Everybody knows about the Great Firewall of censorship in China. Many see the specter of an even deeper surveillance state in the times ahead, as artificial intelligence and big data controlled by the authorities track all citizens with a social credit score.
Previously in The WorldPost, Francis Fukuyama wrote about “the unimagined forms that a 21st century totalitarian state can take” in China. Xiao Qiang, the founder and editor in chief of China Digital Times, has also warned of the rise of a “digital totalitarian state.”
But there is another side to the story of Chinese society so densely connected through the Internet. Digital giants like Alibaba and Tencent are, with help from the smartphone, driving the “the factory of the world” toward a consumer economy at your fingertips. Technology is also enabling the party-state to stay in touch with citizens in real time, actively responding to their concerns in order to maintain the legitimacy of its rule. John Keane has even suggested that China is becoming a “phantom democracy” in which, paradoxically, “the fear of democracy forces a style of political management that in many ways mirrors and mimics electoral democracies, where the fear of elections puts leaders in constant campaign mode.”
Understanding this paradox is the key to figuring out the puzzle of why China’s political system continues to defy the Western expectation that it must fail because it is not a liberal democracy. It is repressive and responsive at the same time.
In an excerpt adapted from a new book, Tencent founder and CEO Pony Ma profiles China’s impressive digital landscape. “There were 751 million Internet users in China as of June 30, 2017,” he writes from Beijing. “That is about 9 million more than Europe’s total population during the same time period.”
He continues: In 2016, “Every day, Tencent’s Dreamwriter, a news-writing robot, wrote and released 2,000 finance or sports-related news articles. Every day, consumers purchased 12.9 billion yuan ($1.85 billion) of merchandise through China’s two largest e-commerce platforms, Alibaba and JD.com. Every day, Tencent Maps was accessed more than 50 billion times by various apps. Every day, Didi Chuxing handled more than 20 million requests for car rides and planned 9 billion routes. Every day, China had 85.75 million express packages delivered to doorsteps. Every day, more than 20 million piping hot food deliveries were made to the tables of customers by delivery staff riding electric scooters. Every day, 266 million small transactions were completed by scanning a code into a third-party payment app such as WeChat Pay or Alipay.”
He concludes: “As Chinese society becomes more connected, the dividing line between the digital and real economies will become increasingly blurred and will eventually disappear. There will be no purely Internet-only companies because the Internet will have spread to cover all social infrastructure; nor will there be purely traditional industries because they will have grafted onto the Internet. When no one refers to the Internet on its own anymore, the goal of ‘Internet Plus’ will have been achieved. Full integration is the real theme of technological progress.”
Maria Repnikova examines the responsive aspect of China’s authoritarian system. “Alongside control, Chinese authorities scrupulously listen to and study public opinion online, engage with and respond to public grievances, and creatively mobilize the public through interactive social media tools,” she writes.
“The monitoring,” she continues, “is accompanied by official online engagement with the public, a process some scholars describe as ‘authoritarian deliberation.’ Officials are increasingly encouraged, and in some cases required, to set up public profiles on Weibo, China’s version of Facebook, and WeChat, a mobile chat app. The number of official Weibo accounts now slightly exceeds 137,000, and the number of official WeChat accounts is over 100,000. These numbers will likely continue to grow.”
She goes on: “Chinese citizens post a variety of queries to these official accounts, from the state of public bathrooms to questions about housing demolitions and water quality. Officials can be held publicly accountable for their responsiveness on social media. Every week, China’s biggest official news outlet, People’s Daily, for instance, ranks official Weibo accounts’ effectiveness in solving problems.”
The million yuan question is whether President Xi Jinping’s policies to further stifle China’s vast digital space — the Tiananmen Square of the 21st century — will undo what has succeeded so far. “The biggest tension in China’s digital governance is between the quest for intensified control and the desire for public engagement,” Repnikova concludes. “If the former starts to overpower the latter, then this balancing act will become harder to maintain. China’s political system has thus far been remarkably distinct from other authoritarian counterparts in its ‘consultative’ and ‘responsive’ nature. It remains to be seen if these adjectives will apply to it in the future.”
Writing from Beijing, Bing Song puts valid concerns — that the planned social credit system could turn into an Orwellian dystopia — in the larger context of the effort to clean up and establish trust in a system long afflicted with official corruption, impunity and commercial fraud.
“In a 2014 document,” she reports, “the Chinese government outlined its vision for such a system and noted that it involved four distinct segments: a government trust system, a commercial credit system, a social trust system and a judicial trust system. What drives this gargantuan project is an effort to build a culture of trust in Chinese society. Given this broad aim, a more appropriate term to describe the initiative is a ‘social trust system.’ Indeed, many measures introduced as part of the social trust system are intended to curb official corruption, tackle official dereliction and improve efficiency in enforcing court decisions, as well as punish unethical behaviors of professionals such as lawyers, doctors and teachers.”
Song notes that the proposed system, like most major Chinese projects, is a work in progress being tested in pilot programs that always result in adjustments. “These programs have thus been revised or revoked at times, depending on public reception. For instance, Suining County in Jiangsu Province was one of the first local governments to roll out a grading system for its residents, giving them an A through D mark. It sparked heated debates. The most contentious aspect was the inclusion of point deductions for ‘unauthorized’ petitions. … The media and public backlash forced the county mayor to apologize and revise the scoring system.”
She concludes with a plea to Western observers: “Social governance in the digital age is a global challenge. Rather than instantly dismissing China’s unconventional governance innovations, we need an open-minded discussion of the pros and cons — one that is sensitive to the challenges and priorities of different cultural and political contexts.”