China Remains Adamant: Democracy is Bad. Data is Good.

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China is using technology in another way.

In the previous post, we talked about how the government in China had planned to manage and control the Chinese people through advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data.

Click here for that post.

We’ll continue the more important part of that discussion today.

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that the government in China is ranking its people with scores.

With these scores, people can either earn discounts for various everyday things or get punished for doing things that the Chinese government thinks are bad.

Of course, one could make the argument that all other governments also do the same thing.

Any given government has a set of rules that it wants its people to follow.

If they don’t follow it, they have to pay a fine or go to jail.

That is exactly what the Chinese government is trying to do.

However, some feel that the government in China has taken that concept to the extreme.

But what is extreme?

Who can define extreme as objectively as possible?

This is what we are going to talk about now.

China calls its system the Social Credit System.

Through this system, critics say, the government wants to control the daily lives of its people.

According to Samantha Hoffman who works at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany (more specifically, Berlin), the idea of having a social credit system was to monitor and then manage how institutions and people living in China behaved.

Now, the social credit system in China would be so vast and comprehensive that any violation which the system records in a given part of the entire system, could potentially trigger responses in various other parts of the social credit system.

Samantha also said that it was a concept which was designed to support both social management and economic development.

Moreover, Samantha also believes that the system was inherently political rather than anything else.

As mentioned before, some parallels can be drawn between the social credit system in China and what is already present in the United States of America.

We’re not saying the United States of America has stolen China’s blueprint to a more productive and compliant population but there are some similarities.

For example, a less than ideal credit score can absolutely prevent a given person from taking out a sizeable loan for his/her home.

On the other hand, it is also true that in the United States of America, a felony conviction actually annuls and/or suspends the person’s right to vote in the election.

Recently Hoffman pointed out that the systems in the United States of America were different to the social credit system in China in the sense that the system in the United State of America was not connected to other systems in the same way.

In other words, the systems in the United States of America did not have an overarching plan.

But even if the United States of America did have a similar system to China, it would still be very different from the situation in China.

Why?

Because unlike the United States of America, China does not have an independent judiciary.

The Chinese people do not have any recourse for disputing inaccurate and/or false allegations.

These are just some of the big concerns in China.

Some reporters have even revealed that the government in China has added people’s names to its travel blacklists without any notifications after one of the courts had given its decision earlier.

Now, there is one system for the average Chinese people.

And there is another for investigative journalists and petitioner.

The government in China wants to monitor them according to a different system.

Then there is a different monitoring scheme and/or system to watch people who have checked into drug rehabilitation.

According to Wang of Human Rights Watch, theoretically speaking, the drug-user database was supposed to get rid of and/or erase names of drug addicts after five or at the maximum seven years.

However, Wang said, he had seen a good number of cases where officials did not bother to do that.

Furthermore, Wang believed that it was immensely hard to make effort and take one’s name off any of the lists mentioned-above permanently.

There is no doubt about the fact that occasional bursts of emotions and rage online can point towards public resentment.

To take an example, when a news source reported that a college had turned out a student from admission because of the student’s father having his name on a credit blacklist, the social media lit like wildfire in order to show its anger.

Later on, it developed that the government had not ordered and/or officially sanctioned the college’s decision to not grant the student an admission to the college.

Rather, the college simply had a lot of enthusiasm in supporting the government’s new policies.

In other words, the school administrators did not give the student admission because of the new policies as they looked at the new policies and logically concluded that they should not grant the student an admission.

Another problem is the actual opacity of the whole system.

That makes it even harder for anyone to actually evaluate the effectiveness of social credit system experiments that the government has carried out in cities such as Rongcheng.

The ruling Communist Party in China has managed to squeeze out the vast majority of all voices that were critical of the government’s work.

It has been doing that since 2012.

Moreover, even the risk of challenging the governmental system has grown exponentially.

Now, very few are prepared to say something untoward about the government even in smaller ways.

One more problem is that of information.

Firstly, there is very little of it available.

Secondly, the available information (whatever amount) is actually deeply flawed.

Then there is the fact that problems such as systematic and large-scale falsification of data on each and everything from hydropower to GDP growth pervade the government’s statistics.

Borge Bakken, a researcher at the Australian National University, estimated that as far as official crime figures were concerned, the government in China had a clear incentive to actually downplay.

According to Borge, the official crime figures may only represent as low as 3 percent of all behavior considered as a criminal offense in China.

Theoretically speaking, it is widely accepted that a data-driven government model could really help the government in China to fix such issues.

With a streamlined modern system the central government would have little problems in circumventing various distortions and gather information in a more direct manner.

