Portrait courtesy of Geoffrey Cain. Photo by Isabelle Roughol. 

038 | Geoffrey Cain | How China perfected the police state

The Uyghurs’ real-life dystopia offers a glimpse of a political and technological future George Orwell could only imagine.

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

It’s got the Big Brother and Newspeak of 1984, the predictive policing of Minority Report, the monitoring and neighbourly delation of the Stasi and the cultural erasure of the Khmer Rouge – and concentration camps. In Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party may well have created the perfect police state. Journalist Geoffrey Cain investigates the Uyghur genocide and reveals what happens in the real world when you combine totalitarian ideology with artificial intelligence.

Show notes
00:17 Intro
02:26 A day in the life of a Uyghur woman
07:28 Every totalitarian dystopia wrapped into one
10:16 A 21st-century genocide
12:32 The technology doesn't even need to be that good
15:48 Why China went after the Uyghurs
18:06 Membership ad
19:47 How the return of the Taliban might impact the Uyghurs
21:45 Dystopia in the dark
24:34 How China exports its surveillance
27:51 How Western corporations and economies got trapped
30:44 The New Cold War
32:46 The death of techno utopianism
35:23 First let's fix the financial system
38:35 Outro

📚The Perfect Police State, by Geoffrey Cain. Public Affairs. 2021. Buy it here.
Samsung Rising, by Geoffrey Cain. Penguin Random House. 2020. Buy it here.
🐦 @geoffrey_cain and @iroughol

Stories referenced
🇦🇺 Facebook’s battle with Australia
🇺🇸 Amazon and the NSA
🇨🇳 Xinjiang’s cotton and Western brands
💻 Apple’s terminated supplier


Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

[00:00:00] Geoffrey Cain: We're seeing in real time the testing laboratory for how to create a perfect authoritarian dystopia.

[00:00:17] Intro

[00:00:17] Isabelle Roughol: Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.

[00:00:20] I know, I promised you a bit of La La Land last week, but I'm afraid this week is not going to be it. I'm talking to Geoffrey Cain. Geoff is a journalist I met a long time ago, over 10 years ago in fact, when we were both reporters and Cambodia. But unlike me, he stayed there, stayed in Asia, and became the kind of reporter that I can only hope to become: deeply sourced, deeply knowledgeable about not only Cambodia, but also Korea where he spent a long time, particularly North Korea as well, and China.

[00:00:51] Long time listeners of the podcast might remember him on an episode last year about being an American ex-pat in the Trump years. But I'm speaking to him today about his latest book, The Perfect Police State, which came out this summer. This book explores in depth what's happening to the Uyghur population in the Western province of Xinjiang in China. The Uyghur, you must have heard about them though it is shrouded in mystery what's happening to them, are a Muslim minority population in China undergoing severe, extreme repression from the Chinese state and the Chinese Communist Party. They live in Xinjiang, which is a Western province in central Asia, with Mongolia to the north, Tibet to the south, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and a small border with Afghanistan to the west.

[00:01:43] Through hours and hours of interviews, as well as travel to the region for which he had to be discreet, Geoff really lays the picture of what's happening in Xinjiang, as well as what kind of totalitarian state we can expect now, when you mix the complete disregard for human rights and personal liberties with a fine-tuned use of technology and AI as it is available today. So this is a really important work of journalism and I am thrilled and honored to have Geoffrey on the podcast. Here is Geoffrey Cain.

[00:02:26] A day in the life of a Uyghur woman

[00:02:26] Isabelle Roughol: I have to tell you, when I picked up your book, I read the first three pages and I had to put it down because I was going on holiday and I thought it was going to be the most depressing thing I would ever read and I wasn't ready for it.

[00:02:39] And just the first three pages are terrifying. Um, the, the prologue the day in the life of a Uyghur woman. Um, I guess we can start there for people who haven't read the book yet, though they definitely should. What isa day in the life of someone in Xinjiang right now?

[00:03:02] Geoffrey Cain: Sure. So if you are a resident of Xinjiang, so let's say you are a woman. So you'll wake up in the morning and you will have next to you often a man who is not your partner, not connected you any way, but is actually appointed by the government to sleep in your bed. The government rule technically says they have to stay about, I think, three centimeters or three inches apart. There's like a rule that they published online. So...

