Credit: Film Movement
by Noel Oakshot Featured Film Horizon Line

Total Trust — Zhang Jialing

December 6, 2023

The last decade has seen a dramatic metamorphosis of Chinese documentary. The vibrant independent and zero-budget documentary ecosystem of the 2000s — from which ambitious concept pieces like Tiexi qu, unapologetically dissenting works like Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, and films celebrating the country and its institutions like Purple Top all emanated — has fragmented and disappeared. A multiplicity of factors are at play here: the looming threat of Cold War II, the onward march of the digital revolution, state censors cracking down, etc.. The most prominent successor movement is a series of high-profile, Western-produced, China-critical documentaries, the latest of which is Total Trust, an in-depth exploration of the CCP’s multidimensional program of social control. Directed in absentia via an anonymous crew by PRC exile Zhang Jialing (co-director of the disappointing One Child Nation), the film follows a group of outspoken human rights activists who have been bullied and marginalized: journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin, who covers inconvenient stories like the 2019 Hong Kong protests; Chen Zijuan, the wife of a lawyer who was unjustly imprisoned; and Li Wenzu, who has been united with her lawyer husband Wang Quanzhang after several years of imprisonment for subversion of state power. These stories are buttressed by tangents that expand out into documenting other various forms of control and suppression, and the resulting film is one of the most incisive, comprehensive, and moving explorations of the way authoritarianism is practiced in the modern world.

In contemporary China’s matrix of coercion, everyone exists on a spectrum from apolitical non-problem to state enemy. This assessment is created incrementally across a range of institutions and points of contact through which the government can extract information and compel behavior: every arbitrary “papers please” checkpoint, endless surveillance cameras with facial recognition (both publicly and privately owned, but all nonetheless connected to government data centers), community administration officials managing the sprawling multi-building apartment complexes that house hundreds of millions in China’s cities, every online social media post, the need to go to the police when one requires a document to be issued, when one uses an identity card on highspeed rail, or even just to get into a government building. The precipitating invisible profile alters the way in which all manner of systems interact with you. If you have been designated as a person of interest, you may be subject to arbitrary bureaucratic discrimination such as increased scrutiny every time you have to jump through some kind of hoop (e.g. opening a bank account) and unsolicited contact from minor officials from the local government. Resisting this pressure is a surefire way to slide further up the scale toward troublemaker status. This layer of surveillance is largely only applied to ordinary citizens and residents who have run afoul of the bureaucracy. If one actively opposes the state and gains public traction doing so, they can be subject to harassment, de-banking, arrest, total blacklisting from institutions, and AI-enforced banning of one’s name, face, and voice from the entire Chinese Internet. At the highest end of the scale, state enemies can be totally disappeared. Sometimes they return from detention, usually to a highly monitored life where their ability to challenge the state has been totally neutralized. Others vanish completely, never to be heard from or seen again. This has happened to thousands of people. This system is distinct from its Mao-era progenitor in its technological expansion that has attempted to take the reins of the nigh untamable digital revolution and redirect it towards CCP ends, but also in its origins and intention. As appalling as it was, the absolute information regime of the Cultural Revolution was in some sense a logical next step for Marxist ideologues wrestling with the apparent incongruence between Maoism (or, more generally, Marxist Leninism) and human nature (rationalized as rightist cultural subversion). Today’s authoritarian framework is less total, particularly given the different media universe we now occupy, and is largely unmoored from substantive ideological grounding.

