Does China Believe in Data Rather Than Democracy?

Is democracy the only way to progress? Not, if you rule China.

Word is out.

China rules its people by utilizing artificial intelligence, data and internet surveillance.

There is no room for democracy there.

Back in the year 1955, Isaac Asimov (a very famous science fiction author) published a story (short one).

The short story talked about a very specific kind of experiment which made use of, what the story called, electronic democracy.

In this short story, Asimov talked about a single citizen was selected to represent not just his/her own self but the country’s entire population.

That representative of the people had to respond to questions what Multivac, a computer, generated.

After recording answers from the representative, the machine went ahead to analyze the data and then calculate the results of a given election which therefore did not have a need to ever happen.

Isaac Asimov set his story in Bloomington, Indiana.

However, in today’s world, a pretty close approximation to Isaac Asimov’s Multivac is currently being built in the region we know as China.

According to a political scientist and also a China expert working at the Villanova University in Philadelphia, Deborah Seligsohn is of the opinion that for any given authoritarian regime, there existed a basic problem.

The problem had to do with the center trying to figure out what exactly is happening across the society and at lower levels.

Perhaps China is justified in using such means.

Otherwise, how is one supposed to effectively manage and govern a country which is home to 20 percent of the world’s population?

That may not sound like a lot of people.

But consider this:

In every group of five people, on average, there is one Chinese.

Moreover, China is a country that is not only big in size and population but also in the complexity of its society and economy.

Without giving permission for a wide public debate, electoral feedback and civil activism, how can one govern such a massive piece of land?

Is there a way to gather sufficient information which enables one to actually make sensible decisions?

Moreover, in such a country, how does its government manage to engender trust and also bend public behavior without inviting citizens of the country to actually participate in the decision-making process.

Is it even possible for a government to do all of that without putting law enforcement officers on each and every doorstep?

China’s leader, Hu Jintao, spent his time from 2002 to 2012 in an attempt to come up with a solution to these problems.

He was of the opinion that such problems could be solved by permitting a, sort of, modest democratic thaw.

Such a solution would allow for avenues of people’s grievances to actually reach the ruling Chinese class.

Then came Hu Jintao’s successor, Xi Jinping.

The consensus seems to be that Xi Jinping reversed the trend that Hu Jintao had set in motion.

Instead of allowing for restricted democracy, Xi Jinping has preferred to use technology as his main strategy in order to understand then respond to exactly what is going on in the country that now boasts over 1.4 billion people.

More specifically, the Chinese government under Xi Jinping relied on a lethal combination of big data, artificial intelligence, and surveillance in order to not only monitor people’s lives but also their behavior down to a minute detail.

Of course, the fact that more than a few democracies in the world have had to go through a couple of tumultuous years has made things simple for the Chinese political class.

The Chinese ruling elite now has more confidence in their belief that shutting out the common voter is justified.

Worldwide developments like Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and him becoming the president of the United States of America along with Rodrigo Duterte sitting calmly with his reign of terror in the Philippines and of course, the rapid rise of far-right political parties throughout Europe, it is entirely understandable why a major portion of critics feel that there are some inherent problems in the political system that has come to dominate Europe and America, democracy.

Some of the problems that critics have mentioned which are related to democracy include,

  • Instability
  • Populism
  • Dangerously personalized country leadership.

Xi Jinping, became the general secretary of the Communist Party in China about six years ago in 2012.

Since then, Xi Jinping has managed to lay out a raft of some very ambitious plans for China as a country.

The vast majority of those plans are actually rooted in new technology.

Xi Jinping’s plans include a goal which aims to transform China into a world leader in fields such as machine learning and artificial intelligence by the year 2030.

The general secretary of the Communist Party has made loud calls for cyber sovereignty.


Of course, in simpler terms, that means enhanced censorship along with the government asserting its full control over the local/domestic internet.

Back in May of this year Xi Jinping, at a Chinese Academy of Sciences meeting told attendees that technology would play a key role in achieving the higher goal of building a modernized and socialist nation.

Before that, in the month of January, Xi Jinping, in an address to the nation, said on television that the bookshelves that were present on either side of where he was speaking contained all types of books.

The bookshelves contained classic titles like Das Kapital as well as a few of modern categories including a couple of technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

More specifically, Xi had Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane from Brett King and The Master Algorithm from Pedro Domingo along with Das Kapital.

