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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India and North Korea: time for a reset?

Amb. Anil Wadhwa, Senior Fellow & Cluster Leader, VIF

General VK Singh, the Indian Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs was in North Korea from 15- 16 May 2018. Many have raised eyebrows on the timing of this visit, especially since the last ministerial visit from India to North Korea was in 1998. High-level contact between the two countries, however, have been maintained sporadically, and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong was in New Delhi in 2015. Despite the history of Pakistan and North Korea collaboration in the nuclear and missile fields in the past, Indian and North Korean delegations have been meeting regularly on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit and related meetings. A major thread binding the two together has been India’s food aid to North Korea, which has been reeling under international sanctions and pressure due to its pariah status.

The last few years have seen unprecedented rhetoric from North Korea, matched by equally strong words from the United States, followed by increased sanctions, as the North embarked on an acceleration in the development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.  India had to follow the sanctions route of the United Nations and USA, and its bilateral trade with North Korea fell from US$ 209 million in 2015-16 to US$ 130 in 2016-17. In line with UN sanctions, India banned all trade with North Korea except food and medicine. Following a gazette notification which incorporated the sanctions imposed since 2006, all trade of exports of defence, space and technology, training etc. was banned, and a ban imposed on officials suspected to be involved in nuclear proliferation. Bank account of North Korean diplomats in India were restricted, and there were curbs on the procurement of coal, minerals and other materials from North Korea. The Indian embassy in Pyongyang, however, has continued to function.

The winds are changing on the Korean peninsula. There has been a rapprochement between North and South, and expectations have been raised for a meeting of Kim Jong Un with Trump. The proposed meeting on 12 June in Singapore has slipped into the realm of doubt and the proposed official level meeting between North and South Korean officials have also not happened, with North Korea blaming US officials of proposing a “Libya style” denuclearization proposal on the North, without going into substantive discussions. While the North Koreans have signalled a desire for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the North Korean view will be that it must be done on a reciprocal, phased manner with guarantees that there will be no regime change in North Korea.

India has trained North Korean scientists under the UN COPUS programme at its Dehradun facility, has collaborated with the North in the agricultural field, and its cultural troupes have paid continuous visits to North Korea. Besides food aid, Indian pharmaceuticals are popular in North Korea due to their generic nature and consequently, cheaper prices. The fact that India was one of the top three trading partners of North Korea before the sanctions is testimony to the fact that the commodities traded are complementary.

A major achievement of General VK Singh’s visit was the assurance he received on the possible collaboration and technology transfer between North Korea and Pakistan which the North Koreans said was not in the realm of possibility, given the close relationship between India and North Korea. But the purpose of the visit at this stage also seems to be India’s desire to play a role in the opening of the North Korean economy, and participation in the reform of its dismal economy once there is a thaw with the outside world which now looks likely. India can quickly ramp up its exports of agriculture, steel products and pharmaceuticals and , and restart imports of North Korea iron and other metals. General Singh met with Vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme Peoples Assembly Kim Yong Dae, Culture Minister Pak Chung Nam and Foreign Minister Choe Hui Chol. They agreed to strengthen people to people contacts through culture, cooperate in vocational training, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, promotion of yoga and traditional medicine. India can quickly ramp up its exports, and look at possible investments in the metallurgical sector which it has been offered in the past. Above all, India must be engaged in the process of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and ensure that there is no proliferation of nuclear or missile technologies from North Korea in our neighbourhood.

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”

How must India deal with an all-powerful Xi Jinping?

Prof. Alka Acharya, Honorary Fellow, ICS & Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The question that had been the cause of much speculation and discussion since the 19th Communist Party Congress last October — ‘After Xi Jinping, Who?’ — has now seemingly been answered. Xi Jinping himself!

In fact, Xi’s continuation in power beyond two terms was widely anticipated when, as had been the practice since the political and administrative reforms had been introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, no successor was announced at the end of the 19th Chinese Communist Party congress.

Xi now proposes to overturn the practice, which had limited the top leader to two consecutive terms in office — and this will now be enshrined in the state constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Continue reading “How must India deal with an all-powerful Xi Jinping?”