Content

Judith Petersen, Chapter VII: The Chinese Social Credit System: A Magical Tool of Governance in the Big Data Era? in:

Nele Noesselt (ed.)

Reassessing Chinese Politics, page 140 - 171

National System Dynamics and Global Implications

1. Edition 2019, ISBN print: 978-3-8288-4325-7, ISBN online: 978-3-8288-7265-3, https://doi.org/10.5771/9783828872653-140

Series: East Asian Politics: Regional and Global Dynamics, vol. 1

Tectum, Baden-Baden
Bibliographic information
140 Chapter VII: The Chinese Social Credit System: A Magical Tool of Governance in the Big Data Era? Judith Petersen Global Governance and Big Data: A Relevant Nexus in Digital Times “We are at a unique time, when new technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes” (O’Reilly 2013: 293). Big data changes the way societies function and challenges the process of governance as we know it.51 Theoretically, the global resource of cyberspace—created by interconnectivity in an increasingly digital world—enables people everywhere to access information and exercise their right to freedom of expression. Still, access to digital commons and the degree of freedom of expression within them differs widely on global scale—impacting not only every smartphone user, but everyone who lives in a society shaped by digitalization. Current developments within the field of artificial intelligence and big data fuel a key debate on how to shape governance mechanisms in the digital era so as to ensure democratic freedoms in the global community. In ten years’ time, the amount of data that we produce is expected to double every twelve hours, being generated by interlinked smart homes, cities, communication systems, and workplaces (Helbing et al. 2017). This data availability, especially through mobile device usage, provides new grounds for decision-making. Therefore, the central question regarding the legitimacy of new governance tools built on big data and cyberspace persists. While coordinated action on cross-border challenges like climate change and innovative ways toward sustainable development are much needed, it is unclear who ultimately decides on complex issues that have global effects. According to Michael Zürn, the term global governance “refers to the entirety of regulations put forward with reference to solving specific 51 Characteristic of big data is the capacity to collect, integrate, and cross-reference large datasets to identify previously undetectable patterns, profile individuals, calculate risks, and monitor behavior (Boyd/Crawford 2012). 141 denationalized and de-regionalized problems or providing transnational common goods” (2012: 730). Big data might enable regulative procedures. But in times of revolutionary developments in AI, these decision-making processes might not necessarily be democratic. Therefore, it is highly relevant to monitor the processes by which data availability already affects governance tools. Are we going to accept solutions that are purely built on the analysis of our behavior in cyberspace? The United Nations Global Pulse calls the global penetration of mobile phone usage the “most significant change that has affected developing countries since the decolonization movement and the Green Revolution” (2012: 9). Undisputedly, big data and artificial intelligence carry high potential to foster developmental processes. Big data can provide precise assessments of barriers and needs for poverty reduction in rural areas, improve service provision by the public sector, strengthen the climate change resilience of communities, and enable effective infrastructure planning (Cheng 2014: 4). In their 2014 report on big data and development, the UN Development Programme states that: “The Big Data approach […] would be most effective when the data are voluminous and are representative of the population or subjects that are of interest. In other words, the approach would be most effectual when there is a broad participation by different members of the society in contributing to the collection of data.” (Cheng 2014: 17) All these criteria are fulfilled where digital services gain importance. But the new technologies also provide governments with the means to nudge citizens toward desirable behavior. Within this dynamic, governance based on big data comes with severe challenges. First, not all factors can be calculated: the complexity of reality trumps the ability of data analytics. Second, high connectivity not only provides the basis for big data nudging, but also entails the danger of hackers taking over governance tools. Third, while algorithms might factor in data from everyone using information communications technologies, they can be influenced due to lacking transparency and democratic control—especially when network providers and search engines hold unique market leader positions (Helbing et al. 2017). Speaking of digitalization and governance, an increasing amount of coverage in Western media concerns itself with the role of big data in China. Currently, the most featured buzzword on the topic is the Social Credit System—a proposed scheme for evaluating a citizen’s economic as well as social reputation. With a mixture of excitement and terror, 142 articles draw allegories to a “1984” Orwellian dystopia come true. Also, reference to the popular Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” is seldom missing, in which every interaction in society is controlled by social ratings.52 The nationwide implementation of a social scoring system by 2020 would provide the Chinese Communist Party with a new level of observation over and control of the Chinese people within the oneparty state. Along with AI and the unprecedented registration, processing, and use of personal data as a governance tool, new questions arise also regarding stable rule and legitimacy within the most populous state on earth. According to the 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development (13.5), ICT-based systems will play a central role in the maintenance of social stability and future service provision (CC 2016: XVII 72(3)). According to official documents, the SCS’s goal is to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step” (Economist 2016). Such powerful language combined with the scheme’s dystopian long-term potential tend to cast a shadow over the pilot version’s relatively limited and provisional current state of being. Nonetheless, China has started the most ambitious experiment in digital social control worldwide. This essay seeks to elucidate the central motivation behind the scheme’s implementation, and its impact on governance tools based on big data. To this end, it embeds the scheme into the context of Chinese politics, something often lacking in Western commentaries. The analysis draws evidence from the case of China to highlight dynamics that are relevant not only on a national or regional but also global scale, too. China is the leading global actor in the application of AI, and the first political system to use big data in a nationwide social credit program, that is built on the world’s highest growth rates in internet usership, the biggest mobile payment market, and further the peerless availability of real-time data. Operating in cyberspace, in combination with the export potential of its technologies, Chinese governance impacts not only Chinese territory but the digital commons themselves. The data gathering, and societal regulation built on it serve as an exemplary dynamic that is not as far from our own lives as we might think. As big data concepts gain influence all over the world, their implications and the gained insights should be relevant to all humans using ICTs today. 52 The famous dystopian novel 1984, first published in 1949 by George Orwell, imagines a mythical regime that spies on all its citizens using omnipresent surveillance. The TV show Black Mirror, developed originally in 2011 by Charlie Brooker, thematizes the relationship and various effects of technology and media on humans and society. 