A little after one o’clock in the morning, we reach the hotel and I walk across the tall, handsome atrium of marble and glass in order to check in. A giant, glittering chandelier hangs overheard that likely costs the amount of a small house. As I’d done so at the airport at Customs, all I needed to do was swipe my phone and verify my thumbprint on the biometric pad at the counter to complete the check-in process. After a brief moment, there’s a ding! that confirms my identity has been successfully verified.
“Welcome to Shanghai, Mr. Fletcher,” the receptionist says to me, smiling. “If there is anything you require, at any hour, please do not hesitate to call us here in Concierge. For the duration of your stay, please use your phone to swipe in and out of your room and note that breakfast is served starting at seven o’clock, running until ten. You can likewise swipe in on either of our dining floors, the 13th or the 47th, for entry into the dining area.”
“Thank you,” I say and give a small smile back. The receptionist is attractive but as I look around the lobby, I notice that the receptionists actually all look quite eerily similar in appearance– the same raven-black hair, high cheekbones, and red lipstick; the same sleeveless, silk crimson uniforms. It’s a bit unnerving.
Inside the elevator, I need to swipe my phone again, which automatically directs the elevator carriage to the 43rd floor, where my room is located.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government had built an entire surveillance state predicated on tracking every single citizen electronically. From your birth, every Chinese citizen is assigned a “National Identification Number,” very similar to the “Social Security Number” that all Americans receive. But for the Chinese, the NIN is literally your digital key to your entire life. You need an NIN to open a bank account. You submit you NIN when you apply for a job or home loan. And if you ever run into trouble with the law, your criminal record is likewise forever attached to your NIN.
What exists in China, which doesn’t exist in America, is a National Citizenry Registry that is all-knowing and comprehensive. Every apartment you’ve ever rented, every house you’ve ever lived in, and every job you’ve ever held. The elementary, high school, and college that you attended. Every time you’ve departed and entered the country by boat, train, or plane.
All of this is child’s play though, basic information that any authoritarian regime would wish to know about its citizens. Where the Chinese NCR system really shines is its granular tracking of all consumer transaction history. The key thing to understand about China, especially if you’re visiting from the west, is that beginning in 2037, the country went entirely cashless. There is literally no longer any physical currency. No coins, no bills; it’s all now virtual. You swipe to pay for everything and the debit is automatically deducted from your bank account.
Now that I’d used my phone to land in Shanghai and to check into the hotel, the Chinese government would know exactly where I was and when I’d arrived. In fact, as I headed to my room now, on the 43rd floor, the CCP –if it so cared– even knew about that too.