[00:03:33] Isabelle Roughol: Is there a party official with a ruler there?

[00:03:36] Geoffrey Cain: Yeah, well, that's, that's the, that's the whole joke, right? So it's just, there's a man in your bed and he sleeps with you. And this is because your S your partner has been taken away, usually to a concentration camp , where your partner is being brainwashed and psychologically, physically tortured, told to renounce their entire heritage and language and history, and just being molded into,a member of the majority ethnic group, which is the Han Chinese.

[00:04:01] So this man in your bed appointed by the party is there for what is called, the party calls it "becoming family." That's a literal translation. So we're all going to become one big happy family. And we're going to haveParty spies living in your home, who are going to be instructing your kids on how to you know, honor the party and worship the party, follow the party, and then they're going to sleep in your bed with you because that creates community. It creates trust. It creates a feeling of warmth between the government and the people who are being monitored by the government.

[00:04:37] Geoffrey Cain: So, um, that's literally, and this is not any kind of exaggeration, this is literally what has been published in Mandarin Chinese by the government. They say this stuff publicly because they assume that foreigners and other people like journalists are not reading it, but actually we are, and people are translating it and gathering evidence and data.

[00:04:57] So that's just the start of your day. It's pretty miserable. You wake up. Um, you know, I don't even want to ask or know what happened. I mean, I'm sure there's a lot of sexual assault that goes on in these homes. But then in the morning you'll have breakfast and the party instructor will quiz you on your loyalty to the party, party history, party law... what, you know, what,What happened in 1950? When was the communist party founded? When did it take over China? And then you'll go through your day being surveilled constantly. So, you know, one of the most common ones I've heard is that if you go to the gas station, there will be all these guards surrounding your car, and you'll have to scan an ID card. Your national ID card will say on like A little screen is there on the gas station,the gas thing, and it'll pop up with a thing that says trustworthy or untrustworthy. And if you are found to be trustworthy, then you can get a tank of gas. If you are found to be untrustworthy, then the guards will surround you. And they'll say, okay, so what are you doing here? What are you all about? They'll check your documents, check your smartphone for any suspicious apps or, you know, suspicious religious texts like the Quran, which is especially sensitive, being Muslim.

[00:06:12] And, uh, so I mean this, this kind of, you know, daily life will continue, um, throughout the day. So you will, uh, for example, go to the grocery store and there are cameras watching you. If you buy diapers, your trustworthiness ranking with the government can go up because that means you are a good parent or someone that the state can trust. Um, you know, if you buy a pack of cigarettes or beers, or you know, you play too many video games in your free time, the government will lower your trustworthy ranking, because that means that you're a lousy, lazy person who's not worthy of the party's warmth and love and care. So let's say you go to work. You are, a Uyghur woman at work. Maybe you're a school teacher. So the kids will be instructed to watch you, to spy on you and to see what you stay in class. And you will be instructed to spy on them, spy on all the kids. If they say anything that's off kilter or not totally loyal to the party, that's a sign that their parents might be disloyal and you'll be required to report it to the local police station. And then they will go check up on this family, make sure that, maybe detain them or interrogate the parents, make sure that they're trustworthy in some way. And if they're not, they'll be taken to a concentration camp.

[00:07:28] Every totalitarian dystopia wrapped into one

[00:07:28] Geoffrey Cain: So you get where I'm going with this. This is George Orwell. This is Minority Report, Tom cruise, a minority part for, for everyone , if you haven't seen the movie, it's about these precogs, these humanoid beings that work at this police station and it's called the pre-crime Division. It's in the Department of Justice and it's able to predict murders that will happen in the future. And when these murders are going to happen, the police swoop in and arrest people and take them away and put them in this brainwashing mechanism, like they're put to sleep in this coma and they're just showed beautiful images of life and humanity in this like sleepy state in a dungeon somewhere or whatever it is.

[00:08:10] This is what life is like in Xinjiang, China. It is the world's most sophisticated surveillance state. It is ajust a hellish dystopia of Big Brother constantly watching you. And it literally is the incarnation of what the science fiction writers like George Orwell anticipated and predicted. And that's why I wanted to write this book because I had spent a lot of time in this region over the years, I saw this deterioration and I knew that this was going to be significant for humanity, not just for what's happening in China right now, because it shows us bad things can get if we're not careful with how we govern and manage new technologies.

