China’s digital dictatorship – The Economist
WHEN communism crumbled in the Soviet Union, 25 years ago this week, the Chinese Communist Party seemed to many to be heading irreversibly downwards. Yes, the tanks had left Tiananmen Square after crushing a revolt in 1989, but the war appeared lost. Even China’s breakneck growth, which took off a year after the Soviet collapse, looked likely only to tear the party further from its ideological bedrock. In 1998 President Bill Clinton intimated that he foresaw an inevitable democratic trajectory. He told his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, that China was “on the wrong side of history”.
Yet, while the West has suffered from the financial crisis and the fallout after a failed attempt to implant democracy in the Middle East, China’s Communist Party has clung on to its monopoly of power. Its leaders behave as if China will never have to undergo the democratic transformation that every rich country has passed through on the way to prosperity. Instead they seem to believe that the party can keep control—and some officials are betting that the way to do so lies in a new form of digital dictatorship.
A party apart
Under its leader, Xi Jinping, the party looks from the outside to be stronger than at any time in decades. Since Tiananmen, stale apparatchiks have been replaced by bright technocrats—and even entrepreneurs. Citizens enjoy freedoms unimaginable a generation ago—to do business, to travel abroad and to pursue freewheeling lives. Using Western techniques of public relations, the party reminds ordinary Chinese how everyone, thanks to mass consumerism, is having a jolly good time.
And yet the party is still profoundly insecure. During the past few years it has felt the need to impose a fierce clampdown on dissidents and their lawyers. It is bullying activists in Hong Kong who challenge its authority and is terrorising restless minorities. Rapid economic growth has created a huge new middle class who relish the opportunity to get rich, but who are also distrustful of everything around them: of officials who ride roughshod over property rights, of a state health-care system riddled with corruption, of businesses that routinely peddle shoddy goods, of an education system in which cheating is the norm and of people whose criminal and financial backgrounds are impossible to assess.
The party rightly worries that a society so lacking in trust is unstable. So it is experimenting with a striking remedy. It calls this a “social-credit system” (see article). It says the idea is to harness digitally stored information to chivvy everyone into behaving more honestly, whether fly-by-night companies or tax- and fine-dodging individuals. That sounds fair enough. But the government also talks about this as a tool of “social management”: ie, controlling individuals’ behaviour. This is a regime that already tries to police how often people visit their parents. How much further could it go? Citizens’ ratings are to be linked with their identity-card numbers. Many fear that bad scores might result in sanctions, such as being denied a bank loan or permission to buy a railway ticket, even for political reasons. They have reason to worry. The government decreed this year that the system should record such vaguely defined sins as “assembling to disrupt social order”.
In the West, too, the puffs of data that people leave behind them as they go about their lives are being vacuumed up by companies such as Google and Facebook. Those with access to these data will know more about people than people know about themselves. But you can be fairly sure that the West will have rules—especially where the state is involved. In China, by contrast, the monitoring could result in a digital dystopia. Officials talk of creating a system that by 2020 will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
So far, the scheme is only experimental, in about 30 areas. The government itself seems unsure how far to take it. There has been much debate about how to ensure that citizens can challenge their ratings. Indeed, attempts to use the system to give the party more muscle are meeting opposition. Official media have reported misgivings about one experiment in which citizens visiting government offices to complain about miscarriages of justice were punished with poor scores. The media have even quoted critics comparing such tactics to the Japanese handing out “good citizen” certificates to trusted Chinese during the imperial army’s hated wartime occupation.
That the party has given publicity to such concerns suggests it may heed some of them. But it is just as likely that the experiments mark the beginning of something bigger and more sinister. They are of a piece with China’s deep-seated bureaucratic traditions of coercion and paternalism. The government feels that it has a right to intrude on citizens’ lives. Public resentment has made no difference to brutal, ill-judged efforts to dictate how many children families can have. Whenever Mr Xi is challenged, his instinct always seems to be to crack down. The routine succession of threats any government faces is more likely to lead to oppression than to a free, informed debate or a decision that the state should forsake the digital tools available.
Turn the spotlight on the rulers, not the ruled
Instead of rating citizens, the government should be allowing them to assess the way it rules. Vast digital systems are not needed for that. For all democracy’s weaknesses, the ballot box can still work. Too much to ask for in China, perhaps? Not if the government is to be taken at its word. Its outline of the social-credit scheme grandly calls for “complete systems to constrain and supervise the use of power” and steps to “broaden channels for public participation in government policymaking”. That sounds a lot like democracy.
Sadly, Mr Xi shows little interest in experiments of that kind. Witness the thugs who were recently deployed outside the home of a Beijing citizen who dared to try to stand in a local election without the party’s permission. Instead Mr Xi continues to develop digital tools and systems for controlling people. That will fuel anger and resentment towards the government. In the long run it will prove that Mr Clinton was right.