Total Trust takes viewers through the process of this suppression and the intersecting layers of control. While many other documentaries have explored nodes of this network — particularly the role of formal authority figures like police or the system’s response to a specific incident like the Covid-19 pandemic — never before have we seen a documentary that gives such a complete picture of how this system operates as a whole, and more critically what it feels like to be caught in the web. Interviews with the subjects & footage of their interactions with the various tentacles of the state are complemented by a broad range of secondary material that captures the extent to which securitization and information control has come to dominate the society. Like the dissidents, we never see those with the authority to actually launch these persecutory campaigns; we see the formal and informal representatives of local government who carry it out. This pestering and obfuscatory local bureaucracy is emblematic of why, even though Chinese satisfaction surveys with the national government are infamously very positive, polling on satisfaction with local government shows some of the lowest satisfaction levels in the world. We see our subjects harassed and manipulated by state actors. We see firsthand how the Covid measures were weaponized selectively against dissidents and troublemakers, limiting their freedom of movement and access to institutions. We see how the rise of cameras in the home for security and maintaining engagement with family members who have migrated internally or externally for work feeds into the system. Cumulatively, the documentary starts to emulate what is feels like to be targeted by this distributed system, the ominous feeling that the hand of the state is looming ever over your head, its finger pressing down on you to prevent you from movement. There is a stunningly candid interview with a community administration figure who talks openly about her role maintaining order/cohesion in the community, implicitly framed by the documentarians as a node in this authoritarian network. In this interview, she details how she keeps track of all the residents of her community, dividing out the problem cases for extra attention. When she sees an old woman who has been marked as a person of interest roaming the grounds, she immediately approaches and asks what the woman is doing. This short segment is an incredible encapsulation of the methods and mentality of the people working on the ground floor of this authoritarian system, and of how they conceptualize what they are doing. The filmmakers have to be congratulated for the incredibly incisive footage they collated here at significant peril.

Total Trust is at its best when focused on the immensely potent human stories of the two women whose husbands were unjustly detained. We see glimpses of their lives during this detention, and it’s beyond heartbreaking to witness their two young sons growing up without fathers. In one moving and disturbing moment, we see Chen vociferously demanding her in-laws protest the disappearance of their son. But her father-in-law, himself a party member, is reluctant to do so and states that he is scared, amidst nervous glances at the camera. The paranoia induced by all this is itself a part of this matrix of control. In one moment, where a phone connection cuts out while driving through a tunnel, one of the subjects immediately jumps to the conclusion that the signal is being jammed. Total Trust is filled with scene after memorable, affecting scene, and it all amounts to a comprehensive and authentic portrait of how state power manifests in the lives of opposition and anti-state voices, as well as how aggressively ordinary people are shepherded into political conformity. The film also does an excellent job of capturing these activists as regular Chinese people, who live in the same places and participate in the society on the same level as everyone else. It also gives some insight into the organic way activists organize, commune among themselves, spread their message, and interact with a Western, China-watching sphere. Total Trust directly and indirectly hits on many of the threads related to Chinese dissent over the years, including the involvement of Western institutions, Christianity as a motivating factor, nonviolence as a principle, and much more. It’s a great introduction to the discourse as a whole, as well as some of its more immediate priorities. As a watch, the documentary is focused, concise, to the point, and doesn’t diverge into ideologically charged territory such as an embrace of anticommunism or the re-litigation of the history of dissent in the PRC. The initial activism that brought these people into the crosshairs of the state is largely not discussed, which is wise because widening the scope would risk dampening the moral clarity and opening the film up to bad faith ideological attacks. Zhang admirably weaves all her film’s disparate threads into a well-structured, potent, and accessible document, perhaps the defining documentary to watch on China’s human rights abuses.

Formally, Total Trust is a cultural emanation of the West, which is of course necessary because it could never be released in China. But by the same token, some have suggested that the West is hypocritical for admonishing China while Julian Assange rots away in a cell. But as Wang Quanzhang says, “Even in countries like the U.S., subversion of state power is prosecuted. But in China, there’s no clear legal definition of it; the police manipulate its definition.” What is documented here is instead qualitatively different to the surveillance and oppression in the West, where the information agency backdoors into social media companies are used far less liberally and far less bluntly. The persecution of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning or the de-banking and marginalization of anti-Semitic political commentator Nick Fuentes is not equivalent to the imprisonment of hundreds of lawyers (including Wang) on spurious and/or inscrutable charges in the “709 crackdown” of 2015, and the equivalents of Manning in China have been permanently disappeared. In addition, the nation’s specter of authoritarianism legitimates the comparatively limited domestic human rights abuses of the U.S. In all this, there’s an implicit broader critique of technology that’s made explicit in an interview Zhang provided as part of the Total Trust‘s press materials: “While the film focuses on the stories of people in China, we hope to expand the conversation beyond and further. We have this vision since we started making the film… The film is about humanity. It asks the urgent question, what kind of future societies are we heading to?”

