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Big data and the social credit system: The security consequences

Big data is allowing the Party to extend its already extensive control over the lives of Chinese citizens. The developing social credit system will make possible comprehensive data collection to measure individual loyalty to the state. Data can be collected on companies and individuals abroad, posing a challenge for countries not wishing to be part of a Chinese system of social control. China’s big data strategy may improve political control without improving the actual quality of governance.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is harnessing modern technology as a means to automate its processes for consolidating and expanding power. The purpose is explicit in the 2017 Action Plan to Promote the Development of Big Data, linking advances in big data to “social governance”, which is the CCP’s pre-emptive process for ensuring state security. Advances in big data provide the CCP with a greater capacity to forecast, identify and assess risks to Party-state security. Their application is also intended to improve the integration, sharing and utilisation of data between and across Party-state entities. One part of the CCP’s social governance process is the nascent social credit systemFootnote 72  , which relies on technology to coerce and co-opt individuals to participate in their own management. Big data and social credit do not replace the Party as the central authority. Developments in those fields seek to augment existing processes for social and political control, which are visibly and invisibly hosted through everyday social and economic activity. Progress in big data and social credit does not create fundamentally new control methodologies. Instead, those are best described as upgraded hardware and software components being installed to make the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) political system more effective. 

Big data and social credit within the Chinese security strategy

The CCP’s “social governance” process, also known as “social management”, is the methodology behind how the Party manages both itself and its relationship with societyFootnote 73  . Social governance requires a constant response to ever changing circumstances, and is designed to enhance stability. Stability is not the absolute absence of problems or threats. Stability is the capacity to manage problems and threats so they do not develop beyond the Party’s capacity for control.

The social governance process consumes a large amount of the Party’s resources. Stability is a dynamic concept. The social governance process itself must also be dynamic and capable of addressing often contradictory problems. Technology is seen as having the potential to help strengthen this control process by automating social governance objectives that otherwise consume a large amount of the Party’s resources. These include: a) fixing and preventing faults; b) optimising everyday operations; and c) mitigating and responding to potential and actual threats.

Social governance describes a system that is self-managing—one that can automatically adjust itself to help the Party consolidate and expand power. For the Party leadership, overseeing China’s development requires flexibility to the extent that it is firmly in control of the overall process. The coercive power of a strong military or powerful public security organs are only part of the social governance system. It also involves agencies such as the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

The social governance process is directed at upholding the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling position: ensuring state security. The PRC’s ‘holistic state security’ concept (prominent, but not new under Xi Jinping) combines internal and external security. Beijing’s state security concept is not entirely different than the concept national security as it would be understood in Canada. But it is distinct in that what is internal and external is not exclusively about what is inside and outside of China’s geographical borders; nor is it simply about domestic- or foreign-security policy. In the PRC, internal and external are also about what is inside and outside of the CCP. The Party is protecting an ideas space not bounded by physical geography. State security does not protect China outside of the Communist Party; it protects China under the Party’s leadership only. Loyalty to the Party leadership is required, and ideas offering any kind of alternative to its narrative must be countered. From the CCP’s perspective, this is why the pre-emptive social governance process becomes critical.

Advances in big data and social credit consolidate and expand the CCP’s power by:

  • Optimising Party-state resources and synthesising a vast amount of information and resources (from market and government sources) to force the vertical and horizontal integration of government entities;
  • Reducing the Party-states exposure to risks both inside and outside China’s geographical borders;
  • Using economic development and urban management requirements as primary means for strengthening the state’s role in everyday social and economic life;
  • Using the advancements to improve logistical integration and capabilities for crisis mitigation and response;
  • Shaping and managing demands and expectations, both inside and outside China’s geographical borders, on the Party-state leadership; and    
  • Building leverage through market and government engagement with foreign entities and governments, thereby extending the reach of the CCP’s ideological space.

The plan to apply big data to social governance prioritises advances in e-government and the development of smart cities. Both e-government and smart cities use big data to improve information flows. E-government is better described as creating the underlying architecture that smart cities will rely on. Smart cities will use big data analytics with Internet-of-Things devices to support decision-making in real-time. As the integration of e-government progresses, and if smart cities are successfully designed, a degree of decentralisation will take place. It may seem contradictory, but this is designed to remove excessive resource demands on the Party-state leadership while simultaneously strengthening its control over the entire system and process.