That is quite a combination.

According to Martin Chorzempa who works at the Peterson Institute for International Economics based in Washington, DC, recently said that no government had made more far-reaching and ambitious plans to fully harness the power of bit data in order to change the way governments govern countries than the current Chinese government.

That is saying something.

In fact, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that even a few of foreign observers having familiarity with the subject and a keen eye on things from afar, maybe thinking or at least be tempted to really wonder if Chinese data-driven governance plans actually offered viable and sustainable alternative solutions to the ones that an increasingly dysfunctional-looking democracy and/or electoral model can offer.

However, the problem is this.

The wisdom of technology is limited.

So one can’t really over-rely on it.

Secondly, big data isn’t as perfect as some data scientists would want the society to believe.

In other words, data too comes with its own limits and risks.

Forget dialogue. Let’s go with data.

It isn’t like the Chinese ruling elite has no interest in the general population.

In fact, Chinese leaders have long had this desire to actually tap into public sentiment.

But they have always wanted to do so without allowing the door of criticism of the Chinese authorities and a heated debate on every issue, to open.

For the large part of the modern and imperial Chinese history, the tradition has been for a group of disgruntled people from the western countryside of China to travel to Beijing and then stage a small demonstration.

And act as public petitioners.

These people had this thinking that if their local authorities had no interest in listening to them or understand their problems or simply did not have the time to even care about their legitimate grievances then perhaps the Chinese emperor would listen to them and show better judgment.

It is here that one should mention the Chinese government under Hu Jintao.

A few members of the Chinese Communist Party under Hu Jintao actually saw some benefit in a limited form of openness.

They thought it might present the government to not only expose itself to some of the problems in the country but also fix them.

Of course, they only wanted this limited democracy to fix certain kinds of problems.

Perhaps that is the reason why towards the end of Hu Jintao’s reign, entities such as,

  • Anti Corruption journalists
  • Critics using online platforms to spotlight local corruption
  • Anti Corruption journalists
  • Blogs
  • Human-rights lawyers

drove the public debate in China.

As it turns out, Xi Jinping, during his early days as the ruler of China, actually received a daily briefing of all related disturbances and public concerns that his people had scraped from social media.

That’s according to one former United States official who has knowledge of this matter.

Fast forwarding to the last couple of years, and Xi Jinping has seen petitioners coming to the capital of China in order to draw attention to huge scandals involving local authorities seizing lands illegally and other issues such as milk powder that is contaminated.

However, recent reports indicate that law enforcement authorities in Beijing were increasingly preventing petitioners from going ahead and reaching the capital.

A senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, Maya Wang, recently said that now trains in China required national ID cards to actually buy tickets.

This made it relatively easy for law enforcement authorities to identify any and all troublemakers like the people who had protested against the Chinese government in the past as well.

Maya also mentioned that a good number of petitioners told Human Rights Watch that law enforcement agencies had stopped them at train platforms.

Moreover, the Chinese government is also imprisoning and/or silencing lawyers, activists, and bloggers in a systematic manner.

To many, the Chinese government seems to have this idea that data can provide it with the same and accurate information without the government having to deal with all the fiddly problems of people’s freedoms.

Of course, this isn’t something new.

Or even out of the blue.

This idea of making use of networked and advanced technology as a major tool of country governance in China actually dates back to, at the very least, the mid-1980s.

Julian Gewirtz, who is a Harvard historian, recently explained that when the government in China observed that information technology had started to become a regular and daily part of people’s lives, it quickly realized that it could use information technology as a powerful and new tool in order to do lots of things.

Lots of things included gathering data and information on people.


And with the help of that, controlling the country’s culture.

The Chinese government wanted to make use of these new technologies in order to make people living in China more governable and more modern.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to Julian since according to him the Chinese leadership always had such obsessions.

Moreover, subsequent technological advances such as progress in the field of artificial intelligence and much faster computer processors have helped the Chinese government to move closer to its long-held vision.

As far as the question of using technology to govern is concerned, no one really knows if the government in China has a single master blueprint that links governance and technology.

In fact, some believe that it is more likely that there is none.

However, there is a multiple number of initiatives which share a similar strategy.