[00:08:52] Isabelle Roughol: Yeah, the thing I found fascinatingin a very disturbing way is that it seems to be the apex, the epitome of every both historical and fictional totalitarian stateand genocide and dictatorship that you can imagine. So you know, you've got the concentration camps, which, obviously we've seen in various, bits of history, especially in the Holocaust. You've got the Orwellian you know, surveillance, you've got the New Speak, you've got the predictive policing of Minority Report. You've got the destruction of culture and history, which you and I saw with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Um, you've got this, the citizen surveillance, which reminded me of, of the Stasi, the way every neighbor is surveilling every neighbor. And you just got everything packed into the one location, which makes just even just reading about it incredibly oppressive, right? It feels like there is no escape, there is no expectation of privacy or of, of any respite anywhere.

[00:09:51] Geoffrey Cain: Yes. Well, that's exactly what it is. And that's why I wrote this book because I wanted to give readers a feeling of the human experience, what it's like to live under a system that's so enormously oppressive, even violently oppressive to the point where even, you know, whether you walk into your home through the front door or back door, it'll determine whether or not the state can trust you and whether you'll be taken to a concentration camp.

[00:10:16] A 21st-century genocide

[00:10:16] Geoffrey Cain: There is a massive artificial intelligence system that operates in Xinjiang, it's relatively new, about three or four years old now, called the IJOP ,the Integrated Joint Operations Platform. And this platform gathers mass data, just scoops up everything it can about everyone based on their purchases, their clicks, the apps that they use, the apps send data to the system, police report, court reports, personal history, employment, camera footage... You know, like it monitors what you're doing every day, where you drive, what your schedule is.If you're sick one day and you're late for work, you better have evidence because it'll spot you and the police will show up and ask why you were late for work that day. Is there something amiss here? Is this person planning a terrorist attack?

[00:11:04] It's a total surveillance system based on artificial intelligence and new advancements in facial recognition and voice recognition that allows the state to become this all-seeing eye in which everyone knows that they're being watched constantly. The only thing is that they're not sure when they're being watched, I mean, they assume that they're always being watched, but you never know if there's a human behind it, or if there's a computer, an app behind it or whatever it is.

[00:11:30] And for any infraction, for anything that you do, it could be so tiny. Um, you could be taken to a concentration camp for years and tortured and just have your soul crushed and spirit taken out of you to the point where you deny your own existence, your own reality, you just become this empty robot.

[00:11:48] This is what the system is designed to do. It's really a modern genocide. And I know I use that word genocide carefully. I mean, th this is under international law. this actually does meet the criteria of genocide, but the difference with what's happening here is that this is a 21st century genocide.

[00:12:05] Geoffrey Cain: This is what happens when you combine the rise of authoritarianism around the world that's happened everywhere, not just China. It's happened in Russia. Um, you know, America for a good time, parts of the European Union. Uh, and you combine it with these advances and new technologies that a lot of us don't fully understand, fully grasp, but that have the enormous potential to be used for good, but also for enormous bad, too.

[00:12:32] The technology doesn't even need to be that good

[00:12:32] Isabelle Roughol: Is the technology that they're using that advanced? Are we talking about things that we can't even imagine, that we're not using, you know, in our day to day life on Facebook or whatever in terms of facial recognition for instance? is it just a way that it's being used and the fact that it's omnipresent that's making it this dangerous?

[00:12:51] Geoffrey Cain: It's the perception that the technology is advanced. So it's not that the technology itself is necessarily super intelligent. You know, we're not actually dealing with Terminator robots yet. We haven't gotten to the stage; you know, like the, the killer AI that's gonna blow up a nuclear bombs. But we are at a stage now where the technology is good enough thatwe know that it can watch everybody, but nobody knows for sure whether it gets actually that smart about what it's doing.