143 To investigate the dynamics and impacts of Chinese developments on governance tools in the big data era, the essay proceeds as follows. After addressing the contested cyberspace, it traces the distinct legitimacy of Chinese rule and breaks down the role of big data within that context. Following on, it analyzes the SCS on a symbolic and operational level, which ultimately might be nothing more than a logical evolution of previous developments. The essay closes with the scheme’s implications for Chinese development in the years to come, before addressing its impact on other world regions—and on our own lives, as globally connected netizens. The interplay of socio-cognitive sources of legitimacy with the concept of “authoritarian resilience” provide the theoretical grounds for the analysis, which draws particularly on primary sources published by government entities in order to add clarity to the discussion of social credit in China.53 While the developments on Chinese governance tools in the big data era must be embedded into the country’s history and politics, the rationale behind the SCS can teach us valuable lessons that might not be as distinctively Chinese as a first look suggests. Moving within a Contested Cyberspace “One cannot assume, that [the regime in power] will remain weak and unskilled in the navigation and manipulation of digital communications networks.” (MacKinnon 2011: 34) Contrary to the popular assumption of “cyber-utopians,” access to mobile technologies does not inherently support liberation and democratization (Morozov 2011: xiv). Despite mobile internet access and new means of documenting occurring scandals on smartphones, cyberspace not only offers a platform for regime criticism but also for regime propaganda, big nudging, and control within repressive regimes. Just one example is the Chinese censorship system, with its self-learning capacities that close loopholes wherever they might emerge (Morozov 2011: 99). In addition to that, online commentators working for the government, simulated grassroots enthusiasm, and trolls against oppositional movements equally use the internet to promote official policies (MacKinnon 2011: 41–42). 53 As the author does not speak Chinese, the following citations either refer to official translations or reliable external ones, such as China Law Translate or China Copyright and Media by Rogier Creemers. Further, this essay focuses on the individual citizens addressed by the SCS. On the economic debate, see for example, Meissner (2017) and Ramadan (2018). 144 Of course, surveillance and censorship might be bypassed. Confronting key-word-based censorship, netizens use puns and satire to challenge state power via the internet (ibid.).54 But even though the emancipatory potential of access to information via technology does indeed exist, the growing ability of authoritarian regimes to administer flows of information limits the destabilizing power of the internet and makes it, in fact, a powerful governance tool (Creemers 2017: 86). This not only applies to oppressive regimes, but democracies as well. New governance tools that result from big data and the habitat of cyberspace already impact the way that we see the world. Our past online behavior filters content offerings, and intermediaries thereafter encourage us to consume more of the same content. This echo chamber of the internet endangers the plurality of ideas, as our own “bubble” can be used to manipulate opinions and weaken democratic discourse and participation. “[…] Algorithms know pretty well what we do, what we think and how we feel – possibly even better than our friends and family or even ourselves. Often the recommendations we are offered fit so well that the resulting decisions feel as if they were our own, even though they are actually not ours.” (Helbing et al. 2017) China serves as an influential case in rethinking these dynamics. In 2011, Rebecca MacKinnon coined the term “networked authoritarianism.” In the networked authoritarian state, “the single ruling party remains in control while a wide range of conversations about the country’s problems nonetheless occurs on websites and social-networking services” (MacKinnon 2011: 33). The internet serves as an instrument to manage public opinion. Instead of challenging the regime’s power, it offers a feedback mechanism without having to hold elections. This dynamic is important to the discussion of global governance, especially where legitimacy by direct representation is lacking. In Chinese cyberspace, individuals sense more freedom; the state itself does not grant any additional individual rights herein, meanwhile (ibid: 33, 35). Even though there is feedback, no viable opposition can be formed—Chinese governance tools have already adapted to the internet more fruitfully than most foreign observers realize. In China, the regime’s opinion on the internet is changing. It is no longer distrusted as a force of possible destabilization. Instead, leaders 54 A current example is the Chinese Me Too debate, which operates in Weibo using aliases such as “rice bunny” (Storfner 2017). Instead of Me Too, bloggers use identical-sounding Chinese characters instead: Mi (“rice”) and Tu (“bunny”). 145 are embracing it (Creemers 2015). The CCP stresses the importance of internet access and formulates ambitious goals to achieve mobile internet usage of 85 percent by 2020 (CC 2016: I 3 (Box 2)). Further, it is pouring unprecedented resources into the development of new governance tools—building on the digitalization of everyday life. As the internet itself “empowers the strong and disempowers the weak” (Morozov 2011: xvii); it might in fact prolong the CCP’s rule by bolstering its domestic power (MacKinnon 2011: 36). The Internet Plus Initiative, launched in 2015, the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan and the New Cyber Security Law, both promulgated in 2017, are only three of the many documents dealing with these developments. As the country becomes more digitalized, so does control as well. Many of the initiatives to regulate the internet promised an end to economic abuses and infringement on personal liberty, but in fact legitimized tighter government control (Creemers 2017: 98). As set out in 13.5, the Chinese Internet Plus Strategy combines censorship and content monitoring with efforts to insert information technology into most aspects of everyday life (CC 2016: III 14(3)). With the goal to “increase government transparency” (ibid.), the initiative is designed to address problems regarding managing localities and enforcing laws—digitally moving even the most distant cadre close to the capital. “Food security, counterfeiting and local abuse are real issues for Chinese citizens, and if this particular scheme results in more effective oversight and accountability, it will likely be warmly welcomed” (Creemers 2015). As the CCP considers the interests of the party and of society to be one and the same, instruments of social control can be officially used for political purposes (Economist 2016). In 13.5, the government explicitly formulates the goal to “improve the effective registration of personal internet information and internet real-name authentication” (CC 2016: VI 28(2)). Under the guise of privacy protection and internet security, it fosters effective control mechanisms. China’s big data systems in combination with the SCS are explicitly designed to realize O’Reilly’s (2013) thought from above. Previously, the CCP had to spend huge amounts of money on monitoring and influencing public and private debate in cyberspace (Zhu 2011: 138). But this draining might now be over. Automated social control such as the SCS offers a cheap tool and one that works, furthermore, according to top-down-defined algorithms—constraining the freedom of cyberspace in the name of the people. 146 The Chinese Context of Legitimate Rule To understand the rationale behind the SCS in China, it is helpful to look at the legitimacy of CCP rule and the Party’s resilience in staying in power. In the case of China, a piece of conventional wisdom in Political Science does not seem to apply: Despite a growing middle class and continuous economic growth, the authoritarian rule of the CCP remains firmly in place.55 Political reform toward democratization is not in sight, seemingly for years to come. According to Andrew J. Nathan (2003), the Party’s “authoritarian resilience” can be explained by its enhancing of the state capacity to govern effectively through institutional adaptions and policy adjustments. By implementing big data into the tools of governance and changing the narratives of its legitimacy, the CCP creates a viable regime form by maintaining stability without triggering a transition to democracy. Since the 5th generation of leadership, a profound change in policies can be observed. Instead of ending the era of strongman politics, Xi Jinping is progressively rebuilding a position of powerful leadership for himself by installing mechanisms that might end the traditional weaknesses of authoritarian regimes (Gilley 2009: 19). The official emphasis on the role of the internet, big data, and AI shows the gamechanging opportunities that technology provides to the regime: the extension of state power through the appropriation of advanced computational power (Diab 2017: 14). Considering that, I argue—contrary to scholars such as Cheng Li (2012)—that the adaptability capacity of the regime is not at all limited, but instead governance tools are indeed effectively being adapted to the big data era. The SCS is only one manifestation of this evolution, sold within a narrative of security and growth—and with reference to a “harmonious society.” A brief classification of legitimacy in the Chinese context might clarify how this notion serves as the justification for a scheme that to Western observers seems to be directly adapted from 1984. For a long time now, the CCP has embraced a strategy of performance legitimacy (Zhu 2011: 124). With that, the CCP has pushed to strengthen its power by what Boagang Guo called “utilitarian justification” (2003: 3–4). The concept defines the capacity of the ruler to maintain people’s belief in the ruling authority. According to that, legitimate rule derives from the ruler’s capacity to meet people’s needs and accomplishing goals such as social stability and economic growth (ibid.; Zhu 2011: 124). “Original justification” provides the counterpart to “utilitarian justification ,” 55 For an expected threshold point of democratization, see, for example, Huntington (1991). 