Park City native Josh Chin opens up the ‘Surveillance State’

Wall Street Journal deputy bureau chief in China will discuss his book Tuesday

‘Surveillance State’ author Josh Chin

  • When: 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 27
  • Where: Park City Library’s Jim Santy Auditorium, 1255 Park Ave.
  • Cost: Free
“Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control” is a new nonfiction book written by Park City native Josh Chin and his colleague Lisa Lin.
Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

Josh Chin has a story to tell.

The Park City native and award-winning deputy chief of the Wall Street Journal’s China bureau has published a new nonfiction book, “Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control” with his colleague Liza Lin, an award-winning Wall Street Journal correspondent stationed in Singapore.

The book details how the Communist Party of China uses artificial intelligence and other advanced forms of technology to keep an eye on the country’s religious minorities. It also reveals how American companies are helping the government ramp up its power of digital surveillance.

Chin, a former editorial assistant for The Park Record, will discuss how the book came about and participate in an author signing at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the Park City Library’s Jim Santy Auditorium. Bob Richer will moderate the discussion. Dolly’s Bookstore will be on hand with books available for purchase. 

“Tahir talked about standing in line and seeing the tiger chair with blood stains…” Josh Chin, co-author of ‘Surveillance State’

“Surveillance State” is the result of Chin and Lin’s Gerald Loeb Award-winning investigative series that uncovered China’s Communist Party’s use of digital surveillance.

“It started in 2017 with a story about facial-recognition technology, based on investments, including American investments, that Liza had seen flowing into these companies and selling it to the Chinese police,” Chin said. “At the time it seemed like a ‘gee-whiz’ science fiction story.”

That article led Chin to Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China where the Communist Party had implemented a dystopian campaign of forcible assimilation that targeted Turkic Muslim groups, namely the Uyghurs, according to Chin, whose father Steve is a partner of the Chin | MacQuoid | Fleming | Harris Luxury Real Estate team.

“The more we dug, the more we realized that this was part of an effort from the Communist Party to sort of rewire authoritarianism,” he said. “It was an ambitious project to build a new system of governance that would make authoritarianism capable of not just competing with democracy, but basically out-performing it.”

During the research, Chin conducted “furtive” conversations with people in back alleys and car rides. But he found it almost impossible to have an extensive conversation with Uyghurs because the surveillance was so heavy.

Chin thanks the universe for the day he met documentary filmmaker Tahir Hamut, who, Chin said, is one of the greatest living Uyghur poets still alive.

“We met him when we did the story in 2017 for the Journal, while we were looking for people who had been in Xinjiang who could tell us what was happening from their perspectives,” Chin said. “At first, like everyone we talked with, he wanted to be anonymous. Then he called a few days later after the interview and told us we could use his name, because he understood storytelling and the value of having his name in the story. He was one of the student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest in 1989. So he was willing to take the risk and go public.”

Hamut told Chin everything he had seen in Xinjiang before he and his family fled to the United States a few months after meeting Chin.

“I interviewed him 30 times to get all the details of the story right, and all those times he was pretty happy to talk with me,” Chin said. “We continued checking in with him, and when we started writing the book, we knew he would be one of the main characters.” 

Since Chin couldn’t confirm much of the information, he had to trust Hamut’s account, because many of Hamut’s friends and acquaintances had disappeared into internment camps that the government described as vocational training centers.

“I had to make sure Tahir’s account didn’t change, so that’s why I talked with him so many times,” Chin said.

Park City native Josh Chin, award-winning deputy chief of the Wall Street Journal’s China bureau, will speak about his book “Surveillance State” on Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the Park City Library. Chin, along with his colleague Liza Lin, wrote about how China’s Communist Party uses artificial intelligence and other advanced forms of technology to keep an eye on the country’s religious minorities.
Photo by Jun Michael Park

The book’s introduction tells Hamut’s story of how he and his wife, Marhaba, were herded into a windowless basement, so the government could scan their faces, take blood samples and record their fingerprints.

That corresponded to the information Chin and Lin found on government procurement documents.