[00:13:21] So in the case of what's happening in China, the evidence from my own interviews, I interviewed technology workers who had actually worked on this tech and they say that the inner workings are actually not that strong. It's not that. It's not that this technology is pinpointing people and correctly finding terrorists or criminals among a crowd. What it's doing that's so terrifying is that it's assuming that every single correlation between two data points could be evidence of some kind of terrorist, suspicious activity. So you know, like you're wearing a backpack in a crowd while the AI saw five other people with backpacks in other crowds across the country, and there's a rise in the number of backpacks today compared to yesterday. Yesterday, the whole region had 30 backpacks and today it has 50 backpacks, so that means that there must be a terrorist attack coming. You know, like there might be a bomb in one of those. So let's, let's arrest everybody who is wearing a backpack walking around the streets, search all backpacks and send them to, a camp for a week just to make sure that they take a loyalty class. And just to be sure that their brains will be washed of their viruses.

[00:14:33] They literally use language like this. They say we're going to cleanse you of your ideological viruses. We're going to give you a cancer treatment to ensure that the cancer in your minds, this terrorist ideology, this dissent inside you, will be cured and cleanse, and you will be one of us again, you will join our great nation and our great society. Literally sci-fi language here. Just terrifying dystopian stuff. But that is what makes this so terrifying is that it is new technology in the hands of people who want to use it for this purpose.

[00:15:04] Like, it doesn't matter. I mean, you know, they could release anything, they could release,like a metallic elephant and this metallic elephant goes around and they say that it's looking at people and surveilling you when it's just a dumb, you know, like robot that just walks around. But the point is that people will get scared and people will believe that because they've seen what this government is capable of.

[00:15:25] And it's not like they have any concerns about false positives or anything.

[00:15:29] Geoffrey Cain: No, no. That's exactly what it is. It's a dragnet campaign. False positives don't matter. Inaccuracies don't matter. It's just sweep up the guilty and the innocent together and like we can, even if someone's innocent, well, we can still reeducate them and make them loyal, right? What's what's wrong with that?

[00:15:48] Why China went after the Uyghurs

[00:15:48] Isabelle Roughol: And this all started as like this massive overreaction to some indeed isolated cases of terrorism, a decade ago, in the region.

[00:15:58] Geoffrey Cain: Yeah. So the region does have a history of terrorism. So the Uyghur ethnic minority, they are Muslim. Um, compared to others sunni and Shia countries, they actually are more moderate on the spectrum of kind of Islamic beliefs around the world. They are Sunnis, but they incorporate a number of kind of pre Muslim shamanistic practices still. So this is not, you know, we're not talking saudi Arabia with the Wahabism and, you know, let's go behead the enemies and all that like that. you don't find that a lot in the region of Xinjiang, China. But there is a small contingent of people who have been radicalized. This has been going on since the 1990s mainly, but the war on terror sped this up. A good number of Uyghurs did travel to Afghanistan and later Syria, and other hotspots, Turkey, places around the world where they could engage in jihad, ultimately with the goal of returning to China and waging a holy war against China, overthrowing the communist government in Xingjiang and establishing a caliphate. And one of the things they wanted to do was to form this central Asian caliphate in which all the Stan countries, Kazakhstan, Western China, Kyrgyzstan, would become one giant Islamic nation.

[00:17:07] Obviously that's farfetched. It's not going to happen. but after there were a series of terrorist attacks in China, including an attempted airplane hijacking, there was a train station stabbing, like all these kinds of things going on, the Chinese government reacted with blunt force.

[00:17:23] There was no sense of counterinsurgency or like pointed operations at key people and key leaders in this network. It was simply: the religion of Islam makes people violent and therefore we need to respond with a blanket, you know, like a carpet bombing, just carpet bomb the whole region.Not literally, but carpet bomb it with technology and surveillance and police forces and treat everybody as an enemy until they are proven innocent. So that means everyone's guilty. Anything that's suspicious gets them taken to a concentration camp, and then we'll just kind of sort them out in the end and, like whatever, they'll all be reformed anyway. So it's good for them. We're just developing them when we, you know, do a dragnet that approach.

[00:18:06] Isabelle Roughol: We'll be right back.