147 referring to the origin of the ruling authority. It derives from a divine being, moral character, or the will of the people, providing symbolic legitimacy and moral capital to the political regime (Guo 2003: 3–5). After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the power of charismatic leadership and the original justification for the revolutionary party of workers and peasants eroded (ibid.: 15). The CCP relied on performance legitimacy built on economic success and continuing growth—and the ones who benefited from it were likely to support the regime (Dickson et al. 2017: 135). Due to the financial crisis of 2007–2008, the Party could no longer primarily rely on utilitarian legitimacy. When the “economic miracle” gradually lost its power, and being accompanied by growing social inequality, the built-up performance legitimacy weakened. Despite the remarkable adaptability of the government in Beijing to a changing political environment, it had to diversify its legitimation over time to prevent external challengers emerging (Guo 2003: 10). In a nutshell, all former endeavors to address the ideological foundations of its legitimacy emphasized the Party’s legitimacy not with reference to the CCP’s revolutionary past, but to the vitality of the CCP resulting from its ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment and to reform itself from within56—supporting the arguments made by Guo (2003) and Nathan (2003) regarding the authoritarian resilience of the CCP. Bruce Gilley describes rightful rule as a system “where rightfulness entails meeting the shared moral standards of a political community” (2009: 5). And here, the official language of trust and harmony docks. In absence of a divine justification, constitutional order, or democratic elections—in combination with declining output legitimacy— the CCP needs another well-built justification for its rule. At this point, the new narrative of building a harmonious society addresses the symbolic level of big data usage for the greater good of society—thereby creating legitimacy for the regime. As the Party needed new sources of legitimacy and original justification, with the change from the 4th to the 5th generation of leadership a new political narrative emerged (Guo 2003: 3). Confucianism was reinstated: It assumes that people are already malleable without violence being applied, and that education and good role models are enough to achieve desired behavior—making coercion unnecessary (Hartmann 2006: 17). Today, “where Socialism is vanishing, Confucianism flourishes” (Kühnreich 2017). This includes a renaissance of traditional 56 These included the “Theory of Three Represents” introduced by former president Jiang Zemin, the “Scientific Outlook on Development” by former president Hu Jintao, and the “Chinese Dream” introduced by President Xi. 148 Chinese culture that holds up as honorable social harmony, group cooperation, and state intervention. As Confucianism supports the acceptance of hierarchical relationships and unquestioned authority, it fosters CCP’s leading position within the one-party system and enforces conformity toward its policies (Dickson et al. 2017: 138). The CCP attempts to set up a master narrative to address uncertainty and tensions in China. And one tool within this quest is the SCS, embedded in digitalera politics. The year 2018 marks the 40th birthday of “reform and opening,” the former paradigm regarding development once innovative. The SCS is the incarnation of an evolutionary process, one that could potentially “take the reform further”—as Xi called for in his 2017 new year’s speech. Over the last few years, Xi has supported an ambitious digital agenda regarding the use of new technologies for propaganda and social control. In the SCS, the Party combines propaganda with the possibilities of big data in order to increase its power to define social, economic, and political life (Creemers 2017: 86, 98). The emphasized goal of the SCS is to induce a societal transformation toward a trustworthy, harmonious, and overall better society by eliminating the untrustworthy elements that endanger Chinese development (SC 2014: II (2)). The scheme aims at creating stability, but without triggering a transition to democracy. It works to the extent that people believe that they benefit socially and economically from the CCP remaining in power. With this dynamic, the SCS incorporates a key cooptation strategy: benefits attained in exchange for regime support (Dickson et al. 2017: 140). And in times of all-embracing connectivity, ICTs provide the exact ground for this evolution of (authoritarian) control. Big Data and the Chinese Social Credit System “[The state] will make big data a fundamental strategic resource and fully implement a plan for its development, accelerating the opening, sharing, development and application of data resources […] and bring about innovations in social governance.” (CC 2016: VI 27) By 2020, there are expected to be 600 million surveillance cameras in China. They analyze crowds, recognize faces, and can directly assign to them gender, name, and ID numbers. The most important investor and customer is simultaneously the state, especially the security authorities (Economist 2016). As the eyes of the state, cameras provide the authorities with every type of information conceivable. “Surveillance and 149 monitoring are being moved from paper […] and neighborhood informers to cameras, big data algorithms and cloud storage” (Creemers 2017: 88). Divergent behavior patterns (such as multiple appearances in one place or making an opposing motion when in the middle of a crowd) are marked as “abnormal” and reported. Algorithms predict where the next gathering will happen and use the location of a person to calculate their future whereabouts (Phillips 2018). While the United States is still the global leader in the domain of core research on AI, China is already ahead in the practical application of the technology (Strittmatter 2018). In 2016, China had 1.3 billion citizens, 1.4 billion mobile phones in operation, and over 772 million internet users (CNNIC 2017: 40)—thereby surpassing the numbers of US netizens. Moreover, China has a rapidly growing mobile payment market, with transactions totaling USD 5.5 trillion in 2016 (Mistreanu 2018).57 An ICT that popular provides AI with huge data streams. Eventually, China is a social laboratory for a future shaped by big data experimentation built on mass surveillance—with implications for all aspects of daily life. Next to the accessibility and availability of data, due to the mere absence of personal data protection legislation in China the collection and evaluation of it is barely obstructed by legal or privacy disputes. While the current development plan as well as the documents on the SCS promise to “strengthen personal data protection and crack down on the unlawful release or sale of such information” (CC 2016: VI 28(1)), the reality differs. Despite the legislation on cyber security in 2016 in relation to online data, the extension of civil law protection to consumer data in 2013, and the criminalization of the unlawful gathering, receipt, and sale of personal data in 2009, “personal data” in general is not clearly defined. Therefore, effective privacy protections against government surveillance are noticeably absent (Cheng/Cheung 2017: 357, 359). In 2016, the CCP announced that the SCS would go hand in hand with a series of social and economic initiatives utilizing big data technology as part of 13.5. The message behind this was: life is getting easier and safer, and the economy stronger. The future of AI thus does not seem to lie in Silicon Valley, but in its Chinese equivalent Zhongguancun. Meanwhile, Chinese networked authoritarianism cannot work without the active support of private companies, providing technology 57 In the same year, equivalent US transactions amounted to USD 112 billion (Mistreanu 2018). 