At least, that is the actual idea behind such a data-driven system.

To take an example, if the government managed to introduce air-quality equipment and monitors which are able to send vital data straight to the central authorities then that could improve things.

How?

Well, the problem with relying on various local authorities and officials is that pollution-causing industries might have them in their pockets.

However, there are just so many aspects of the term known as good governance that the central government can’t do everything on its own.

Moreover, a few of those aspects are fairly complicated.

Hence, they don’t allow for a direct monitoring system.

Instead of doing that, the central government has to rely on data that would probably be entered into the system by the same potentially corrupt local officials.

With that said, the government in China rarely finds the motivation to release its performance data.

It simply does not want outsiders to have a look at that data and then use it to evaluate all of the country’s supposedly effective systems.

To take an example, let’s talk about the cameras.

The Chinese government is making use of a large number of cameras to now only identify but also shame jaywalkers in a few cities.

How does the Chinese government do that?

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Well, it takes the jaywalker’s face and then projects it on public billboards.

More worryingly though, the Chinese government also uses those cameras to accomplish tasks such as tracking the prayer habits of people living in the western region of China.

The vast majority of them are Muslims.

Some believe that the accuracy of these cameras remains questionable.

More specifically, no one knows how well these cameras perform with their facial-recognition software that is initially trained on Han Chinese faces when the time comes to recognizes faces of members of the Eurasian minority groups present in China.

Apart from that, even if one assumed that all data collection was as accurate as possible, how would the Chinese government make use of such a vast amount of information to thwart and/or direct future behavior?

Law enforcement agencies, such as the police, do have algorithms which can help them predict which person had a high probability of becoming a criminal.

But these algorithms, sadly, are not even remotely open to, what the experts in the US call, public scrutiny.

Other vital statistics such as those which would help experts see whether terrorism and/or crime has risen or diminished in China are also not available for public scrutiny.

To take another example, in Xinjiang (a province in the Western part of China), the available data/information only shows that the number of Chinese citizens that the policy had taken into custody had shot up exponentially.

It rose 731 percent from the year 2016 to the year 2017.

According to a senior fellow working at the Lowry Institute and the writer behind the book titled The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, Richard McGregor, it was not the technology which managed to create the current policies.

However, the technology available greatly expanded the kinds of data which the government in China could collect on various individuals.

Richard McGregor also said that the internet, as it was today, in China acted as a privately-run and real-time digital intelligence service.

Policing with the help of algorithms

Xiao Qiang, who wrote an article in the Washington Post a couple of months ago and is also a professor of communications at UCLA (University of California, Berkeley) actually dubbed the Chinese government’s data-enhanced governance model a digital totalitarian state.

The most obvious evidence of the system’s dystopian aspects is pretty visible and in fact, on display in regions such as Xinjiang in western China.

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In English, the word Xinjiang means new territory.

This province is actually the traditional home of Muslim Chinese.

They are a minority living in China and are usually known as Uighurs.

Recently, a huge number of migrants (all Han Chinese) came to the province in order to settle in.

Some said that they had come to colonize the region rather than settle there.

As a result of the migration, the religious and work opportunities afforded to the large local population of Uighurs had diminished.

That fact caused other problems since Uighur Muslims started to feel marginalized.

Because of that, there has been a marked uptick in the region’s violence.

Both Uighur and Han people have been made targets as a result of the violence.

One example of the violent incidents include a riot that took place in 2009.

Reportedly a total of 200 people lost their lives in Urumqi, the capital city.

The government in China has stayed away from responding to the boiling tensions in a fashion that would be very understandable elsewhere.

So instead of holding public meetings at various forums to actually solicit views and/or policy advice, the government has started to use computer algorithms and data collection in order to determine which one of the citizen living in Xinjiang had a high probability that he/she would commit future acts of defiance and/or violence.

To accomplish the task, the government in Xinjiang, in reality, employed a Chinese private company.

That private company helped the government in Xinjiang by designing the predictive computer algorithms which assessed all the various data streams.

Of course, there is no public accountability and/or record for how all such calculations were weighted and/or built.

According to an anthropologist who works at the Loyola University, Riam Thum, the Chinese people living under the current system generally did not even have an idea of what the rules were.

Rian has not only studied Xinjiang but has also seen various Chinese government’s procurement notices which it issued in order to build the algorithmic system as quickly as possible.

For example, in Kashgar (another city located in the western part of China) a large number of the family homes and stores present on the main street were actually boarded up.

Moreover, because of certain government policies, public squares had also become empty.