[00:18:07] Membership ad

[00:18:07] Isabelle Roughol: Hey, this is Isabelle. I don't know if you're as much of a podcast addict as I am, but I've been listening to them for 15 years and I listen to several every day. And if you pay attention, like I do now, to how they're made, it's fascinating. I love listening to the credits. And if you take a show like The Daily from The New York Times, they spend like two minutes just reading the names of the people who are involved and they just keep getting longer and longer. That's the amount of work that goes into making a podcast. But you know what? Borderline is made by one person. That's it. That's just me. I record, I produce, I interview, I read the books, I talk with people, I edit, I do the social media, the visuals, the distribution, the business side, everything, the newsletter... Everything is done by me.

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[00:19:44] And now let's get back to our episode.

[00:19:47] How the return of the Taliban might impact the Uyghurs

[00:19:47] Isabelle Roughol: How has the, um, the situation in Afghanistan now and the return of the Taliban, is that gonna make China even more, even stricter sorry, with the Uyghurs, do you think?

[00:19:59] Geoffrey Cain: So it is hard to tell at this point, but I think there's a chance it might actually be, it might actually have no effects because the Uyghur situation has become so extreme already, short of a full on violent massacre in which the Uyghurs are just exterminated, I don't think there's much more that the government can do that. to, to kind of surveil this region. But the Chinese government has essentially recognized the Taliban. They've signaled they do want to,work with the Taliban, that they're treating them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

[00:20:33] Um, and then there's also a big question mark now over the Uyghur population in Afghanistan, many of which who actually fought with the Taliban before. Is the Taliban just going to repatriate them to China, in exchange for good relations or something? And I think that's a very strong possibility. China is not the priority target for the Taliban. Um, you know, ISIS K and out the old Al Qaeda. China was never there main focus. I think they know that they're not going to win many victories in China, like propaganda victories. It's ultimately, the secular decadent West in the eyes of the extremists who, you know, we need to blow up bombs in Paris and blow up a bomb in Times Square. I think that's more how they think when it comes to finding these symbolic victories that give them loads of propaganda and attract followers.

[00:21:27] So I think the more likely thing that's going to happen is that Taliban and China will become a kind of unusual enemy of my enemy is my friend type allies. And I think the Taliban is just going to abandon the Uyghurs and just say, all right, thanks for your service, but, China wants you back and goodbye.

[00:21:45] Dystopia in the dark

[00:21:45] Isabelle Roughol: Hmm. There hasn't been a lot of solidarity,has there been, for them for the Uyghurs, in the Muslim world and in, and in the broader world? Um, I mean, I'm someone who watches the news quite a lot. And I learned a lot in your book. I, you know, I knew that it was something going on in, in Xinjiang, obviously, but given the magnitude of what's happening, it's kind of baffling how little we know. about it.

[00:22:08] Geoffrey Cain: Yes, it is baffling. Part of the reason is because the Chinese government is really good at keeping a lockdown there. Journalists are regularly detained. Some journalists have been invited like the BBC, they actually toured some concentration camps, but apart from a few, you know, well-crafted propaganda tours, the region is on lockdown and no one can actually, go there. You can't walk up to a person on the street and ask them what's happening. It's just total terror, total lockdown. You're constantly being watched. And even, you know, when I went there, I was most recently there in December of 2017 and I was detained and told to leave. I feel lucky that the authorities did not do more. They could have probably escalated a case against me because I was a journalist on a tourist visa, which is illegal, I mean, terribly illegal in China. They have arrested other people. There are two Canadians, the two Michaels who are now in a Chinese prison, and they've been there for more than two years awaiting trial. And, this stuff happens like there are dangers when you're traveling in regions like this.

[00:23:09] Um, so, you know, I just think that the situation there doesn't get enough publicity. I wanted to write this book because I wanted to shine a full narrative on it. Not just an article, but a start to finish. Like, how did we get here and where is it headed? And I wish more journalists would be writing about this just because it has so much significance despite its obscurity. I mean, we're, we're seeing in real time the testing laboratory for how to create a perfect authoritarian dystopia. Um, you know, is this going to be rolled out elsewhere?

[00:23:41] I it's, there are already signs that governments in Subsaharan, Africa, central Asia are using these same technologies now. But no one's really paying attention and it just makes me wonder. Like one day, are we going to wake up and realize that half the world is using Chinese surveillance technologies and the other half is sanctioning Chinese surveillance technologies.