150 and data streams to the CCP (MacKinnon 2011: 37).58 With large, dominant players such as Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu, the control over central companies enables the state to regulate most netizens in China (Creemers 2017: 95). And China’s biggest IT companies have already declared that the state can use their technology as well as customer data. In return, the corporations will gain access to previously closed government databases to further develop their algorithms and new business opportunities (Strittmacher 2018). In China, data can easily be connected to a user’s identity due to a real-name registration system. In fact, in the country users often must provide their official ID number to be able to use both public and private services. This mechanism is to be further extended by registration of fingerprint information on resident identity cards, “bringing about full coverage of citizens’ uniform social credit numbers” (SOG 2016: III (1)) from the top. Therefore, a social credit scheme finds perfect conditions in those created by state and society in recent years (Brühl 2017). In addition, many citizens are particularly open to digital technology. The distribution and commonness of digital services is not only the base for data collection, but also one of the reasons that will make circumvention of the SCS—if eventually implemented—so difficult: the fact of being connected online and using digitalized services for basic essential services is, as noted, an integral part of life in modern China (Ramadan 2017: 98). While the new developments in AI serve as a story on their own, China’s social credit program links them explicitly with a political process termed “social management” (Hoffmann 2017: 21). The concept integrates several political strands, dating back to the 1970s—from state security to problem-solving to maintaining power. To uphold an effective coercive apparatus, an authoritarian regime traditionally must invest substantial resources in equipment and personnel (Dickson et al. 2017: 127). In the big data era, however, this seems to be changing. Evidently, the CCP saw that potential, prepared for it, and now uses the leverage of exploding big data accessibility in China. E-government projects already commenced in the 1990s and aimed at efficiency and control to facilitate this process.59 58 The three biggest companies in the field are Alibaba (Alipay, Taobao Wang, Sina Weibo, Ant Financials), Tencent (Gaming, QQ Messenger, Snapchat, WeChat, WeChat Pay) and Baidu (Baidu Encyclopedia, Baidu Pay). 59 “The Golden Shield” connected public security bureaus through online networks. In 1995 former president Jiang Zemin put the “informatization, automation, and intelligentization of economic and social management” (Creemers 2015) at the 151 Rather than embodying new concepts, modern surveillance and the SCS are adding technology and formality to the way in which the party has been operating its monitoring systems of Danwei, Dang’an, and Hukou for years now—thus merely improving the technical side of implementation (Hoffmann 2017: 23). Even though the SCS represents an unprecedented system of social control in scale and technologica l means, the factors it is built on are already well known. While today files are not kept on paper, the SCS stands on previously built -up flows of data and monitoring instruments—which are now digitally combined into an all-inclusive system. Hand in hand with expanding internet and ICT usage, China’s control in cyberspace develops even further. But how does the scheme appear when going from paper to reality? The Social Credit System — a logical evolution? Contrary to the impression produced in Western media coverage, few specifics are known about the SCS. Nevertheless, official plans on the scheme do exist and are publicly accessible. A “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System” was released in 2014, and a large quantity of implementing rules and regulations have followed since.60 The official goal: to build a “socialist harmonious society” (SC 2014: I (2)). According to the government’s planning outline, the system aims to measure and enhance trust between and among government, commercial sectors, and citizens and to “strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and judicial credibility construction” (SC 2014: Preamble). Officially related to the 12th Five-Year Plan, it is designed to identify “bad” people, companies, and officials—as trust breakers—and to stop them from doing harm— and by that, secure and enhance the governments capacity to rule. Official statements, media reporting on the topic, and actual operationalization vary. To further investigate the SCS, it makes sense to differentiate between the symbolic and operational level of this credit system. center of his agenda; Hu Jintao promoted automated social surveillance in cities such as Shanghai, meanwhile. 60 These include, for example, the “Guiding Opinion by the General Office of the State Council on Strengthening the Establishment of the Personal Creditworthiness System” (SGO release No. 98 (2016)). Social credit and related information systems are also a major component of a document published on increasing public security (Hoffmann 2017: 24–25). See also, Meissner et al. (2017: 12). 152 The narrative of a harmonious society, or the symbolic level To the CCP, social credit is “an important basis for […] building a harmonious socialist society” (SC 2014: I (3)). Following the Party’s narrative, the SCS shall “attack all kinds of trust-breaking acts such as swindling and deception” and “raise the sincerity and quality of the entire nation” (ibid.: II (3)). By that, the official framing connects the SCS to the explained Confucian tradition of honesty and integrity, combining it with Chinese socialism. These values are to be rooted in education and practice, based on the notion that “the trustworthy are proud, the untrustworthy are ashamed, and those without credit are concerned” (SGO 2016: II (1)). Even though the SCS is inspired by financial credit-scoring systems from other world regions, its scope is by no means limited to monetary measures of creditworthiness.61 Within the key official documents on the topic, moral integrity is in fact mentioned more often than financial credit is (Ohlberg et al. 2017: 6). With the help of big data, the SCS shall strengthen confidence in the government by improving its efficiency— for example by taking down companies that sell unsafe goods. One key point in the official narrative is countering existing flaws. Built on “traditional virtues,” official documents stress the “demonstration role of government in sincerity construction” through “honest governing” (SC 2014: II (1)). Records of civil servants are to be included in the SCS, addressing the roots of absent trust and declining legitimacy. While the first pages of the planning outline refer to anticorruption and safety principles, the document ultimately defines an encompassing control system that “covers all of society” (ibid.: II (1)). As a counterpart to blacklists and punishment to defaulters, positive examples of trustworthiness shall be used to “guide public opinion” and portray trust keeping as “glorious” (SOG 2016: II (3), V (1)). But these laudations go hand in hand with open demonstration of force, as the plan stresses to “strengthen and perfect mass supervision and public opinion supervision mechanisms” (SC 2014: II (1)). By that, the SCS’s framing conveys a simple message: The person who behaves according to Chinese core values fosters harmony for a better society and has nothing to fear, while every wrongdoer will be strictly punished—according to the Party’s own exercised judgement. 61 The scope of criteria evaluated for rating purposes imposes a wide range of punishments as a result of noncompliance and is built on AI and behavioral real-time data (Ohlberg et al. 2017: 4). 