China’s embrace of digital Leninism

by Yoichi Funabashi

In China, the business of assessing the “social trustworthiness” of private citizens is growing rapidly. An individual’s social credit score will decrease if he or she is late in returning a rented bicycle, spends too much time playing computer games, watches pornography, drives under the influence of alcohol or misses loan repayments. A low social credit score could lead to rejection of a bicycle lease contract or denial of a travel permit to Singapore, and could also carry negative implications for employment, job changes and even marriage prospects.

The Alibaba-affiliated Ant Financial Services Group is one of several companies that has expanded into this new field of social credit with its Sesame Credit system. These companies examine individuals’ academic background and employment history, assets such as cars, homes and other items, payment history, social relationships and consumption patterns, and transform this into a numerical representation of his or her “trustworthiness” scored between 350 and 950 points. Individuals are informed of their social credit score. Given the advantages conferred by a high social credit score, hundreds of millions of Chinese have reportedly supplied their personal information in order to increase their social credit rating.

The Chinese Communist Party is also promoting the concept of social credit, because “making trustworthiness visible” can be leveraged to create a docile populace and stabilize the current political system. For example, 200 points are immediately deducted from the social credit score of anyone who makes a comment critical of the Chinese government on a blog related to the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989.

Human rights organizations and media outlets across the world have voiced misgivings about China’s social credit system. Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang gave two cases of individuals being unfairly blacklisted, giving early warning signs of what The Independent called a true “cyberpunk dystopia” — China wanting to use social credit to create by 2020 an inescapable political system in which citizens are completely loyal to the state.

One of my friends, an influential Hong Kong businessman, shared a somewhat different perspective on the system: “China has studied the reasons for the failure of socialism in the Soviet Union. The primary reason was the fact that the planned economy didn’t succeed because inadequate and inaccurate information reached the central government. Today, however, artificial intelligence and big data have given the central government the ability to obtain all types of information on individual citizens, not just data on an unspecified majority or focus groups. I suspect confidence is growing that China will not end up like the Soviet Union.”

He continued: “The Chinese people are not so resistant to the social credit system. The system is convenient, and after all is said and done people feel first-hand that their quality of life is improving with every year.”

However, private enterprises assessing individual trustworthiness is a different story than the use of this data by the national government to monitor and control its citizens.

The government of President Xi Jinping has set the goal of surpassing the West in strategic industries by 2025 and leaping forward to become the world’s economic superpower. China has not forgotten that it lost its status as a world empire because it was left behind during the Industrial Revolution, and it is determined that the Fourth Industrial Revolution must operate to the exact reverse effect. Alibaba founder Jack Ma has offered a resounding endorsement of China’s future, saying “China’s command economy will grow even bigger in the next 30 years.” The probability is high that China will gain ascendency in the fields of AI and big data.

Simultaneously, the Chinese government is strengthening national control over data flows to ensure that leak of data out of the country and digital communication with the rest of the world will not threaten regime stability. Social networking services (SNS) provide continuous feedback on people’s words and actions, allowing the government to fine-tune its policies and communication. They can also be easily used to manipulate public perceptions to the government’s benefit. Furthermore, the government can employ the system of social credit to digitally exert control over its citizens from the inside. Meanwhile, SNS also enable the government to downgrade the social credit scores of “enemies of the state.”

Machiavelli’s maxim that “men will always prove untrue to you unless they are kept honest by constraint” seems intended expressly for Chinese society. In the Machiavellian formulation, effective authority will lead to effective public morality; in other words, public virtue is merely a function of authority. Once the powers that be have acquired the means of controlling a person’s “moral conduct” — in other words, an instrument to ensure virtuous conduct — they will never relinquish it. To use the term coined by the German political scientist Sebastian Heilmann, there is a risk that the Chinese system will become one of “digital Leninism.”

This sort of China would pose a real risk to the rest of the world. If Xi, who has emerged as the new emperor of China-as-a-superpower, publicly proclaims the Chinese system to be superior to all others in the world, then party propaganda officials in Beijing must prove him correct.

However, the public’s dissatisfaction with bureaucratic corruption, economic disparity, the poor living environment and political repression will continue to grow. More economic development will intensify the desire for more political rights — thus breeding more public dissatisfaction.

To relieve these pressures, the Chinese government must demonstrate the inferiority of Western political systems or show just how superior the Chinese system is by comparison. The Chinese may well succumb to such temptations.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and was editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.