[00:24:02] Geoffrey Cain: And there's this understanding that, if you want to travel, even as a tourist, let's say you're going to Hong Kong or you're going to Kenya or Uganda or somewhere like that, you're being surveilled by China. Whereas there's like this free world or this quasi democratic world of the West and some of the more democratic allies like Japan, where can feel somewhat safe from watchful eyes, although that's not always true either. It depends on the circumstances. yeah, it's a troubling question and that's why I think this topic is important.

[00:24:34] How China exports its surveillance

[00:24:34] Isabelle Roughol: Hmm, I was going to ask, is China... Is this a strictly domestic, issue and domestic use of technology or is it starting to reach out and observe, what's happening in other places, you know, whether that's in some their client states, in the global south, or even, in more democratic states?

[00:24:55] Geoffrey Cain: Yeah. So China has been eager to export this technology. It has been exporting it rapidly mainly to authoritarian regimes around the world. And these governments, there have been studies done of where the tech is going, they tend to be a middle income countries, so not rich, not poor. You know, a good example would be a place like Uzbekistan, which has an authoritarian government. They're just looking for ways to surveil their people better. And so they actually put out a statement and they said they were buying, Huawei products --Huawei's a big Chinese smartphone maker. The purpose was to quote "digitally manage political affairs" unquote. So that's your Orwellian doublespeak for "we're going to spy on our citizens and our dissidents."

[00:25:39] So Chinese companies will always deny that they are working hand in hand with the Chinese government and the communist party, but the reality is that the chances of that being true are just so, so, so slim. And the reason is because under Chinese law, there are two laws, the National Security Law and the National Intelligence Law, which were both passed in the past five, six years, both essentially make it a crime for anyone who is requested to share intelligence with the Chinese government, uh, a crime to refuse to share it.

[00:26:14] Geoffrey Cain: So if the government comes knocking on your door, goes to a Chinese company like Huawei and says, "okay, hand us over all the data you've gathered on your servers from everyone in Russia where we need to look at Russia right now. We want, everyone in Moscow and everyone in St. Petersburg. And, you know, we, we can't tell you why, but we just.need it."Huawei will essentially be required to turn that over or to be heavily sanctioned and executives could go to jail. We've already seen, I mean, look at what's happening in China now.

[00:26:46] There have been a series of crackdowns on big tech companies by the Communist Party. Even Jack Ma who's this, you know, this Elon Musk guy of China, this big figure behind Alibaba, one of the biggest IPO's in the century, which madebillions and billions of dollars for shareholders. Um, you know, he's now on the run and has disappeared and no one really knows where he is because the Chinese government is cracking down on all these companies.

[00:27:11] What this signifies is that companies in China, private enterprise, they don't have power over data. They don't have power over what they're doing. The Chinese government, the party under the Chinese system, the constitution is the highest law of the land, the party itself supersedes all laws and what the party says goes and that's that.

[00:27:30] So, you know, my recommendation, you know, don't use a Huawei phone. Don't use Hikvision cameras. Avoid Chinese technologies that are on the cloud because you really don't know unless you're a true tech expert, you have no way of knowing how your data is being used and whether a communist party spy is looking at it.

[00:27:51] How Western corporations and economies got trapped

[00:27:51] Isabelle Roughol: Have we been too naïve and by we, I mean, the, the people that rule us really, have we been too naïve in letting it get to this stage andletting Chinese technology and Chinese companies have such an imprint on our lives?

[00:28:08] Geoffrey Cain: Yes. Well, what we're seeing now is the consequences of two decades, three decades, even of naivety over free trade and the free market. There was once a belief, after the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall fell, that if we place our trust in globalization, if we open the markets, sign the trade treaties, create NAFTA, the KorUs FTA,all these Chinese deals, China joins the WTO, for example, that was a big one,the market will sort itself out and we are going to see a flourishing of democratic principles and human rights around the world, that the markets predate the human rights.

