase, every contact, every activity in the social networks is monitored. 200 million surveillance cameras with facial recognition are also used. Those who run the red light, who deal with people critical of the regime or who post critical comments on social media live dangerously. On the other hand, anyone who buys healthy food or reads party-related newspapers will be rewarded with cheap credit, health insurance or a travel visa.

Complete monitoring works

This seamless monitoring is possible in China because the Internet and mobile phone providers exchange data with the authorities without restriction. So the state knows where I am, who I am meeting, what I am doing, what I am looking for, what I am thinking about, what I am buying, what I am eating. In the future, body temperature, weight, blood sugar levels etc. may also be controlled by the state.

The seamless digital surveillance of the population is now proving to be highly effective against the virus. Anyone leaving the Beijing train station is captured by a camera that measures their body temperature. If the values ​​are noticeable, those people who were in the same wagon are informed by cell phone. The system knows who was sitting where on the train and when. And only with the help of technical data can potential infected be found.

The use of drones to monitor the quarantine is reported on social media. If someone secretly leaves their quarantine, the drone they fly to will prompt them to return to the apartment. Maybe she even prints out a fine and lets it sail down on the person, who knows. Apparently there is also a paradigm shift in the fight against pandemics, which is not sufficiently recognized in the West. It is digitized. It is fought not only by virologists and epidemiologists, but also by computer scientists and big data specialists.

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In the fight against the virus, the individual is monitored individually. An app assigns each individual a color-coded QR code that shows their health status. Red means a two-week quarantine. Only those who have a green QR code can move freely.

Not only China, but also other Asian countries rely on individual monitoring. A wide variety of data is linked to find potential infected people. The South Korean government is currently considering even committing people who are in quarantine to wear a digital wristband that allows them to be monitored around the clock. This surveillance method was previously only intended for sex criminals. So, given the pandemic, everyone is treated like a potential criminal.

The Asian anti-virus model is incompatible with Western liberalism. The pandemic reveals the cultural difference between Asia and Europe. In Asia there is still a disciplinary society, a collectivism with a strong tendency to discipline. Radical disciplinary measures that would be strongly rejected by Europeans are easily enforceable there. They are perceived less as a restriction of individual rights than as a fulfillment of collective duties. Countries like China and Singapore have an autocratic regime. A few decades ago, South Korea and Taiwan were also autocratic.

System benefits from Confucius

Authoritarian regimes educate people to be obedient disciplinary subjects. And Asia is shaped by Confucianism, which requires unconditional obedience to authorities. All of these peculiarities of Asia are proving to be system benefits in containing the epidemic. Would the Asian disciplinary society prevail globally in the wake of the pandemic?

You don’t have to rely on Asia to point out the danger western liberalism is facing in the face of the pandemic. Panoptic surveillance is not an exclusively Asian phenomenon. We all already live in a global digital panopticon. Social media are also increasingly like a panopticon, which monitors and mercilessly exploits its participants. We voluntarily expose ourselves. The disclosure of data does not take place on a compulsory basis, but out of inner need. We are constantly asked to share our opinions, preferences and needs, to share and to tell our lives. The data are then evaluated by digital platforms for behavioral forecasting and control and are exploited mercilessly for commercial purposes.

We live in digital feudalism today. The digital feudal lords like Facebook give us land and say: You get it for free, plaster it. And we plow it like crazy. In the end the feudal lords come and fetch the harvest. In this way, all communication is exploited and monitored. This system is extremely efficient. There is no protest against it because we live in a system that exploits freedom itself.

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Capitalism as a whole also turns into surveillance capitalism. We are constantly monitored and controlled by platforms such as Google, Facebook or Amazon to maximize profits. Every click is registered and evaluated. We are guided by algorithmic threads like puppets. We feel free here. We are dealing with a dialectic of freedom that turns it into a bondage. Is that still liberalism?

The question should now be asked: Why should all this digital surveillance, which is taking place anyway, stop at the virus? The pandemic will probably lead to the elimination of the inhibition threshold that previously prevented biopolitical surveillance from being extended to the individual. In the face of the pandemic, we are heading for a biopolitical surveillance regime. Not only our communication, but also our body, our state of health becomes the subject of digital surveillance. The digital surveillance society is experiencing a biopolitical expansion.

Are we facing the quarantine society?

According to Naomi Klein, the shock is a favorable moment that allows a new rule system to be installed. The pandemic shock will ensure that a digital biopolitics, which uses its control and monitoring system, takes over our bodies globally, a biopolitical disciplinary society that also permanently monitors our state of health.

It is also possible that we feel free in this biopolitical surveillance regime. All of these surveillance measures happen, we would think, for our own health. The rule ends when it coincides with freedom. Would the West feel forced to give up its liberal principles in the midst of pandemic shock? Are we facing a biopolitical quarantine society that will permanently limit our freedom? So is China Europe’s future?


1 thought on “Byung-Chul Han: We have been China for a long time – only we don’t want to admit it”

  1. I appreciate the moderate tone, its sobriety, at a necessary distance from the horror it discloses. Ernst Junger would be pointing to the forest at this point…but there are cameras there too. No escape.


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