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Social control 4.0

China's digital social credit system operates with a form of gamified control, which rewards users as they score points for behavior inside and outside the network. Within 2020, Chinese authorities are planning to establish a nationwide system. Western commentators react with disgust, but is our own social media really that much better?


While China's geopolitical ambitions are attracting most of the world's attention, the domestic politics of China's Communist Party (CCP) are relatively unnoticed. As it becomes clear, China is also undergoing a complete transformation internally: By 2020, the CCP has planned to introduce digital systems for social control across the country.

Through Social Credit Systems (SKS) – some of them already active – the goal is to create a score for each Chinese citizen based on their behavior. An enormous amount of data is collected to calculate this: payment practices, scrolls, shopping habits, internet searches and messages as well as general social behavior. Conformity leads to rewards such as good credit terms, promotions and shortened processing time in security checks. Conversely, unwanted behavior can result in punishment. The SKSs have access to a number of private and state databases.

Digital scoring systems

In 2014, the CCP allowed eight private service providers to develop their own digital scoring systems. All systems use algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to calculate points and placements through automated processes. At the same time, the CCP began to install state scoring systems in selected "special zones". When the SCS becomes compulsory in China over a couple of years, it is intended that all Chinese citizens, as well as companies, should have access to their own centralized account where their scores are stored. The CCP promotes SKS as a milestone on the road to "the socialist harmonious society". Officially, the point systems are meant to modernize the administration and to promote trust within society as well as between the authorities, the population and the economy. Nevertheless, the inherent potential of the systems can lead to their being perceived as means of social control. In 2014 alone – SKS's first year – there were about 90 riots in China, officially described as "mass events" – giving an average of 000 a day. Since then, the numbers have only risen.

Means of social control

To deal with this turmoil, China draws on its millennial history of state centralization and bureaucracy. Control systems legitimized by Confucianism were partly carried into the Leninist organization of the people's republic. These included Hukou – a household registration system and their enrollment in social units known as Danwei – where each unit monitored its members and recorded the information in political protocols (Dang'an). These structures determined promotions, party memberships, and even marriage. After Mao Zedong's death, some of these social control systems became less important because of the political changes during the reform period. Equally, state propaganda became more important after 1989. With the SCS, China enters a new phase of control and surveillance policy where the CCP combines the potential of analog and digital surveillance methods, propaganda and subtle forms of discipline. The development of both the Internet and mobile technologies such as smartphones and integrated technologies – smart watches and glasses – have provided new security and impact monitoring tools and propaganda departments.

At the same time, the CCP benefits from the distinctive nature of the Chinese Internet. Not only is the web subject to strict regulation; Internet access is limited by "the Chinese firewall". Internally, the "golden shield" is the most important means of monitoring online activity. An important part of this is the "Public Information Agency and Network Security Monitoring", which in short form is often referred to as the "Network Monitoring Agency". There are also a number of other government ministries, ministries and authorities responsible for monitoring the network. Alongside a number of specially trained police and private sector inspectors, artificial intelligence systems are being used to trawl the Internet for any regime-critical statement. In addition, an entire army of regime-based commentators is active in online forums, which is popularly known as the "fifty-year party" (五毛 党). They are accused of trying to influence public debate in support of the CCP.

Spying ranges from assessing credit information to investigating
consumer behavior through loyalty programs and from bicycle and car rental services to political campaign platforms.

China's online giants: Baidu, Alibaba og Tencent. Ever since the Internet was conceived, the CCP has seen it as a form of communication that must be controlled. However, state censorship does not aim to suppress critical comments about the regime completely. Rather, China's Communist Party seeks to prevent large-scale collective campaigns. At the same time, as with censorship in general, many of the Chinese control measures can be circumvented, at least in part. China here thus a relatively heterogeneous landscape online. This landscape is just as different from what we have in the West. Since China's network is largely cut off from the World Wide Web, it is also not dominated by US internet giants. Instead, peculiar commercial structures have taken shape. The three largest companies – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencen – are known as BAT. They not only provide the infrastructure for the social control systems, but are also at the forefront of the development of artificial intelligence worldwide.