All of us are constantly being surveilled and aggregated by big data, and big data is constantly being accessed by states. On a worldwide scale, there have been growing twin digital sovereignty and digital abstinence movements, but they haven’t really moved the needle. The infiltration of the digital medium into our lives is so complete that technological self-isolation is useless as a corrective without social self-isolation, because everybody you interact with is online. There are enough points of contact in an ordinary life sans technology that a comprehensive profile of you could be assembled even without your participation. There’s also the question of national digital sovereignty: In the 2000s and 2010s, one of the major critiques levelled against China by the West and the kind of activists we see in this movie was that the banishment of major Western platforms such as Google and Facebook was a major curtailment of freedom of access and totally against the spirit of the open Internet. But as these platforms have pursued increasingly anticompetitive and frankly unethical strategies and the open Internet vision has died a slow ugly death, many have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the CCP was right to ban all these platforms. In 2021 in Australia, these companies showed their hand a little too much, revealing that they have the coercive power to potentially overturn the will expressed by a nation through its government in explicit terms, in addition to implicitly through the algorithmic clockwork behind the curtain. In almost every country in the world (excluding perhaps China, Russia, and North Korea), international companies have vastly more influence over the populous than the domestic media. Is all of this inevitable?

The fundamental property of digital technology is scalability. Imagine a sine wave: a simple low-resolution digital approximation would be 10101010 etc., a square wave where each 1 represents a crest and each 0 represents a trough. But through scalability, digital can create increasingly high resolution approximations of the shape of a curve. For anything other than a mathematic abstraction, with infinite resolution like a sine wave, digital can hypothetically make a higher resolution iteration; in theory, there could be a higher resolution of your hand rendered than the actual resolution of your hand in the real world. Similarly, as digital technology expands to become part of other mediums, it cannibalizes them by replacing their methodologies with more efficient (because of its informational efficiency and capacity to scale and replicate) and more easily integrated (because all digital shares the same subfloor of 0s and 1s) processes. This dynamic of scaling and resolving is the fundamental property of digital, and as digital technology resolves and iterates itself around our minds, it finds its way, like water rising to submerge a mountain range, into all the dark nooks and crannies of our cognitive makeup, including places heretofore unknown to us. We see this in digital’s Jungian metamedium, the Internet, dominated as it is by pornography, hyper-virality, and the rapid iterative replacement of culture with newer more addictive forms of culture. As it interacts with us, it is both being conditioned for maximum virality and behaviorally conditioning us to new modes of virality. Is it the nature of human beings in the saturated digital informational equilibrium to be miserable, manipulated, and controlled, perpetually under hedonic limbic assault? It certainly seems that way from or current vantage point. It also seems that attempting to mold this landscape for one’s own ends like the CCP is trying to is untenable. The tendency of digital systems to expand and integrate is inevitably leading to massive friction with those that slip through the cracks. The “Great Firewall” cannot hold back the flood.

Questions of “the future” and “change” hang over Total Truth like twin Swords of Damocles. At one point, Huang likens the state’s encroachment on individual liberty to frogs in a pot, as the temperature slowly approaches a boiling point. But this is not a mechanistically progressive unidirectional process; it’s more like a pressure valve being tightened reactively to threats posed to the legitimacy of the system. Earlier we glimpse one of the many perfunctory public ceremonies carried out by the CCP. The aesthetics are flaccid and unappealing, and the demographic present is almost entirely people who lived some portion of their formative years in the hermetically sealed propaganda environment of Maoist China. This is a revealing microcosm of the society-wide cultural equilibrium. The CCP has painted itself into an aesthetic and mythological corner. The clarion call of Maoist socialist realism was refuted: along with the Cultural Revolution, the Dengist vision of prosperity, community, and cultural continuity has been undermined by the increasing difficulty with which the “economic miracle” can deliver any of those things. The party cannot credibly adorn itself with the opposition movement aesthetics that most communist movements do after ruling what has been the world’s most populous country for three quarters of a century. All that’s left is reminiscence over past triumphs and a hollow sense of nationalism: that the Chinese people should support China.