And that strategy is, again, to collect and then harvest as much data about people as possible.

Some initiatives also aim to employ this strategy to collect information on companies in order to inform decision-making and/or develop systems of punishments and incentives which would help the Chinese government to influence behavior.

Such initiatives include the Social Credit System which the Chinese State Council introduced in 2014.

There is also the Cybersecurity law that came about in 2016.

The government in China also has “smart city” plans along with various private-enterprise and local-level experiences in its social credit system.

Moreover, it also wants to use technology-driven solutions for policing effectively in restive western regions such as Xinjiang.

More often than not, these plans involve major partnerships with technology companies in China and the government.

As mentioned in a previous post as well, the most comprehensive and far-reaching plan is what the government calls the Social Credit System.

Of course, one could translate that better in the English language by accurately calling it the reputation system or the trust system.

As indicated earlier, the government in China has this Social Credit System plan which not only covers people but also businesses.

The Social Credit System plan lists a lot of goals and aims.

One of those goals is to help the country in constructing sincerity in all government affairs, judicial credibility, and commercial sincerity.

According to the head of the geotechnology practice at Eurasia Group (a consultancy firm), Paul Triolo, everyone living in China had an auntie who had been swindled in one way or another.

So, the government had a legitimate need to address this problem of a major breakdown in public trust.

The Chinese Social Credit System, to date, has actually not gone beyond its status of “work in progress”.

However, several number of pilot projects have previewed how the Social Credit System would work come 2020.

That’s right.

That is the year when the government in China wants to implement the system as it is supposed to be implemented.

And that is, comprehensively and absolutely.

It is also true that the Social Credit System’s first tool is Blacklists.

In fact, for over half a decade, the court system in China has actually published a list which contains the names of those people who had not complied with the court’s judgments or had not paid fines.

Now, under the new Social Credit System regulations, the court’s list would actually be shared with various government agencies and businesses.

So what happens if one finds his/her name on the list?

According to past records, people who manage to get on the blacklist often find themselves in a lot of bother when trying to borrow money.

Banks simply block them.

These people also have trouble in booking flights.

Sometimes they cannot even stay at luxury hotels.

And that’s not all.

National transport companies in China have actually created more blacklists in addition to the one that the Social Credit System has produced.

These transport companies use those additional lists to punish those riders who do not behave well.

And what constitutes bad behavior?

Well, for one, if a person picks fights during a given journey, that is considered as bad behavior.

If a person blocks train doors then that is also considered bad behavior.


Sometimes national transport companies in China even bar offenders from purchasing any tickets in the future for a period of six or even 12 months.

A couple of months ago, the government in China introduced a new series of different blacklists.

It used those blacklists to prohibit dishonest and unscrupulous enterprises from receiving any land grants or contracts from the government.

Apart from that, a decent number of local governments in China have also started to experiment with the Social Credit System score.

With that said, currently, it is not clear if those social credit system scores would eventually become a part of the national Social Credit System plan.

To take an example, let’s talk about Rongcheng, a city in the Northern part of China.

This city has about 740,000 residents.

And it applies a score to each of them.

Foreign Policy published a report in which it said that everyone living in Rongcheng began with a total of 1000 points.

If a given citizen won a government award of donated some money to a charity then the person would gain points.

If a person violated a traffic law either by speeding directly through a crosswalk or driving while drunk, then the person would lose points.

Citizens who would have higher scores will qualify for earning discounts on heating supplies when winter comes around.

Such citizens would also qualify for better terms on loans and mortgages.

Citizens who would have low scores would risk losing access to any bank loans.

They may even not get any promotions in government jobs.

Moreover, the City Hall in Rongcheng, in order to motivate citizens, showcases posters of all the local role models whose scores as high enough.

These are the people the local government thinks have managed to exhibit model and virtuous behavior and have earned higher scores.

We’ll talk more about what other experts think of China’s Social Credit System and how the country has no plans to integrate concepts such as democracy into the fabric of society or even governance in the next portion of this piece.

Stay tuned to Security Gladiators.



Zohair A. Zohair is currently a content crafter at Security Gladiators and has been involved in the technology industry for more than a decade. He is an engineer by training and, naturally, likes to help people solve their tech related problems. When he is not writing, he can usually be found practicing his free-kicks in the ground beside his house.
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