[00:28:51] What we're realizing now worldwide is that it's actually the opposite, that democratic principlesand democratic values predate the ability to have a functioning market that works in everyone's interest. What has happened is that by preaching these false principles of the free market, China has managed to convince the world that it needs to put all of its manufacturing in China, put all of its business there,create all these links like "we're going to manufacture your special IP or intellectual property that's super secret and we promise we won't steal it." And now we find ourselves in this really difficult situation where Western companies are dependent on these Chinese supply chains, which are just, I mean, littered and just filled with, slave labor, forced labor, human rights abuses of all kinds. And now major firms in the west have just been, just crapping their pants because they realize like how much of this slave labor they've been involved in, a lot of it coming out of Xinjiang.

[00:29:53] Cotton, it's one of the world's biggest producers of cotton, relies on Uyghur slave labor. A lot of the components in our smartphones, our semiconductors have been made with Uyghur slave labor throughout China. Even Apple had to reportedly drop a supplier, one of the components for the iPhone, because it was found to have slave labor. It was employing slave labor. This is a terrifying prospect because we don't know how deep this rot goes. And nowwe can't divorce ourselves from China because they have so much of our IP, they have, so many American and European factories are based there. And it's like, once you try to take all that out of China, well China retaliates and they punish companies, you knowthey sanction them. They, organize boycotts, like don't buy The Gap, don't buy this clothing line, like th this American clothing line, they're opposed to China.

[00:30:44] The New Cold War

[00:30:44] Geoffrey Cain: So we're now in this situation in the world where it's become either or. You either have to choose you're on the side of the Americans and the Five Eyes and the Europeans, or you're on the side of China and its allies. And that's the irony too. Like we thought we would go in to this historical story, coming out all benefiting, all more democratic, but in the process, we've actually created this line that exists where it's really just one or the other. And it really is a new Cold War.

[00:31:10] With the major difference that, the classic cold war, you had two blocks that just kind of lived their own lives, right? And now you have an incredibly interlinked, economic system where, the two blocks really cannot exist independently.

[00:31:25] Geoffrey Cain: Yes. And that's the dangerous aspect of this is that, if this cold war were to heat up, the devastation to the world and the economy, the prosperity that we've seen in the world since the past, since the 1980s, you know, it's been a very prosperous time for certain groups of people, not everyone, but all that is just going to be wiped away if there's an actual war between China and the US. I don't see any way that businesses and, big financial institutions are going to be able to escape just the ripple effects of, you know, like we can't work with China at all anymore. And this is the weakness. I think the lesson that we've learned is that even in a world that's become very globalized,national power is still deeply important. The sovereignty of a nation, and the idea that a nation is accountable to its citizens above all else and not just accountable to one party or to one dictator. I think that there was a lot of idealism that with the, with these free market principles, we could change places, like they would, the middle-class would find democracy and they would change their governments to become more democratic, but it's totally the opposite. It's, what happens is that authoritarian governments find ways to keep power using the money coming in, using, using their new found economic cloud that gives them leverage over their people.

[00:32:46] The death of techno utopianism

[00:32:46] Isabelle Roughol: Hmm. So it's the end of thatliberal free market utopia. It's also the end of, techno utopianism, right? Like the idea that the internet will save us and that,a free open exchange of information through technology w would liberalize the world, right? That's not happening.

[00:33:03] Geoffrey Cain: No, it's not happening. And it's, it has advanced society in many ways, I think in terms of the information that we have available to us at any moment. But we've also regressed in so many ways, and it's not just what's happening with China and the US, but look at the, just the political chaos of the pastfive, six years, with the rise of these populists and the, the bad actors on Twitter, the propaganda,just all the bad information that gets out there.

[00:33:33] You know, I think that what's happened is that we've been asked to lean in to all these Silicon Valley firms. They always used to say that, remember like Sheryl Sandberg, "Hey, lean in. We're looking out for you, look at how cool we are, we're changing the world." But what we forgot is that, these companies are self interested entities and their job as inscribed in the very principles and laws of Western democracies is to make a profit for themselves and for their shareholders.

[00:34:01] It's a model that is fundamentally flawed because it soaks up national resources, national, um, you know, the nation's money and finances. It's soaking them up into these private companies. And then before you know, it, they have enormous influence over you. Like you're not, the government is not calling the shots anymore, it's the company that's calling the shots. And one good example of that is just recently Amazon used its leverage to bully the National Security Agency into awarding a contract. I mean, they were competing for all these contracts and Amazon just said, give it to us or else we're going to screw you. And the NSA relented and said, okay. Also Australia was going to pass laws that would curtail Facebook and the country and Facebook just said, okay, if you act against us, we're just going to pull Facebook from your country. That shows how much power they have, because imagine an entire nation without Facebook now, it's like turning off the electrical grid and it's like, there's chaos and no one can, reach their families and, and, you know, like it would just be, it would just be devastating for a while. I guess people would adjust to it eventually, but just this it's like we live in an age now where we just need social media and we need technology.