When reporters visited Kashgar back in 2013, it was pretty apparent that the city of Kashgar had become a segregated city.

In simpler terms, the Uighur and Han populations worked and lived in distinct and separate sections of the town.

However, when the time came for the evenings, Kashgar turned into a lively city.

More often than not, the city was a noisy place.

Many times the call to the Muslim prayer, in effect, intermingled with music from all the dance parties in local clubs.

In many a places, one could also hear conversations of elderly people sitting in their patios with plastic chairs late night.

However, all of that has changed now.

Today, as a city, Kashgar is eerily quiet.

According to the same reporters, all of that neighborhood public life had virtually vanished without a trace.

A journalist for the Financial Times, Emily Feng, managed to visit Kashgar back in June.

She also used Twitter to post images of the newly vacant Kashgar streets.

What is the exact reason for this emptiness?

Well, it turns out, independent estimates show that more than a million (slightly above 1 in 10) of all Kazakh and Uyghur adults who are living in Xinjiang have had to go to re-education camps.

These are camps that the government in China has set up.

And it has forced the Muslim population to become inhabitants of barbed-wired-ringed camps.

People who have not been forced to go to these re-education camps are living in fear of one day having to go there.

Just during the last couple of years, the government in China has set up thousands of checkpoints.

Any passerby who comes across these checkpoints has no other choice but to present both his/her national ID card and his/her face in order to proceed to the nearby highway or visit a given shopping mall or enter a given mosque.

But it gets even worse.

The government requires Uighurs to install tracking applications on their mobile devices that have been specifically designed by the government.

That government-designed application monitors the user’s online contacts.

Not only that, the application also makes a note of the web pages that a person has visited in the past.

Law enforcement officer working for the police have the authority to visit various local homes in the vicinity regularly in order to collect more data on other things such as the number of people who live in a particular household and what kind of relationships does the household have with its neighboring household.

These police officers also look at the number of times people living in a given household pray on a daily basis.

And whether these Uighur Muslims have gone out of the country in the past.

If that wasn’t enough, then the police officers in Xinjiang also have the authority to look at the books that people have in their homes.

All these activities produce data.

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Local officials then feed all of these data streams directly into the public security system in Xinjiang.

Additionally, other records which capture information on each and everything from family planning to banking history of an individual also make their way to the Xinjiang public security system.

According to Wang, the present computer program first collects the data and then aggregates all that data coming from all the different sources.

Then, the computer program does its thing and flags those individuals who the program thinks might eventually become a potential threat to the Chinese authorities.

As mentioned before as well, the price nature of the algorithm is pretty much hidden.

Some believe that the computer algorithm may actually highlight specific behaviors like,

  • Going to a specific mosque
  • Purchasing an unusually large quantity of petrol
  • Owning a large number of books
  • Receiving email messages and phone calls from contacts abroad.

If the computer program flags someone, then that someone qualifies for a visit by the police.

Once the police gets to the individual, the officer may take the individual into custody.

Moreover, law enforcement officials may also put the individual in jail.

Setting aside the two above-mentioned possibilities, the individual may have to go to those re-education camps.

Interestingly enough, all of that happens without the existence of formal charges.

A political scientist working at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany (more specifically, in Korntal), Adrian Zenz, recently calculated that the real internment rate in places such as Xinjiang for the minorities living there may actually have crossed the 11 percent mark.

That is, more than 11 percent of all Xinjiang adult population currently has to go to internment camps.

The government in China has designed these internment camps in order to make the Xinjiang people unlearn their long-held religious beliefs and instill patriotism in them.

The government in China has also given out procurement notices for new and more cremation security guards.

This seems to suggest that the Chinese government is making efforts to try and stamp out the burial practices of traditional Muslims living in the region.

Of course, the situation of people living in Xinjiang only represents one extreme (although it is, for all intents and purposes a draconian extreme).

But elsewhere in China, the Chinese people have begun to rise and push back against, at least, a few types of state surveillance.

Recently after a decent amount of public outcry, an internet company which streamed various CCTV (close-circuit Television) footage online had to shut down its broadcasts.

Moreover, the authorities in Shanghai issued various regulations which allowed people living in the city to dispute inaccurate information that the government used in order to compile their social-credit scores.

That happened a few months ago.

According to a senior fellow who works at the Technology Policy Program at CSIS in the city of New York, Samm Sacks, said that the Chinese internet users had started to rise up and demanded more privacy from the government.

He also said that it was not particularly free-for-all that some were making it out to be.

 

Zohair

Zohair

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.
Zohair

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China Remains Adamant: Democracy is Bad. Data is Good.

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