"China is always changing. I did a fair amount of re-writing over last summer, simply because so much was happening,” Ian Williams says via video call from his home in London, where he spent much of the lockdown working on his first non-fiction book, Every Breath You Take: China’s New Tyranny (Birlinn).
Commissioned before the pandemic and Hong Kong protests, the former foreign correspondent for Channel 4 and NBC News examines the extraordinary rise of the Chinese surveillance state, the developing situation in Xinjiang re-education camps, and what it all means—not only for the Chinese population, but people across the world.
Inspiration for the book dates back to when Williams was covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and his laptop was hacked in his hotel room. He says: “It comes as a bit of a shock when someone has been inside your computer like that... I developed quite a strong interest in cyber-related stuff.”
After leaving NBC in 2016, Williams spent months researching what became his first novel, Beijing Smog (Matador, 2017), which follows the fallout caused by a viral internet meme. But he wanted to take it further: “A lot of the issues that I had come across and explored deserved to be looked at in a different way, in a non-fiction book.”
In the beginning of 2020, when the world’s media turned to China, particularly at the Covid flashpoint Wuhan, Williams had to go back to the drawing board, a prospect he found “in some respects a little bit daunting, but in others quite exciting.” He adds: “All these things [China] had been putting in place, all of these components of the surveillance state, they wheeled out and started to use [in the pandemic]. It was almost like a laboratory test: you could bring all this stuff together under the label of the public health crisis, where people are less likely to be alarmed.”
Williams expresses his desire for the book to be accessible, calling the subject something that people “need to know about”. To that effect, Every Breath You Take is peppered with references to pop culture, from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to the book’s title, taken from The Police’s 1983 hit of the same name. Williams references an interview the band’s singer Sting gave, in which the singer was alarmed that the song was interpreted as love song, when in actuality it is “really quite sinister, it’s creepy... it’s about control and surveillance.” Williams says: “I thought there couldn’t really be a more appropriate title.”
Every Breath You Take exposes what is going on in China and the threat it poses to the world, but also, as Williams chillingly puts it, serves as “a grim warning about what happens when these technologies are introduced without any oversight, without any restraint, without any regulation.”
Every Breath You Take: China’s New Tyranny (9781780277110) is published on 1st April by Birlinn. The hardback costs £16.99.