Who needs democracy when you have data? - MIT Technology Review
Hu Jintao, China’s leader from 2002 to 2012, had attempted to solve these problems by permitting a modest democratic thaw, allowing avenues for grievances to reach the ruling class. His successor, Xi Jinping, has reversed that trend. Instead, his strategy for understanding and responding to what is going on in a nation of 1.4 billion relies on a combination of surveillance, AI, and big data to monitor people’s lives and behavior in minute detail.
As far as we know, there is no single master blueprint linking technology and governance in China. But there are several initiatives that share a common strategy of harvesting data about people and companies to inform decision-making and create systems of incentives and punishments to influence behavior. These initiatives include the State Council’s 2014 “Social Credit System,” the 2016 Cybersecurity Law, various local-level and private-enterprise experiments in “social credit,” “smart city” plans, and technology-driven policing in the western region of Xinjiang. Often they involve partnerships between the government and China’s tech companies.
The most far-reaching is the Social Credit System, though a better translation in English might be the “trust” or “reputation” system. The government plan, which covers both people and businesses, lists among its goals the “construction of sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, and judicial credibility.” (“Everybody in China has an auntie who’s been swindled. There is a legitimate need to address a breakdown in public trust,” says Paul Triolo, head of the geotechnology practice at the consultancy Eurasia Group.) To date, it’s a work in progress, though various pilots preview how it might work in 2020, when it is supposed to be fully implemented.
Blacklists are the system’s first tool. For the past five years, China’s court system has published the names of people who haven’t paid fines or complied with judgments. Under new social-credit regulations, this list is shared with various businesses and government agencies. People on the list have found themselves blocked from borrowing money, booking flights, and staying at luxury hotels. China’s national transport companies have created additional blacklists, to punish riders for behavior like blocking train doors or picking fights during a journey; offenders are barred from future ticket purchases for six or 12 months. Earlier this year, Beijing debuted a series of blacklists to prohibit “dishonest” enterprises from being awarded future government contracts or land grants.
A few local governments have experimented with social-credit “scores,” though it’s not clear if they will be part of the national plan.
“The idea of social credit is to monitor and manage how people and institutions behave,” says Samantha Hoffman of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “Once a violation is recorded in one part of the system, it can trigger responses in other parts of the system. It’s a concept designed to support both economic development and social management, and it’s inherently political.” Some parallels to parts of China’s blueprint already exist in the US: a bad credit score can prevent you from taking out a home loan, while a felony conviction suspends or annuls your right to vote, for example. “But they’re not all connected in the same way—there’s no overarching plan,” Hoffman points out.
One of the biggest concerns is that because China lacks an independent judiciary, citizens have no recourse for disputing false or inaccurate allegations.
In the last two years thousands of checkpoints have been set up at which passersby must present both their face and their national ID card to proceed on a highway, enter a mosque, or visit a shopping mall. Uighurs are required to install government-designed tracking apps on their smartphones, which monitor their online contacts and the web pages they’ve visited. Police officers visit local homes regularly to collect further data on things like how many people live in the household, what their relationships with their neighbors are like, how many times people pray daily, whether they have traveled abroad, and what books they have.
All these data streams are fed into Xinjiang’s public security system, along with other records capturing information on everything from banking history to family planning. “The computer program aggregates all the data from these different sources and flags those who might become ‘a threat’ to authorities,” says Wang. Though the precise algorithm is unknown, it’s believed that it may highlight behaviors such as visiting a particular mosque, owning a lot of books, buying a large quantity of gasoline, or receiving phone calls or email from contacts abroad. People it flags are visited by police, who may take them into custody and put them in prison or in reeducation camps without any formal charges.