Sunday, June 11, 2017

China's Social Credit Initiative in a Global Context: Introduction and the Problem of Transparency

(Pix Credit 6th Tone))



Years ago, when few (of the "right") people were paying attention to these developments, I noted a curious development in the nature of the forms of governance and its objectives.
Surveillance has morphed from an incident of governance to the basis of governance itself. It is both government (apparatus) and governmentality (its self-conception and complicity, the prisoner becomes his own keeper). In this sense, surveillance has become the new regulatory mechanism. And law is becoming its servant. And the state, either as the traditionally conceived apex of political order, or as the repository of large aggregations of power within an international state system, now serves as a (but not the) nexus point for the regulatory power of technique. It is in this sense that we can speak of the “death” of the “state” or the “rise” of a transnational political system, or the “death” of the public/private divide or even the construction of non-public autopoietic systems. ("Global Panopticism: States, Corporations, and the Governance Effects of Monitoring Regimes")
These changes, I thought, had the potential to change significantly the relationship of the state to law, and of the character and role fo law in the governing of states. Moreover, they appeared to signal a new era of management that would fuse the authority of public and private institutions in new and uncharted ways.

But who cared! The phenomenon wasn't law; it had been the plaything of political philosophy since the 1970s;  and it appeared most valuable for the extent to which one could pronounce this area "eccentric" than for any value where it counted--for tangible rewards for those participating in academic prestige markets. But people are paying attention now.  Now, suddenly (?), the potential for substantial rewards--from peer markets as well as from the state--seems to have grown appreciably.  The trigger was the action by China, which appears to have ascended to the position of principal global driving force in political theory and action, when the Chinese State Council published its 2014 Notice concerning Issuance of the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020). This project, that means to unify and integrate systems of surveillance, of monitoring, of transparency and of compliance within the traditional law-administrative regulation construct of state systems,  appears to be one of the most innovative and interesting efforts of this decade.  And it has everyone interested--for their own purposes of course (the discovery of which is almost as interesting as the analysis of Social Credit itself). 

Starting with this post, I will be working through the issues and practices that are presented by the emergence of Social Credit theory--both in China (as an indigenous and quite complex set of policies, advances on political theory, and operational challenges), and in the rest of the world. To understand the shaping of law today (and soft law as well) one must understand social credit. To understand social credit, one must understand the evolving structures of the relationships, in law and politics, of the relationships between states, its masses, and the institutions through which it operates.
 The triangular relationship between governmentalization (of both public and private institutional actors with managerial power), the mass of the population (which is its object and now its foundation), and the ‘statistics’ (that both define and serve to manage the mass of the population) is the essence of the problem of transparency in the twenty-first century. ("Transparency and Business in International Law").
This post starts with a set of preliminary observations I provided a reporter for Pagina 99, an Italian Weekly on issues of culture and economy.   






1. When did you start to focus on china social credit (and why)

I had become interested in Social credit from the time of its announcement several years ago. But it was only interesting as a conceptual matter and for the scope of its ambition. I started focusing on Chinese Social Credit about a year ago as social credit moved decisively from concept to operationalization.



2. Did you study the Honest Shanghai app case? Can you comment on this?

I have not studied in detail the mechanics and operation of the Honest Shanghai app, other than what one can read on line and the related commentary. The Shanghai Honest App appears is in some respects a more refined application of the sort of credit ratings undertaking by many firms and agencies in Western states. At least with respect to businesses and tradespeople, the Shanghai Honesty App appears to be of a kind with web sites like the Better Business Bureau and a host of online ratings services like Angie’s List in the United States. The difference, of course, and one that has raised eyebrows outside of China is that these measures are being undertaken by and through and with the supervision of the state rather than by private providers with little governmental oversight. And the other difference is that it is unclear whether there is a mechanism of some sort to ensure that the ratings themselves are honest and truthful. In rating online consumer rating agencies the U.S: private rating NGO Consumer Reports noted "Sure, it can be convenient to find out what others think of a handyman’s skills before you hire him to retile your kitchen. But how trustworthy are the opinions? Quality controls are necessary to ensure accuracy and reliability, because the scores can be manipulated by self-interested parties.” (here). And thus a concern raised by Zhu Dake, a Humanities professor at Tongji University in Shanghai might be worth considering—that the government itself appears beyond the scope of rating. This is odd because the State Council Notice concerning Issuance of the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020) quite clearly included government within the scope of social credit (Section II(1)¶¶3-4). What is unclear, as well, is the extent to which information about the social creditworthiness of individuals may shape social and official interactions. Yet there is precedent in the West as well here. Again, the difference is the absence of the state from the construction of markets in information about personal honesty and virtue.