This memetically limp package cannot compete with the burning cry for justice of Chen Zijuan’s protest video outside the gaol, nor with the mythology of Western liberal egalitarianism that speaks so powerfully to a basic human sense of fairness. Consequently, less people than ever before are buying into the national mythology, and paired with the disillusionment people feel after Covid and other material shocks to the system, trust in the government is as weak as it’s ever been. The people most emotionally invested in the system are the aforementioned elderly, those attracted to nationalism for reasons untethered from the current government, and careerists following the societal incentive structures. The Chinese people at large are in something of a crisis, with one of the highest savings rates in the world suggesting low consumer confidence, a stalling economy, low birth rates, and an accelerated post-pandemic exodus of people trying to seek their fortunes in the West. The system is facing an existential threat, and the pressure valve has been tightened. But what would happen if this regime of control were loosened, or rolled back in its entirety? The opening-up era of the 1980s and the partial dismantlement of the totalistic communications system of the Mao era give us some indication. The expanded freedom of expression allowed liberal sentiments to get a foot in the door, which ultimately led to the Tiananmen Square protests and, in turn, massacre of 1989. We also saw an analogue in China’s #MeToo moment, where some aspects of state media and authority dabbled with the global megatrend. But when #MeToo critiques started being levelled against people a little too powerful, the elastic snapped back hard with, among other things, the forced closure of women’s organizations and the widely reported detention of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. A broader rollback or removal of the systems critiqued in Total Trust would likely result in immediate mass virality of antigovernment material and a confrontation between the government and its disaffected citizenry in an order of magnitude likely larger than Tiananmen. This doesn’t mean the PRC faces imminent collapse in the current world, but rather that any adjustment to this unhappy balance is playing with fire.

Total Trust makes multiple references to George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it’s clear that the widely cited conceptual scaffold the author contributed there sits somewhere at the base of Zhang’s project. In many ways, the novel is an analogic work to this film. Whatever your thoughts are on the qualities of Nineteen Eighty-Four, one can dispassionately recognize that its oft-cited place at the height of the modern literary canon has as much to do with the novel’s political utility in the decades after its release as it does with its artistry. Antiauthoritarianism in fiction was part of America’s Cold War effort, and a legacy of that consensus-generating process is that we still celebrate Animal Farm, Brave New World, Darkness at Noon, The Gulag Archipelago, and so on as the greatest novels ever written. Likewise, we have this documentary and many others like it receiving acclaim and wide coverage in the early stages of what has been pessimistically dubbed Cold War II. Already the agreement in the West that the Chinese state is a nefarious actor is more total than any other political consensus in the democratic world. That’s been achieved. There’s always a place for activists and dissidents to express themselves, but Total Trust has the prominence that it does because of an organizational infrastructure that opposes China on the basis of amoral geopolitical and moral humanitarian interests — with the skew depending on the organization/individual in question. With regard to the orientation of the China watchers, the Sinology institutions, the NGOs, and so many other parallel projects: If you want to start pushing dominos over, you better get serious about how the interests of the Chinese people are going to be protected when the house of cards comes down, and not in some pyrrhic “WW3 was necessary” sense. Because there is a lot of discussion about how bad China is for its people, but not a lot of discussion about a strategy for change that will actually help them and not leave them holding the bag like was done to Russians when the Cold War was won (and lost). These are the people we’re supposed to be helping.

DIRECTOR: Zhang Jialing;  CAST: —;  DISTRIBUTOR: Film Movement;  IN THEATERS: December 8;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 37 min.