153 Strong incentives within established structures, or the operational level On the operational side, the CCP uses the SCS to combine several different efforts into one scheme: improve market security, public safety, and enhance its capacity to rule by increasing integrity and mutual trust within Chinese society. These goals are pursued by four specific tactics: aggregating and integrating information within and across geographic regions and professional fields; creating measures to incentivize “trustworthy” and simultaneously punish “untrustworthy” conduct; increasing reliance on credit evaluations in fields such as employment ; and, using the abovementioned mechanisms as well as moral education to foster a trustful environment (SOG 2016: II, V). By that, the SCS perfectly fits into China’s growing surveillance apparatus in a one-party state, with few checks on its power, a tradition of social control, and—in President Xi—a leader more prone to authoritarianism than his immediate predecessors. As stated before, the main goal of the SCS is a predictable political environment. Like with the increasing number of surveillance cameras in Chinese cities, the SCS reduces privacy in exchange for promised stability. In the same way that cameras monitor the physical activity of Chinese citizens via AI and facial recognition, the SCS supervises digital conduct via real-name registration and big data evaluation (Creemers 2017: 97). To reach its aims, the CCP combines cooptation and coercion in the SCS. “Society is coopted to participate because the same technology is directly linked to conveniences that improve everyday life […]. Society is coerced to participate, for instance by self-censoring online, because increasingly technology systems are improving the government’s capacity to enforce “responsibility” to the party state.” (Hoffmann 2017: 24) To integrate the scheme into people’s lives, the SCS provides incentives for people to not want to be blacklisted. As an act of prevention, it nudges people into thinking and acting as desired (Mistreanu 2018). As the government struggles with implementing and controlling regulations on the local level, the SCS could become a mighty tool for increasing transparency and accountability. As explained above, this notion is the rather logical progression of an ideology of data use that especially Xi fostered explicitly over the last few years. Guidelines issued in 2016 reveal the possible everyday life impact of the SCS. Defaulter lists are called “an important component of social-credit information” (Economist 2016) and the “Guiding Opinion” 154 confirms that financial offences are only one category of wrongdoing. Other “acts of untrustworthiness” include those that “seriously endanger the public’s safety” or undermine the social or economic order (SOG 2016: VI (2)). Such broad categories imply that the system can be used to evaluate and punish dissent, expressions of opinion, and perceived threats to security. Under the pretext of living up to the symbolic promise of harmony, the scheme will comprise comprehensive monitoring of individuals’ online conduct. To monitor the behavior of netizens, the government plans to “forcefully move forward the construction of online sincerity” (SC 2014: II (3)). The planning outline mentions spreading rumors as an example of behavior to be sanctioned (ibid.: II (2)). Most likely, it is this notion promulgated by the official documents that has led commentators to describe it as an Orwellian instrument of individual control. One must remember, however, that the SCS is not in place yet. Now, pilot credit systems are operated by local government entities as well as eight private companies (Diab 2017: 13). One of the most popular social credit programs is Sesame Credit, which gives an idea of how a nationwide SCS might work.62 Sesame Credit belongs to Alibaba, China’s Amazon equivalent. With over 400 million users, Alibaba’s rating system works with several databases—and constantly adds new sources. For data mining, Sesame Credit draws information from services belonging to Alibaba, such as Alipay. The more you shop, the higher your score—which has the beneficial effect of pushing consumerism in accordance with the official development plan (CC 2016: I 10(3)). Similar dynamics can be found in other companies too: By 2015, Tencent had already rated the creditworthiness of fifty million consumers using computer gaming data (Cheng/Cheung 2017: 361). The AI and algorithms behind the scores are not openly discussed. As the pilot systems and test regions differ in the application of social credit ratings, we do not yet know how the mandatory system will work exactly. Most likely, the SCS will operate on a “medley of the best features of the existing systems” (Kühnreich 2017). Unlike the German Schufa system, Sesame Credit not only bases your score on purchases but is also comprised of noncommercial factors too. For example, the score includes data from courts and certain debtor registers as well as state-owned data, such as the Dang’an, now short-circuited with data from social 62 Sesame Credit is not the SCS that is planned to be implemented nationwide by 2020. Nevertheless, many reports treat the biggest social credit system in practice as being equivalent to the official plans. 155 networks via big data technology. Notably, within Sesame Credit the social pressure to behave as desired not only comes from above but from all sides. It is strengthened by the fact that the ratings of friends affect your score, creating incentives to move within trustworthy circles (Brühl 2017). The SCS Outline and its implementation measures mention the publication of records on “serious discrediting behavior” to generate “social discipline” (Cheng/Cheung 2017: 370), exposing the addressed individuals to public criticism and moral pressure.63 Via this feedback loop, the interpretation of social credit scores not only affect s a process of subject formation but creates social structures—which, in turn, conditions behavior, as the scores are made public (Diab 2017: 17). Next to that, the official “Guidelines on Joint Rewarding and Joint Punishment” explicitly endorse the reuse of disclosed credit information by third parties, encouraging the inclusion of such records in financial credit reports and their analysis in commercial reputation rankings (SC 2016: III (11)-(13), V (26)). Therefore, the intended reeducation is taken care of for the government by friends, neighbors, and relatives who want to maintain a high score themselves. But despite their reach, the existing commercial scoring systems are voluntary—while the SCS will be mandatory. The SCS is built on a “gamification of trust,” by which people are nudged to fall into line. In her research on the SCS, Katika Kühnreich compares incentive structures to the ones known from computer games (Brühl 2017). Citizens diligently collect points for perks in everyday life, while scoring badly leads to penalties (Lam 2016; Ramadan 2017: 93). The SCS incorporates positive incentives to be observant to the regime’s preferences, by which China has gamified being an obedient citizen with the help of black-and-white lists (SC 2016: IV (1)). Citizens who forfeited their trust must not apply for government jobs, access to insurance and credit is made more difficult or denied, and their children are not to have access to the best schools (See CCGO 2016; SCGO 2016). On the other hand, good scores lead to favorable credit conditions, promotions, and greater repute (ibid.). The social credit scheme extends 63 The official wording on this is explicit: “Establish and complete systems for disclosure, exposure, and reporting of individual’s serious untrustworthy acts, relying on the ‘China Credit’ website, to lawfully publicly disclose information on serious untrustworthiness by individuals known by all levels of people’s government, and fully putting into play the function of overseeing societal public opinion, forming a powerful social deterrent” (SOG 2016: VI (3)). 156 the logic of the Dang’an system to every ICT-connected member of society, promising the fulfillment of middle-class aspirations—backed up with the threat of exclusion, joblessness, or reduced access to public goods (Creemers 2017: 99). What makes the SCS so attractive to the Party is that the effects of it are not immediately perceptible. Due to constant monitoring and automatic evaluation, intervention by the government and the costs of control are reduced. As the regime simply sets the rules by which the algorithms operate, visible interference is minimized (Meissner et al. 2017: 9). By using ICTs, mobile payments, and online services, individuals exchange personal privacy for everyday benefits that might outweigh the perceived losses. High technology guarantees security, without interfering with people’s lives—as long as the addressees act as desired. Implementing the SCS: Killing many birds — with big data Looking at the implementation of the SCS, it has been partial, local, and experimental so far—opposing the dominant narrative in the Western media of an operational, compulsive Orwellian apparatus. But the schedule for implementation is tight, as the government wants to see the scheme set up by 2020.64 Although information on the exact operationalization of the scheme is scarce, current developments offer a glimpse into the operational level. The backbone of the SCS is the National Credit Information Sharing Platform, which has been operating since October 2015 to collect and share data from local and central government as well as from commercial credit-rating companies (SGO 2016: VI (3)). As it stands today, the SCS could indeed become a 360degree digital-surveillance panopticon. But it is not a given that there will be a “one number to control them all” universal scoring system.65 While the documents speak of “a 64 The current plan sets the following vague goals as to be met by then: (1) fundamental laws, regulations, and standards on social credit are essentially established; (2) a credit-investigation system that covers all of society and is built on sharing creditinformation resources is formed; (3) credit-oversight systems are essentially complete; (4) the credit-services market is doing well; and, (5) joint incentives and punishment mechanisms are fully effective (SOG 2016). The project is coordinated by the Central Leading Small Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, headed by Xi himself. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) leads the implementation process in cooperation with the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) (Meissner et al. 2017: 6). 65 Over 80 percent of the data covers information on companies, while 75 percent thereof is publicly available. Nevertheless, exact algorithms and evaluation criteria remain unknown (Meissner et al. 2017: 6). 157 uniform social credit coding” (SC 2014: V (2)), this is most likely referring to a number for associating together all credit information—with the aim of facilitating the compatibility and exchange of information (Daum 2017). Also, a unified platform where the inputting of an ID number gives you a single score does not seem feasible. In a political system of 1.3 billion people, such a methodology would not work either technically or politically. Alongside this technological infeasibility, there are also the bureaucratic barriers to consider. To operationalize the SCS, cooperation between all levels of government is necessary—which assigns part of the problem (local governments) to being part of the solution (fighting corruption and increasing transparency) (Meissner et al. 2017: 6; Ohlberg et al. 2017: 7). Recent studies have confirmed the current local legitimacy deficit in China (Dickson et al. 2017). The CCP’s strategy to blame local governmental entities for the country’s problems and build trust for the center perpetuates itself within the SCS too. But as the center needs local data, new dynamics of cooperation will need to be developed if the system is to work. The more realistically implemented version of the SCS is instead expected to expand and automatize existing forms of bureaucratic control, formalizing the monitoring of Chinese citizens already occurring (Creemers 2017: 99). To increase governance capacity, the SCS builds on existing structures such as the Golden Shield Projects as the technological starting point (Hoffmann 2017: 24). There is no single institution organizing the SCS. But given that, as noted, exact algorithms and criteria remain unknown, it is uncertain how to play by the rules of the SCS—as nobody can say what behavior will soon be sanctioned and which rewarded (Meissner et al. 2017: 7). Behind the symbolism, the CCP is expanding the capacity for a regime of social control with exceptionally long tentacles. Many of the elements for this are, indeed, already in place: digital surveillance; a system of reward and punishment; and, the widespread use of digital services, providing a continuously growing database. What remains, then, is to join the pieces together. If (and when) that mission is fully completed, China would come to represent the “first digital totalitarian state” (Economist 2016). One thing is clear, the CCP is planning for the long run: the necessity of training specialists on social credit is emphasized in all official planning documents (e.g. SC 2014: III (3)). Despite these existing foundations, the SCS nevertheless faces a number of problems: First, the internal power struggle within the Party itself. Security services are based on the power to safeguard the leadership’s authority. “The same resources enabling management of the Party-society relationship can be abused by Party members and used 158 against others within the Party” (Hoffmann 2017: 25). Alongside that, the first phase of implementation will most likely be far from perfect. A black market that offers people fake online profile details to improve their scores is likely to evolve (Hodson 2015). Similar to developments on social networks like Facebook, where people can buy an increased number of followers and “Likes,” a Chinese market for selling fake trustworthiness will emerge in the early stages. Ironically, this is even fostered by the state itself: “charitable donations” may buy you the trust you need (SOG 2016: IV (3)). Also, people might not be punished or rewarded as intended according to their behavior—which would undermine the system’s credibility, and by that weaken the effects that the CCP is hoping for. The SCS as a tool of authoritarian rule is not likely to be accepted if wrongful ratings determine the futures of unblemished citizens. More likely, the CCP’s legitimacy will decline should the SCS erroneously punish people. While the necessity of credit restoration is mentioned in official documents, until now an actual proposed credit repair mechanism (apart from donations) has been absent (ibid.: I (3)). Furthermore, technical hurdles exist, such as data quality and the sensitivity of the instruments analyzing it. Projects build on big data all over the world, such as an attempted medical database by Great Britain’s National Health Service, have hitherto failed due to the problem of how to prevent system errors due to incorrect data being entered (Economist 2016). Based on hundreds of data points with no standards of accuracy, transparency, or completeness, credit scores similarly also comprise certain false interpretations and errors (Yu et. al. 2015: 13– 14). Further to that, surveillance technology is largely untested on a scale as vast as that of China. The fragmentation of the country’s intelligence agencies would also have to be overcome. Another aspect of implementation is the mentioned dependency of the Chinese state on private enterprises. Companies such as Alibaba’s Alipay, Tencent, Baidu, and the popular dating site Baihe either provide significant elements of the system’s architecture or transpose its regulations into their services (Greenfield 2018). In 2017, the National Bank of China announced plans to introduce its own cryptocurrency and to link it with the SCS (Gruber 2017). This would provide a new level of control to the state, one that does not even require the cooperation of private enterprises. But who defines what is good, and what is to be condemned? It will be the Party itself, consequentially falling short within the biggest transparency scheme of all. The logical follow up question is, who is above the system? If the SCS pursues two goals (social trustworthiness and political control), it is most likely that the first will fail while the second might work out just fine. 159 Implications for Development in China and Beyond Contrary to the Black Mirror notion of big data as a dangerous weapon of social control, the Party emphasizes the SCS as a panacea for both governance as well as for social challenges. Whether in education, healthcare, or infrastructure, the use of new big data technology is supposed to solve problems, increase productivity, and give new drive to the economy (CC 2016: VI 28 (Box 9)). And, from a developmental point of view, the SCS might indeed have positive implications. The scheme wants to address the developmental problems that Chinese citizens face, such as financial scams, environmental pollution, and counterfeit products. Using big data as a controlled feedback mechanism, in line with MacKinnon’s networked authoritarianism, the SCS could address corruption—as the center has fewer excuses for being unaware of local abuses (Creemers 2017: 100). Alongside that, companies will have strong incentives not only to comply with existing laws but also to meet the policy targets defined by the central government (Meissner et al. 2017: 2). Nevertheless, a considerable number of firms might not have the capacities to comply with government standards, which contains the risk of economic downturn. Furthermore, the threat of data leakage could lead to economic damage. Also, part of the rationale for the SCS is the need to select suitable candidates. As the decline of legitimacy was partly due to corruption and the nontransparent selection of party officials, the SCS shall be integrated into recruitment processes and by that increase the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule (SC 2014: II (1)). When people see the regime as such, their willingness to comply with its stipulated goals increases (Dickson et al. 2017: 127). The basis of the SCS meet all the criteria stated by UNDP (2014) on the connection between big data and development. As participation will be mandatory and the use of ICTs ubiquitous, data is collected everywhere. Although an urban bias is to be expected, this does not lessen the developmental potential—as the central issues of Chinese development lie in the fields of urbanization, urban pollution, and migration anyway. The UNDP report identifies three main challenges in using big data for development: accessibility, availability, and reliability. While the first two are unproblematic (due to tight cooperation with private firms and widespread use of ICTs and digital services), the last point picks up on the challenges discussed above. As the government must enhance the quality of the collected data, this might simultaneously lead to positive impacts such as greater reliability of official statistics (Meissner et al. 2017: 9). 