All three companies have access to huge data reserves. The search engine of the giant Baidu also accounts for the operation of China's largest online dictionary and payment service Baidu Pay. Alibaba, the company known in the West by the name of "AliExpress", is in turn the major player in China's online sales. It also delivers a popular customer-to-customer platform, Taobao Wang, which is used by an estimated 470 million people a month. In addition, Alibaba sits on about a third of China's most popular microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, used by about 380 million people a month. The company's financial services group also embraces the social credit system Sesame Credit and the popular payment app Alipay. Last year, Alibaba Group reported sales of about $ 8,3 billion. Since 2016, it has also been the owner of the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post.

The third company in the group, Téngxùn, is known in the West as Tencent. Among gamers, it has for years been a well-known name outside of China because of their shareholding in video game companies. In addition, Tencent also holds shares in the globally popular social media snapchat, which is far less well known. Other services are QQ and WeChat: With nearly 900 million active users, QQ is China's most popular messaging service, while WeChat is a smartphone messaging service that reaches around one billion people worldwide. With the WeChat Pay feature, WeChat also becomes a payment app used across China.

(Meta) data and other digital tracks

For Chinese internet users, these services are part of everyday life. About 95 percent of users are online either through mobile devices, some of them with a PC as well. Like other web users, they leave behind a large number of digital tracks – personal details and data about their online habits – which are then collected and evaluated by both the state and commercial actors, who can then identify, categorize and classify different users. This data forms the basis for the SKS and score calculations. Scoring is done using algorithms and artificial intelligence – a process that is not visible to users. Digital systems have two other features that are particularly relevant to social control systems: On the one hand, stored data can be copied and sold an endless number of times; on the other hand, digital systems never forget. In addition, the Chinese SKS-hybrid systems create: They incorporate digital and analog data into the evaluations, in other words, they record not only online behavior, but also what is done offline. This is made possible through increased use of "smart" cameras that recognize faces in public spaces. The integration of analog and digital monitoring is particularly advanced in the predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang – where the number of "mass incidents" is also strikingly high.

Alibaba's Sesame Credit

Alibaba's Sesame Credit system provides a good example of how points are calculated. Like Western companies, Alibaba filters huge amounts of data from users, as the SoMe services provide information about their moods, preferences and who are "friends" with whom. Data for product orders and interaction with various web ads are also captured in detail. At least as important are payment processes and Internet searches, which are supported by metadata about visited pages and dynamic data. The score is then performed in five areas: the user's credit history, their liquidity, their personal details, their habits and behavior patterns, and their SoMe contacts. The lowest score in the Sesame Credit system is 350, and the maximum is 950. Today's scoring rewards the purchase of Alibaba products particularly highly.

Control systems legitimized by Confucianism were partially carried into the Leninist
the organization of the people's republic.

Alibaba's Sesame Credit system is similar to bonus programs like the Payback loyalty card in Germany. By registering in this service and thus allowing the registration, use and sale of personal data, users gain benefits that increase with their level in the points system. In the Sesame Credit system, users can – at some point – apply for instant loans or credit products without having to pay a deposit.

Even in areas related to security, benefits can be reaped. After a certain ranking, it is faster to go through the security check at airports. There are also benefits that apply beyond China's borders: In 2015, the Singapore and Luxembourg embassies offered simplified visa conditions for Chinese citizens who have achieved a certain number of points. To calculate all this, the Sesame Credit system works with a large number of commercial and public databases. Since 2015, it also includes China's largest dating service Baihe, which contains sensitive information about an estimated 90 million people. The Sesame Credit system also incorporates databases from Chinese courtrooms – with major consequences for those convicted, who have to find additional restrictions. The consequences of this are evident in one of the most recent austerity measures: From 1 May 2018, citizens on the authorities' blacklist can be prevented from traveling by train or plane for up to one year. Sanctions were already possible – albeit in a milder form: In March last year, the Development and Reform Commission revealed that over 9 million people had been banned from all air transport, while over three million were not allowed to buy first-class train tickets due to negative stored information . Among those affected are people who have published false information about terrorism – an accusation known to be interpreted in highly extensible ways worldwide.

Playful monitoring: the gamification principle

It remains to be seen how widespread social control systems will be in 2020, when the CCP agrees to introduce them nationwide. In the West, they are already being compared with two classic principles of disciplinary and penal systems: Bentham's panopticon – especially as interpreted by Michel Foucault – and George Orwell's dystopia in 1984. Such comparisons do not, however, capture the full scope of the SCS. The Chinese scoring system is a form of technological monitoring that involves commercial and state actors on an equal footing.

