Chairman Mao talked of ‘three magic weapons’ for seizing power: the united front, the armed struggle and construction of the Communist party itself. Now the priority for China’s government is to remain in power. To ensure that, President Xi Jinping’s party is developing a fourth ‘magic weapon’.
The social credit system is a part of this, but the ‘weapon’ also extends far beyond it. By combining big data, artificial intelligence, recognition technology and other police techniques, China’s government intends to create a comprehensive method of political and social control.
It may not live up to everything that is promised: after all, government-implemented computer systems rarely work as well as intended. But it will affect — is already affecting — Chinese society and human rights more profoundly than any other reform or development instituted by the party.
The Chinese government has always been interested in keeping files on citizens. In the past, each citizen had a dang’an, or file, that covered their life. Nothing could be done without the dang’an. Everything was entered in it: marriage, social position, job. But this was, by necessity, pretty rudimentary. The magic weapon now being created can update that surveillance for an infinitely more complex age by tying all manner of information to a person’s personal ID number.
The weapon is to have several components. There is recognition technology, with databases covering the face, voice, fingerprints and DNA of every Chinese citizen. Then positional monitoring, including mobile devices, which even now can report on the location of 1.4 billion citizens (the trick will be to use AI to make that information recoverable in real time), backed up by other public systems, such as linking up more than 170 million cameras (said to rise to 400 million by 2020).
Next is lifestyle monitoring. Databases concerning the individual, be they health or education records, details of purchases made or internet activity, will be monitored. This is where we find data from the social credit system, which is like a financial credit rating but far broader. Anyone deemed anti-social (or anti-Communist party) will find themselves blocked from buying air or train tickets, getting a mortgage or even graduating.
Finally, there is the ‘grid system’ information, which divides cities into small parcels overseen by citizens who are paid to report unusual activity to the police. The East Germans had a Stasi: in the 21st century, China enlists far more people. In Chaoyang district in Beijing, for instance, there are around 120,000 paid informants in operation. The information they provide is sifted through using computer power and artificial intelligence.
As early as 2000, the Golden Shield project aimed to link up information on all Chinese citizens. At a basic level it would allow authorities to know everything about a particular person within seconds. But it aimed to go beyond that, predicting who might cause trouble to the regime, anticipating the organising of any action deemed inimical to the party, and curtailing the freedom and actions of any suspect citizen, by, for example, taking away the ability to fill up a car with petrol or even, in the future, to start their engine.
Unsurprisingly, any tool that helps to maintain stability is welcomed by the party. Meng Jianzhu, the ex-head of the security system, hailed big data and modern information technology at a conference in September last year, talking of ‘extending social governance to the smallest social units, such as villages and communities, in order to realise precise governance’. His emphasis was on anticipating threats. Earlier in July on a tour of Guiyang, described by the state news agency Xinhua as ‘a pioneer of the application of big data technology in various sectors, including police work’, he had called on the country’s police to make full use of big data and AI. In August he repeated the message in Xinjiang. The State Council’s national artificial intelligence development plan declares that, ‘AI is indispensable for the effective maintenance of social stability’.
This is very much in line with the political zeitgeist. Past politburos were populated by engineers, who saw security solutions in terms of grand projects; the current leadership looks to a new age of ‘informatisation’ and IT as aids in governance, and this fits President Xi’s desire for increased central control. So, for example, if students are feared as a perennial catalyst for protest, is it surprising that the Ministry of Education has suggested monitoring their political sentiments by collating data from library records, surveys, social media posts and more?
Xi puts great emphasis on ‘law-based governance’; the Chinese phrase should not be translated as ‘rule of law’, because the party is expressly in control of the law. But amid the mass of recent legislation there is little which limits the collection and use of people’s private data; nor, given the importance of maintaining stability for regime survival, are there likely to be safeguards.
Last year, Human Rights Watch documented the surveillance work already under way. A voice-recognition database is being built in Anhui province. In the Xinjiang region, where China is engaged in the repression of the minority Uyghurs, much money and effort is being spent combining elements of the new magic weapon. Petrol stations allow cars to be filled only through facial recognition linked to ID cards. In addition, all Uyghurs must download an app that automatically reports their browsing history, as well as their given location.
Can all this be united into a totalitarian straitjacket? It depends on support from government, business and the public. It’s also unclear if China can afford the costs in the long term. Beyond the computing development and equipment, there are the costs of recognition-system hardware, of the personnel to run and maintain the system, of the payments to the grid system volunteers. If Beijing’s Chaoyang district’s 120,000 volunteers are paid 300 yuan a month, that equates to £50 million a year. Rolled out nationwide, the sums become enormous.
The bigger risk is that all this erodes the trust between people and party. At present, the party offers a balance between accepting a convenient electronic life in exchange for personal information and control, but that may not always be seen as a worthy trade-off. The party is building a considerable constituency of ordinary, non-dissident people who cannot travel or book hotels without being subject to over-frequent checks. These are still early days, although examples of arrests through technology are multiplying and the Supreme Court has announced that 6.7 million people have been banned from buying air and train tickets.
Party members, too, might be unhappy at what is being filed away about them. Interesting questions arise: at what level of seniority do officials cease to have all their personal doings and sayings recorded? Will citizens who are talented and wealthier prefer to emigrate, voting in the only way allowed them, with their feet?
New technology is neither inherently good nor bad: all depends on use, and restraint. Facial, voice and DNA recognition technology can help in the fight against crime and terrorism. Big data and artificial intelligence can yield otherwise unobtainable conclusions about tackling diseases and finding cures. But this same tech-nology might also supply would-be totalitarians with a previously unimagined power to control.
So there is a battle of values shaping up between western liberal democracies and a new authoritarianism. China’s new system of control and repression will accentuate that battle. President Xi talks of a ‘community with a shared future for mankind’. A quarter of mankind looks set to share its future in every detail with Xi’s party. If the technology is extended or sold abroad — some countries are already importing aspects of the system — that fraction might rise. And might eventually, dear reader, include you.
Charles Parton is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. This is adapted from an article first published by the Chatham House magazine, The World Today.