160 Further to that, the system is supposed to provide credit access to hundreds of millions of underprivileged people such as farmers, workers, or students. Within the SCS, their online reputation would serve as a social currency to prove their creditworthiness. Also, the project is a huge economic program—one intended to unleash consumption among some 1.3 billion people in the country (CC 2016: III 10(1), (2)). But also, on the production side of the economy, the demand for new technology—financed by the state—carries economic potential. The trend toward technology is global, making it particularly attractive for China to become a technology leader. Analysts of the think tank Merics observe a high export potential of IT systems and big data solutions. China’s IT-backed authoritarianism is likely to become an attractive role model and technology supplier, and that not only to other authoritarian political systems, should the SCS prove to be successful (Meissner et al. 2017: 10). These possible benefits at large come at a high cost on the individual level, however. In one way or the other, the SCS scheme touches on almost all aspects of the everyday life of Chinese citizens. The contested marriage market is just one example: Users of Baihe can, for instance, enrich their profile with their Sesame Score, which is increasingly popular with highly scored users (Hatton 2015). According to Kühnreich (2017), a low Sesame Score can already lead to your societal disqualification regarding marriage given the surplus of males on the market (Gruber 2017). Until now, however, the SCS has not received as much attention among Chinese citizens as one would expect. One possible explanation might be that users did not yet realize the effects on their daily life (Ohlberg et al. 2017: 5). Another potential one is that the process of gamification works and falling into line is received as pleasing. Or, the absence of critical comments leads back to (self-)censorship (ibid.: 8)—in the name of governmentally prescribed harmony. As explained above, the grounds for these developments in China are by no means unique but rather part of a wider global digitalization phenomenon. With the Chinese SCS originally built on ICTs and new credit lines, similar dynamics might follow in other world regions as well. Some 690 million registered mobile money accounts now exist worldwide, representing an increase of 25 percent from 2016 (GSMA 2018). Globally, mobile internet connections are growing rapidly due to affordable smartphones and high-speed networks. According to the association of network operators worldwide, over the last decade global mobile money adoption has been driven by growth in sub-Saharan Africa. Cashless payment methods are highly popular and provide access to micro loans and other digital services. The use of mobile money 161 accounts that surpass traditional bank ones improves financial inclusion in the region (ibid.).66 At the same time, a comparison to China twenty years ago comes to mind. As a matter of fact, the beginnings of the SCS project date back to the development of basic mechanisms for credit rating and information retrieval inspired by the US during the 1990s. Pilot projects in China in the first years of the new century followed; first to increase creditworthiness, second to encompass compliance with contractual commitments (Chen/Cheung 2017: 359). One might say that the governance mechanisms of the Chinese one-party state cannot be compared to democratic East African countries, but another dynamic observed today challenges that view. The access to cyberspace in East Africa has led to a thriving political debate about content regulation on social media. Over the last few years, several governments have harshly sought to contain oppositional voices by imposing taxes and costly licensing fees to better regulate cyberspace. Tanzania has experienced a rapid decline in press freedom since the election of current president John Magufuli in 2015. Within the last year, the country slid by ten places to 93rd in the 2018 Press Freedom Index (RWB 2018). The situation worsened with the adaption of new legislature on online content regulations in 2018. The law impacts everyone who provides radio and video content, bloggers, operators of online forums, online radio or television, and social media account holders. It also creates legal grounds for the removal of content on request from government agencies, without any possibility of appeal (Tanzanian Government 2018). Sold as a tool to address the moral corruption caused by social media and the internet in the country, the legitimization already holds similarities to the Chinese narrative vis-à-vis a harmonious society. Like the Tanzanian government, its neighbor Uganda has also imposed taxes on social media usage. Uganda targets users rather than content providers, and that for accessing and using social media in general. Officially justified by the need to raise revenue, President Museveni stated his motivation as being to weaken the tendency to use social media “to gossip” when he first set out the taxation scheme (Agence France-Presse 2018). The taxes show that the access and use of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp are not understood as issues of rights to freedom of access to information and of expression 66 In Kenya, more than half of the population uses cashless pay via mobile phone, which enables customers to easily transfer money and pay bills via their devices (Reuters 2018). In Tanzania, the new payment methods increasingly enable access to energy in rural communities that can profit from incremental payments and new credit lines via mobile banking (SEPON 2018). 162 within a common cyberspace. The orderly fee amounts to USD 19.5 a year for daily social media users, which is simply not affordable for most citizens. Concerning the necessary data for imposing the tax , directly charged from your SIM card, it remains unclear how providers distinguish between different types of data—for example accessing social media platforms versus educational websites—without exerting close control over online behavior. Currently, the mentioned states obviously do not possess the same data processing capacities as China. But with Chinese infrastructure now pouring into African markets as part of its South-South development cooperation, it might just be a matter of time until the necessary technology is exported as part of infrastructure deals 2.0. The earlier mentioned high export potential of IT-systems and big data solutions is therefore by no means limited to authoritarian regimes but can be adapted to any political system where big data is available. Conclusion “We look at exotified foreign nations or speculative futures in order to reflect on our present, but what we take away from it likely says more about us than about the subject of our examination.” (Daum 2017) Based on the trend of rapid, seemingly unlimited, digitalization in China, the SCS “has the potential to become the most globally sophisticated […] model for IT-backed and big data-enabled market regulation” (Meissner et al 2017: 11). It is a tool to react to social and environmental challenges and steer economic as well as societal behavior into desirable directions—without high costs of repression. On the symbolic level, the SCS is built on the narrative of a harmonious society, legitimating not only the implementation of the SCS but fostering also the authoritarian resilience of the CCP itself. As harmony is once again portrayed as the gold standard of Chinese society, this reference justifies the SCS by supporting the CCP’s own original justification. On the operational level, it seems as if the Chinese state struggles with standardization and transforming governmental and private pilot systems into one scheme. Still, even if just a fraction of the mechanisms in testing are adopted on a nationwide scale enormous power will be granted to the Party. Once a functional infrastructure for data collection and sharing is in place, costs