At the same time, and unlike Orwell's "Big Brother", they are typically designed as interactive games, and thus offer a much greater freedom of action and active participation of those who are monitored. The technique known as "gamification", which is crucial in the development of computer games, plays a key role. The goal is to keep the spectators' attention as long as possible and at the same time make them develop positive feelings towards the game. Today, gamification is used in almost every area of ​​society – including the military, administration and marketing. The SKSs motivate the users not only through rankings, but also through different levels, promotions and «mini-games». The scores allow people to compare themselves with others, which encourages them to increase their own score. Even the opportunity to receive small rewards encourages people to participate – an effect that obviously helps to make benefit programs and membership cards popular with Western consumers. Recruitment is a snowball effect: Once they are registered, users advertise the product in their own circle of friends and thus attract more customers into the system. The services thus not only succeed in gaining a large market share, but also end up as monopolies.

In the East and West: The network under surveillance

Although various forms of playful surveillance are far from being a Chinese special case, people in the West typically respond with concern when they hear about China's social control systems. This testifies not only to how Western prejudices about China are still playing, but also to how uncritical digitization processes are being received in this part of the world. Western discourses are all too often blind to the fact that most of the Internet has already been commercialized throughout. It is a place where companies collect and evaluate huge amounts of data to create and sell user profiles. This spying ranges from assessing credit information to consumer behavior surveys through loyalty programs and from bicycle and car rental services to political campaign platforms such as

The Development and Reform Commission revealed that over nine million people had been banned from all air transport, while over three million could not buy first class train tickets due to negative stored information

Also in the West, this continuous comparison and assessment leads to a dissolution of the private sphere, in addition to a culture of conformity in the private sphere and a tendency for people to be cautious about creating friction in working life. The result is that the threat of a "social stiffening" is increasing, which makes it more difficult to resist injustice and social inequality. This development has been promoted by the widespread misconception that data and especially algorithms are mostly neutral – despite the fact that computer programs are written by people who carry their own personal beliefs and who are of course also fallible. In addition to this comes the fact that it is above all companies and states that are the driving forces for digitization, which means that it is also these who decide the direction. Although authorities, unlike private companies, in theory must be accountable to citizens, we have learned, most recently through the Snowden leaks, that Western states are as hungry for data as authoritarian regimes. Not even five years after the NSA scandal, has anything changed in this context. On the contrary, state surveillance has become even more widespread – not least due to cooperation between the authorities and the private sector.

For individuals, protecting themselves from mass surveillance is becoming increasingly difficult – especially as we know less and less about the "smart" devices we use on a daily basis and the manipulation techniques being used. Hardly anyone knows what data tracks are left when we surf the web without protection, not to mention the detailed conclusions that can be drawn when it comes to our personal thoughts and desires. We are thus not fully aware of the extent to which the private sphere is already in full resolution. Encryption and anonymization services provide some protection, but they are not a definitive answer in the face of technological and digital changes that are changing our society for good and evil. Beyond pure data theft, the databases cover another underestimated danger. States and corporations can be dissolved, but the digital information remains intact. We cannot predict what conclusions future authorities or companies and their leaders will draw from their databases, or from which data and categories we will be judged.

The Chinese SKS thus poses the question of how huge amounts of data about us are all collected, transferred, evaluated and sold. What kind of society will mass surveillance lead to? And what can we do to counteract that? One thing is clear: Data is power. It is a force we cannot sense in the physical world, and thus information-based power, like radioactive radiation, is a danger we only perceive unclear. At a global level, it is therefore time to deal with the question of how power and manipulation are changing in the digital era. The implications force us to ask new questions about power and legitimacy, privacy, freedom and the good life – and to decide whether we want to remain passive users or to actively engage in the design of the systems that affect our lives.

Translated via English by Anders Dunker. First published in Blätter für deutsche und International Politics 7/2018 (German version). Contributions to papers for German and international politics © Katika Kühnreich / Sheets for German and international politics / Eurozine
Kúhnreich is a state scientist and sinologist. Originally written in German.

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