3. There are more than 30 government projects on this topic. All are different. Can you explain to us which are best and the worst (and why)

Indeed, there are an growing number of government projects, the ultimate goal of which is to seamlessly create a tight network of information about conduct and opinion. It is too early to suggest a top 10 list of the best and worst, though. It is important to note, however, that the State Council’s 2014 Notice made it clear that the object of social credit was to develop socialist productive forces beyond mere economic development toward very specific ends. It makes sense, if the state is committed to socialist modernization and to the construction of a socialist society that includes all elements of social organization, for these projects to eventually weave together most activity. Again, the issue remains one of ensuring that the move from conceptualization (where everything is possible) to operationalization (where the limits of human and technological perfection might pervert the best of intentions).



4. How important is for the Chinese goverment the 2020 deadline

I believe that like most of these deadlines,, it is important for the state to evidence substantial progress toward goals by the 2020 deadline. It is unlikely that a fully formed and seamless social credit system will be operationalized by then But expect to see substantial progress in some areas—especially with respect to social credit for business and commercial operations.Expect as well to see some advances in social control f a kind that is already well known int he West—tracking individuals who defy judicial or governmental decisions (the way that certain offenders are tracked in the United States or the federal child support case registries).



5. Best and worst scenario

The best case scenario would produce a system in which useful information is made available to all members of society that advance the state’s efforts to increase and enrich social and economic life. The worst case scenarios are systems that are built on faulty or incomplete or unverified data, faulty algorithms and faulty interpretations, or that are used by local leaders for personal ends. At some point China, like other societies, will have to determine, in its own social context, the extent to which personal information may be freely circulated. The State Council is sensitive to these issues, noting at several points the need to be sensitive to traditional values and expectations that otherwise align with the basic political line of the state and its vanguard party. The state will have to be especially vigilant to ensure the honesty and virtue of its systems if they are to prove useful. To that end, mechanisms of criticism and self criticism within the state and the party will ave to be developed that are focused on the quite distinctive operational cultures generated by social credit systems.



6. Is this experiment going to influence the rest of the world? How?

The better question is how has the rest of the world already influenced the construction of Chinese social credit! Social credit did not spring magically out of the minds of senior members of the Chinese leadership. There has been a long history of development of many of the structures that will make up the Chinese social credit system that has its origins in the West. The West pioneered data based algorithms for decision making, it has pioneered the development of data bases for credit ratings for businesses, individuals and even states. And it has used these ratings and rankings instrumentally to shape the conduct of the people or businesses rated. Italy, like the United States is deeply embedded in complex ratings of universities—and of rankings that have a substantial effect on markets for their services. One could go on and one. But Chinese social credit, if eventually successful as envisioned, will move these impulses to an entirely different level. That is the challenge for th Chinese state and the danger should the authorities get it wrong. It is clear enough already that the rest of the world is watching social credit carefully. Beyond the exploitation of potential weaknesses for political ends that one would expect, states are no doubt also also carefully looking at what might be usefully transposed to their own social and political systems. In addition, of course, private organizations—from NGOs to enterprises—are likely interested as well. The potential of social credit for managing information and choices by individuals, enterprises and organizations is likely too potent to be ignored. Beyond that, it is far too early to say more that is not mere speculation.



7. Do you want to point out some other topic related to the matter?

When one considers social credit, it is important to understand its construction within the guiding principles of the Chinese political system. Those principles are to some extent distinct form those on which Western political systems are founded. Yet both systems seek to discipline their institutions and to seek conformity to core concepts of “right” and “wrong.” In the West that is achieved mostly beyond the state, though the state increasingly has asserted a role in its construction and use. And it is closely connected to the mechanisms of accountability that are an important element of Western political organization. For China, the state, under the leadership of its vanguard Communist Party, is the only institution with the necessary authority to undertake such a project. It is not surprising, then, that one sees the state at the center of Chinese social credit. But that also imposes on the Chinese state and on its vanguard party, an important responsibility to develop these mechanisms fully in conformity with the principles and basic line of its political order.

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