for noncompliance will most likely be too high to bear for Chinese citizens (Ohlberg et al. 2017: 13). All in all, it is far from clear that the SCS will be mandatory by 2020. Nevertheless, the 163 strong language one finds in official documents and in the projects already in place paints a powerful image of what is most likely to come— even if it is not as surprising as reports sometimes depict. As the essay has shown, the often-applied allegory to 1984 does not fit. The SCS is not only built on coercion from above, but also uses incentives and social pressure from peers. If everyone avoids negative influences (among friends and family with low scores), this dynamic creates a social management tool that not only works in a top-down manner but also includes a lateral level of control—facilitated by AI, ICT, and big data. The SCS experiment teaches a globally applicable lesson. We live in a time of big data, of AI, and of technological developments unprecedented in scale and speed. In such a digital age, it would be naive to expect no consequences from these developments for governance tools. While the official narrative speaks of trust, the SCS screams control; but does it really differ that much from our own lives? Rogier Creemers identifies the panic around his research on the SCS as typical of the Western media’s coverage of China (Hodson 2015). “Pretty much anything China does makes people panicked,” he says. “And many times, we don’t recognize that we are doing similar things” ( ibid.). The case of China shows us an authoritarian regime that reinvents itself and its rule with the help of big data. Of course, in China the conditions of the SCS’s development and implementation are enabled by weak rule of law, the lack of an independent judiciary, nontransparent regulation of the telecommunications sector, and feeble political opposition. It is especially the combination of hard power, state survival, and political stability with social nudging and cooptation rooted in socialist and Confucian thought that makes the SCS such a powerful tool. Nevertheless, “there is nothing so distinctly Chinese about [the SCS] that it couldn’t be rolled out anywhere else the right conditions obtain” (Greenfield 2018). Looking at Western democracies, many examples of corresponding developments come to mind. The revelations by former NSA employee Edward Snowden in 2013 and the Facebook scandal concerning Cambridge Analytica that became public in spring of 2018 are just two. Market leader Amazon has been selling AI facial-recognition software to the US police for over two years now.67 Bonus point systems offered by companies such as Payback work on the same principle as the SCS— 67 The program accesses data selectively, for example to identify people in crowds (Werner 2018). 164 and people willingly disclose their data.68 In another case, the health insurance provider Generali made headlines by giving away fitness bracelets to collect data on workout frequency.69 These developments must be criticized, as any reward system can quickly turn into one of punishment where today’s voluntary users might create the basis for obligation for all later. It is sensors and internet connectivity that possess immense power to influence our behavior. If I do not want to prove my fitness in real-time data exchange, I might have to pay a higher health insurance fee. Even if the allegory of “data as the new oil” flops, it is still a valuable raw material—one that contains power that is accessible to everyone who can process it.70 There is, furthermore, an international tendency to try to solve social problems with technological solutions (Kühnreich 2017). Maybe, then, the Chinese government is just a little ahead of us, because it thinks in decades not years? In the digital era, we are experiencing a changing relationship between humans and technology—which puts pressure on our ethical frameworks to recover lost ground. The previous examples show how civic oversight is sorely lacking. In China, this is hindered by party politics and the virtual absence of privacy policies; in Western democracies, meanwhile, too often a techno-optimist attitude—in which regulation only tends to get in the way—prevents meaningful further discussion (Creemers 2015). Dystopian fictions such as 1984 or Black Mirror have always played a role in us pondering about our own lives from a safe distance (Daum 2017). It is of crucial importance here, however, to go beyond what is happening in China, and discuss how the developments already affect governance mechanisms and thereby our lives in digital times. Global developments in digitalization and data usage show that former governance mechanisms must adapt to changing ways of accessing and influencing information, making decisions, and doing business worldwide. While the availability of data contains high developmental potential, for example in terms of access to loans, it comes at the cost of transparency. The case of East Africa, especially Kenya and 68 Sixty-six percent of Europeans and over 80 percent of North Americans already participate in at least one retail loyalty program, indicating a growing trend (Nielsen 2016: 18, 34). 69 The wording differs little from the Chinese narrative: “Generali Vitality is more than an insurance. It’s a program that rewards you every step of the way to a healthier life” (Generali 2018). 70 In contrast to oil, data is an infinite resource and unfolds its power by processing and using. 165 Tanzania, shows an increasingly growing demand for digitalized services. The SCS nevertheless highlights the dystopian potential of our transparency through big data and its effects on citizen’s lives. Big data and AI increasingly shape our society. Using digital services is connected to conveniences in everyday life. In addition, the dangers and negative effects of sharing highly personal information are not immediately perceptible, while big data provides grounds for decision-making without visible interference. As the case of China shows, the new technologies entail the potential for totalitarian control. Because of this, we must make sure that the benefits of digitalization are not instrumentalized against citizens—not in China, but also beyond. As a way forward, Helbing et al. (2017) propose the decentralization of information systems, greater transparency, user-controlled data filters, supporting diversity, digital-coordination tools, and promoting the responsibility of all netizens. While global governance might increasingly use big data to address denationalized issues, the protection of cyberspace as one of its commons must be a priority. Otherwise, we might not face a SCS as implemented in China, but mechanisms built on AI and data availability that weaken democratic participation alike. It is on us as globally interconnected citizens to educate ourselves and others, foster digital literacy, and to go beyond accepting the conveniences of digitalization. In the years to come, two key factors will be decisive for further debate. First, the relation between government and commercial actors in China and the exportation of their technologies (Ohlberg et al. 2017: 13), as many of the companies involved will be looking to sell their products abroad, for example to partners such as Kenya, Tanzania, or Uganda. Second, the potential of social media to gamify our conduct through behavioral conditioning and nudging is not only relevant to the case of China but to all users of ICTs and to governance mechanisms of the future. The strategies used in this field can severely affect our access to information and our freedom of expression. Therefore, further discussion on big data and its effects on governance and decisionmaking is highly needed. 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Abstract

The Chinese government has recently reconfirmed its “going global” strategy. Beijing is currently constructing a global “New Silk Road,” and has begun to engage in various transcontinental infrastructure projects. From the long-term perspective, the corridors of this New Silk Road might facilitate the exporting of Chinese governance paradigms and hence lead to the formation of institutions that pose a severe challenge to the existing liberal order. The essays in this volume thus take a closer look at recent governance innovations and domestic policy experimentations in China, and also discuss international and regional responses to China’s active positioning as a global power.

The book series East Asian Politics: Regional and Global Dynamics publishes cutting-edge research on dynamic changes in and recent development trends of East Asian politics. The series follows a multilevel framework of analysis: It examines the impact of global power shifts and the transformation of the international system on (domestic) politics in East Asia.