[00:35:14] Isabelle Roughol: That's an interesting mirror image of, um, of the, Chinese communist partytelling Huawei what to do. We kind of have the reverse, the reverse situation.

[00:35:23] First let's fix the financial system

[00:35:23] Isabelle Roughol: I want to, I'm going to resist the temptation to end on, uh, you know, tell me something hopeful. That's my years in Silicon Valley, you know, which, which I'm trying to cure myself from. But do tell me: What can be done? You know, now that we have this pretty scary diagnostic,where do we start in trying to reverse these trends?

[00:35:44] Geoffrey Cain: Yeah. So there is so much work that needs to be done, and it's hard to even say which steps are going to lead to success and which steps are going to fail or just be useless. But various governments have been implementing all these sanctions against Chinese technology. That's a good first step, but that is like putting a bandaid on this deeper problem about how our global financial system has been structured. The financial system we live in, it's self interested. It's catered towards interests and its own needs for its own profits and not for the good of communities and nations at large. That's what we've realized.

[00:36:23] So one example of a major problem is the rise of these global kleptocracies that enable human rights abuses. And when I say kleptocracy,I mean a government thatrobs from people and that takes resources and wealth and oppresses them. And all these global kleptocracies --this is Putin, this is China, this is Ukraine.,certain people in Ukraine, Congo-- they stash their money in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, sometimes even the state of Delaware in the Us,certain Western states in the US, inMonaco, all these places... There is a massive problem of money laundering: about one quarter of global tax revenues are estimated to be lost laundering. This is a way for certain countries to steal the tax revenues that are owed to other countries, it's like undercutting other nations. And, this is like, whenever I bring this up, people wonder, how does this connect to human rights in Xinjiang or human rights anywhere in the world?

[00:37:23] And the thing is that the people who put their money in these offshore jurisdictions, what they're doing is they're hiding their human rights abuses. They have a shell company open and let's say, they go to Myanmar and they work with the military to extract oil using slave labor, well, you know that money, it's not going to stay Myanmar, they're going to put it in the Cayman Islands because no one asks questions there. So I think that the system needs to change. I think that governments need to start sanctioning offshore jurisdictions. They need to clean up their own tax laws. I do think that here in the States, the IRS, many people would disagree, but they, I think they do need more power than they have.

[00:38:00] They need more resources to go after the ultra rich. I think that as we start to sew up these like open gaping holes in the international financial kind of capitalist order, that's going to solve a good deal of the problems when it comes to financing rights abuses worldwide. It's not going to solve everything, but reforming the system itself is I think ultimately is the deeper problem here.

[00:38:29] Isabelle Roughol: Thanks so much. This was eye-opening and I know listeners will appreciate it,

[00:38:34] Geoffrey Cain: Great. Thanks Isabelle.

[00:38:35] Outro

[00:38:35] Isabelle Roughol: Thank you to Geoffrey Cain for making himself available and for this really important work. If you want to find out more and read his book, I really encourage you to, it's The Perfect Police State, which is out with Public Affairs, a division of the Hachette book group. His previous work, completely different topic, but just as deep a work of investigation and journalism is Samsung Rising, an investigation into one of the world's most influential and important tech companies, which is at the core of the Korean economy. Another fascinating read.

[00:39:10] Thank you for listening. Borderline as always is supported by its members, its readers, its listeners. And I am very grateful for them. Welcome this week to Lorenzo Zancan, I hope I'm pronouncing this correctly. You can join him and dozens of others who support this work, get the podcast early, access to more content and to a Discord server where we can chat together at borderlinepod.com/subscribe. Again, borderlinepod.com/subscribe. This work cannot happen without members, and I really appreciate their support.

[00:39:42] I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Music is by Ofshane. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production. I'll talk to you next week.

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Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.