China’s Social Credit System: Descent into an Orwellian era?

Ms. Sharanya Menon, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

In 2016, lawyer Li Xiaolin was unable to book plane tickets for his impending journey. An enquiry revealed the cause to be the insincere apology submitted by him to the court. The apology, which had been ordered by the court, had been deemed insincere because it had been submitted on April Fool’s day. The result: Li Xiaolin was placed on a government blacklist that barred him from accessing services as per the bold, ambitious new governance system of China, the Social Credit System.

This incident has drawn comparisons to a recent episode from the British science fiction show, Black Mirror which depicted a society that rated people based on their social interactions with others. The Social Credit System is a Chinese Government initiative which aims to assign a score to all its citizens based on a myriad of factors. The Planning Outline of the system, which was released in 2014 by the State Council, threw light on this upcoming system which aims to “establish the idea of sincerity culture [using] encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust”. To achieve this, the system will monitor the individuals based on their internet activities, personal shopping habits and rather innocuous behavioural tendencies of its people. The system, by seeding all available data and information across databases, will create a comprehensive record on all citizens and it will showcase all the activities that the individual engages in. Thus, the record will be the basis for the assigned score and will determine citizens’ employment opportunities, their access to loans and even potential romantic partners. The system will not be restricted to citizens but will also include business enterprises and industries.

Eight private companies have been provided with licenses to start pilots and experimental phases in regions. The most notable of them is Sesame Credit which is a subsidiary of Chinese retail giant, Alibaba. The final system that will be instituted might draw on the pilots designed by the private companies or might be entirely different.

The Social Credit System has been presented as the panacea to the widespread issue of mistrust in society and the lack of “sincerity” among the Chinese. The promise of a good score and subsequent benefits would incentivise the citizens to work to attain and maintain a good score. The threat of a bad score will act as a check on undesirable behaviour. Thus, incentivised good behaviour and actions will ensure that the underlying issue of mistrust and insincerity will be tackled tactfully.

While the Social Credit System is soon becoming a reality in China, in India, the Aadhar system is attempting to achieve something similar and parallels between the two systems can be drawn. The Aadhar, a 12-digit unique number, functions as an identity proof for residents of the country and is being modelled by the government to be the solution for all issues related to identity fraud plaguing the country. This system acts as a platform for the government to access all records and information available on all its residents. Therefore, the implementation of Aadhar has incited debates on privacy and data security across the country.

The dominant narrative that is being woven by the governments in both countries revolves around national interest and security. The narrative builds on these themes by asserting that the entry into the digital era and digitization is what is required for the countries to finally assert themselves and reclaim their rightful positions in the world order.

The government in India, by introducing welfare schemes that include Aadhar, is creating a system that necessitates Aadhar be the foundation of welfare and governance. Further, like the Social Credit System in China, the Aadhar integrates all available information on the individuals and as a result the individual loses complete control over any form of information or data that is available on them. The Social Credit System in China has been designed as a surveillance apparatus designed to exert control over the citizens and to construct the “ideal citizen”.

Therefore, the Chinese government is very subtly weaving together the notion of an ‘ideal citizen’ and in the process also reworking the conception of what it is to be a citizen and the relationship they enjoy with the state. China has always maintained administrative control over her population through the Hukou system which has been used to actively determine and limit where a person can live. Therefore, the Hukou system predicted an individual’s opportunities and prospects and therefore could be seen as a precursor to the Social Credit System.

The Social Credit System might be straight out of an Orwellian nightmare, but it shows how a country like China, always known to assert control over her citizens is devising new mechanisms to continue doing so. The Social Credit System warrants several questions to be raised; does the implementation of the system signal a shift towards a Big Data driven governance backed by the state? How does this model aim to accommodate the rights of the citizens and negotiate with the state’s need to survey its citizens? At this point, only time will tell.

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China in Africa: An Image Makeover is Underway

Dr. Veda Vaidyanathan, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

It was late afternoon in Ethiopia, I scrambled onto a bus filled with University students and found a seat at the back, near the window. As the bus meandered through traffic in Addis Ababa, the noises of the city was drowned out by the loud Amharic music playing on the radio. A young girl wanted to know why Indian women wore bindi’s – when I handed her a few packets from my reserve gift collection – she asked me if I could give her Bollywood DVD’s instead. An hour or two into our drive, the bus slowed down, trudged uphill and finally stopped. Without a groan or complaint, people picked up their bags and began to alight. “We need to get off the bus and walk to the top of the hill”, someone explained as he walked past.

There we were- in the stunning Ethiopian countryside, a horde of people, some quiet others singing, making our way to the top of the hill. “Does this happen every time?” I asked the student accompanying me for the trip. “Oh yes, it’s a Chinese bus.” He replied matter-of-factly. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I prodded. “Oh its terrible quality, it has a weak engine, the chairs and the cushions will come off soon too” he replied grinning. I asked him why we did not take another bus, one which had a stronger engine perhaps, “but there aren’t any other buses” he responded.

As we reached the last hairpin bend, there were large Chinese characters painted on a granite wall. As I stopped to take a picture, they explained that the well-laid tar road was new and built by a Chinese company. It used to be a narrow, uneven dirt road, dangerous during the rains and it took a lot of time to reach the villages on the top.  As we spoke, a woman in a beautiful white habesha kemi walked beside us carrying a pot of water. That journey, I assume, from the water source at the bottom of the hill to the top, was made easier by the broad winding new road.