Even in its earliest stages, when e-government was usually described as a resource that would improve official accountability, the implication was that the Party at all levels would be held accountable to the top leadership’s priorities and demands. E-government in China is not designed to create openness and accountability at government agencies. In its initial stages, it helped to improve integration within government departments. The Golden Projects, formally initiated in 1993, have included multi-staged efforts such as Golden Shield integrating the Ministry of Public Security with its local level bureaux. Similarly, Golden Gate created electronic integration for customs offices. Integration between departments and agencies has improved through these existing e-government efforts. The Party has described future development of big data as a way to force a more comprehensive vertical and horizontal integration.

Smart cities are a way of visibly and invisibly enhancing the Party’s power. Smart cities, piloted in well-over 800 cities across China, are a way to identify weaknesses and strengths in a geographically defined area. Risks include everything from traffic problems to environmental risks and social unrest. The same technologies the government uses to track and control individuals are also designed to support government decision-making and optimise resource use.

The political objectives of e-government and smart cities do not minimise the role both play in accelerating economic development. Economic development is not simply something the Party-state relies on as a source of legitimacy. The state also uses economic development as a way to insert itself into everyday social and economic life. In fact, the government’s plans to use technological resources to exert political and social control simultaneously create the demand for research and development of technologies that enable China’s continued economic development.

The function of social credit in the CCP’s management methodology is to automate ‘individual responsibility’, a concept according to which each citizen upholds social stability and national security. Social credit would automate responsibility by using technology to improve the depth of cooperative and coercive tactics that the Party-state uses to maintain social and political control. The objective of implementing individual responsibility is not simply to identify ‘irresponsibility’ and punish it, such as through a social credit blacklisting system. The objective is also to prevent irresponsible decision-making by encouraging, either through cooperative or coercive means, responsible decision-making. More specifically, social credit is designed to create ‘trust’. Trust is not simply a construct that improves the reliability of individual and business social and business transactions. Trust also means that a person or business is deemed worthy to continue to uphold the Chinese Communist Party. The reward, in simplified terms, is their continued participation in and benefiting from the Party-state’s economic and social development.

Data localisation requirements associated with the Cyber Security Law that took effect in 2017 offer a clear warning. As the social credit system develops and as participation extends, firms participating in joint ventures with Chinese companies, companies doing business in the PRC or individuals living in or working with Chinese entities, may be required or compelled to participate in the system. Political pressure is not new; for example, companies are pressured to do things like disavow Taiwanese or Tibetan independence after being accused of disrespecting Chinese sovereignty or territorial integrity. Yet, the social credit system would expand government capacity to shape their decision-making. The system would also allow the government to exert increased control over its citizens living and travelling abroad.

Discussion related to the “China Solution” for global development and governance helps to describe how technological advances will impact countries outside China. Chinese writing on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), for instance, suggests that data collected from overseas sources can support economic and security decision-making. Big data is seen as a strategic resource directly linked to state security. There have been explicit suggestions that Confucius Institutes, e-commerce and transportation services, among other things, can be used as data sources. Although it is unclear how precisely the data would be used and collected overseas, emergency mitigation and response is one reason. Domestically, applications of technology in areas like grid management are being designed also to mobilise society and the security forces ideologically and logistically as an emergency mitigation and response tactic. Internationally, big data could help the government improve situational awareness and support operational decision-making.

Implications

  • Advances in big data and social credit augment the Chinese approach to state security that integrates resources used in everyday social and economic life. Analysts should be trained to apply the Chinese concept of state security to policy developments, particularly in the technology field, in order to develop credible policy responses to China’s efforts to expand power.
  • Chinese citizens in Canada and elsewhere will still be judged by social credit. Their personal data is not necessarily always protected when they are located overseas.
  • It will be critical to understand how technology-enabled advances impact individuals and businesses that engage with China. When Canadian and foreign companies start being judged through systems like social credit, their decision-making could be affected. Otherwise they could risk loss of access to services inside China or the Chinese market.
  • Continued attention is required in developed economies to identify strategic and emerging technologies that could be used to boost social control and state security in China, and develop related controls. Not all Chinese companies investing in Canadian or other foreign technology companies are arms of the state, but they are in competition to contribute to the objectives the CCP prioritises.

Outlook

Advances in big data and social credit are being implemented as the hardware and software that make the PRC’s political system more effective. Technology does not solve the Party-state’s problems; it reduces some and magnifies others. Advances in big data and social credit cannot meet state security objectives if the underlying system does not function effectively (as defined by the Party-state leadership). A major question, then, is whether the Party can manage itself to the extent required to allow technology to automate and augment its day-to-day functions. Big data cannot be used to improve resource sharing if the officials at local government levels responsible for their integration are misusing the system. From the CCP’s perspective, technological advances make fundamental tasks like ensuring loyalty to the Party and propaganda more vital.

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