The documents showed that these “training centers” had ordered large numbers of restraining chairs — called tiger chairs — handcuffs, pepper spray, tasers, spiked clubs and cattle prods.

The reports also indicated that people were strapped in the chairs and interrogated for up to nine hours.

“Tahir talked about standing in line and seeing the tiger chair with blood stains,” Chin said. “I can’t really imagine what it was actually like, but I could feel my heart thumping in my chest. It was terrifying.”

These types of discoveries were different from what Chin and Lin had in mind when they first wrote about facial-recognition technology, according to Chin.

“When we started the series, Liza was a tech reporter based in Shanghai, who later moved to Singapore,” he said. “She’s an amazing reporter and has this ability to put people at ease. And they end up telling her things they shouldn’t tell her.”

Liza Lin, award-winning Wall Street Journal correspondent stationed in Singapore, co-wrote “Surveillance State,” a nonfiction book detailing how American tech companies have ramped up the Communist Party of China’s use of A.I. and other technology to carry out social control.
Photo by Hannah Yi

Lin focused on the role of tech companies and how they worked with the government, Chin said.

“She persuaded a bunch of employees at a huge ecommerce company and the police to tell her how the government was getting data from this company,” he said. “She persuaded the law enforcement agency to let her in to see the surveillance command center. The head of it was so happy and proud and wanted to tell her everything. So he gave her a tour.”

One of the biggest surprises that emerged from the research was how deeply involved American tech companies were in the story.

“So, one thing we did was go through procurement documents and they listed what types of equipment they wanted,” Chin said

Chin and Lin found that the government had requested a long list of American-made hard drives and advanced chips.

“They didn’t want Chinese-made equipment, because American companies make the best hard drives and chips in the world,” Chin said. 

Chin had always been aware of American tech companies trying to profit by selling Chinese government technology.

“They have been doing that since the early 2000s, and while we understood the motivation is profit, it was amazing to see the depth of involvement by these companies,” he said. “In retrospect it was shocking to read how tech executives talked about how promising the market is, but it doesn’t seem to even enter their minds of what they could be enabling in terms of social control or human-rights abuses.”

In 2020, Chin was kicked out of China. While there may be a connection between that and the series of stories he led, he isn’t completely positive that’s the reason.

“I was one of three reporters from the Wall Street Journal the government kicked out, but they didn’t tell us why,” he said. “They had complained about some of my coverage in Xinjiang in the past, so that may have been part of it.”

Another reason could have been an opinion-page headline that the foreign ministry didn’t like, which the news writers didn’t have anything to do with, Chin said.

“In the Wall Street Journal, more so than other papers, the division between news and opinion is like a towering firewall,” he said. “So there was nothing we did on the news side, but the foreign ministry used it as an excuse to kick us out.”
A third reason could have been COVID-19, Chin said.

“One of the reporters was in Wuhan just when the pandemic was gaining steam, so it’s possible that was the reason she was chosen,” he said.

Chin spent three months in Tokyo before Taiwan announced it would welcome reporters exiled from China. 

“I think they saw an opportunity there,” Chin said about the Taiwanese government.

Putting the book together proved challenging because of all the information Chin and Lin had collected.

“We also wanted this book to be as comprehensive as possible,” he said. “There are a ton of manifestos out there about government surveillance, and everyone is familiar with the criticisms of state surveillance. So we wanted to make it possible for readers to understand why the Communist Party is doing this.”

The authors wanted not only to tell the story, but back it up with history, as well as the government’s ideals and goals, Chin said

“If the world is going to come to terms with these technologies and what they can do with our politics and society, people need to understand this in a holistic way,” he said. “We tried to have a human story in each chapter to show the people who were pushing the systems forward, who were being targeted and how these systems changed their lives.”


Scene Happenings: Sept. 23 – Sept. 28

Saturday morning nature walks are held at 8:30 a.m. every Saturday at the Swaner EcoCenter. The cost is $10 per person and $5 for local residents.

See more

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Park City and Summit County make the Park Record's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.