Many instances like these provided a glimpse into the layered and complicated perception of China in Africa today. As Chinese migrants and companies make their presence felt across the cityscapes and country sides, the African attitude about them is quietly evolving. While acknowledging that Chinese exports to Africa are of inferior quality or that working conditions in Chinese companies are harsh or frustration with Chinese bosses who don’t take into account local sensibilities- conversations with young Africans in Kenya, Ethiopia and beyond highlight a palpable unease. However despite a range of criticism levelled against Chinese firms and violence targeting Chinese managers, most often than not- China is viewed as a provider of options. Sure, the Chinese bus was sub-standard, but at least there was a road and a bus!

Afrobarometer- a pan African, nonpartisan research network conducted a survey in 2016 of 36 African countries about China in Africa and concluded that “Africans rank the United States and China No. 1 and 2, respectively, as development models for their own countries.” Interestingly, in three of five African regions, “China either matches or surpasses the United States in popularity as a development model.” Additionally, “In terms of their current influence, the two countries are outpaced only by Africa’s former colonial powers.”

This shift in perception is by no means abrupt; Africa has been on China’s foreign policy radar with a twenty eight year old tradition of the Chinese foreign minister visiting Africa, in addition to a range of senior officials regularly travelling to the continent. Development Reimagined, the first Kenyan wholly foreign owned enterprise in China, recently published their first infographic on Chinese leaders traveling to Africa. According to their study, the Chinese leadership has made 79 visits to 43 different African countries over the past 10 years and no other country can match this degree of diplomatic exchange with countries in the continent.

Beyond the Chinese ‘Charm Offensive’, data from the AidData dataset – curated by a research lab at the College of William & Mary – point out that seven of the top 10 recipients of Chinese Aid are in Africa. They also drew attention to the fact that contrary to popular perception, Chinese ODA generally goes to poorer countries and it does not appear to go disproportionately to authoritarian or corrupt regimes in the continent.

In addition to Aid, since 2009 China has been Africa’s largest trading partner and in 2016, bilateral trade between China and Africa was valued at USD149.1 billion, Chinese non-financial direct investment in the continent amounted to USD3 billion and the contractual value of newly signed contracted projects reached USD65.2 billion.

The language utilized by China while crafting its policies for Africa have strong moralistic undertones indicating selflessness and altruism. While some Chinese scholars agree with this premise, others insist that it is a mutually beneficial ‘win-win partnership’. African scholars remain divided with some viewing China as having increased their options, while others remain wary of their increasing influence.

Regardless of the motivations, fact remains that a new generation of Africans are becoming increasingly comfortable with a powerful China and the ‘China model’ of growth and development. Not only has China has become the most popular destination for Anglophone African students studying abroad, there are over 40 Confucius Institutes (CI) in Africa. A recent Quartz report mentioned that at a Mandarin speaking proficiency test conducted in Lusaka, a Zambian student was asked what her dream was, and she claimed “Wode mengxiang shi Zhongguo” (“My dream is China”). This acceptance of China and aspiration to be like China, the result of years of Beijing’s proactive engagement in the continent, could perhaps be one of the biggest successes for China in its contemporary foreign policy.

Wang Huning: China’s Amit Shah

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

If Shah’s job is to help Modi do the electoral math and draw up strategies to win elections, it is Wang’s job to help create the narrative that legitimizes Xi Jinping in power in an authoritarian system.

As the National People’s Congress in China cleared a constitutional amendment on Sunday allowing President Xi Jinping to remain president for life, here is a look at Xi’s closest confidante and politburo member Wang Huning, who is also known to be the brain behind President Xi.

Wang has been speechwriter and ideologue to three successive General Secretaries of the CPC –- Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Xi. Many key concepts for these three leaders have been fashioned and refined under Wang’s watch in the Party’s Central Policy Research Office since 2002 and later as a member of the Central Secretariat.

Indeed, one might wonder if China’s – and President Xi Jinping’s — slow turn towards a more assertive stance has not been influenced also by Wang’s personal ideological proclivities conveyed through the mouths of China’s leaders.

In practical terms, Wang Huning is to Xi Jinping what Amit Shah is to Narendra Modi. If Shah’s job is to help Modi do the electoral math and draw up strategies to win elections, it is Wang’s job to help create the narrative that legitimises Xi Jinping in power in an authoritarian system Continue reading “Wang Huning: China’s Amit Shah”

Unlimited Xi Presidency in China: Implications for India

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

What does the removal of term limits for the Xi Jinping presidency in China mean for the developing world and, in particular, for South Asia?

One possibility is there could be a demonstration effect. China’s decades-long rapid economic growth has been a source of envy and inspiration for many countries in the developing world. Some like Vietnam, for instance, have used China as a model in launching its own opening up and reforms process. Other countries, including many in South Asia, have seen Beijing as an alternative to the West for financial resources and capital.

With Xi’s latest move, an ambitious autocrat could try to sell the idea to his people or elites that matter that he – and he alone – holds the solutions to a country’s problems.

And often, as in the case of President Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives, who has imposed a state of emergency in the island nation, they will do so with considerably less finesse than Xi. Continue reading “Unlimited Xi Presidency in China: Implications for India”