The Economist - A one sided claim
In the 23rd issue of the Economist, dated December 17, one article strikes the eye; its called "Creating a digital totalitarian state".
It starts with mentioning the Gary Shteyngart's novel of 2010, "Super Sad True Love Story". The story is portrayed in the future, where the Chinese currency is global and all people wear an "aparat" Round their necks with a RateMePlus technology. Personal details are shown in public on ubiquitous Credit Poles, posts on street corners with "little LED counters at eye level that registered your Credit ranking as you walked by."
The novel basically features the destruction of privacy.
The Economist now claims, that the Chinese government is now maybe on its way creating a similar system, and has already started due to signs in digital social control.
The magazine claims, ending its first paragraph, that the project is a response to the party's collapse of confidence in public institutions, and to keep track of the changing views and interests on China's population. It seeks to collect information on the honesty of ordinary citizens, public officials and companies alike.
Here would be time to make a breaking interference. The West had been showing signs much earlier in a similar regard.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, often published as 1984, is a dystopian novel by English author George Orwell published in 1949. The novel is set in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public manipulation, dictated by a political system euphemistically named English Socialism (or Ingsoc in the government's invented language, Newspeak) under the control of a privileged elite of the Inner Party, that persecutes individualism and independent thinking as "thoughtcrime."
The tyranny is epitomised by Big Brother, the Party leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality but who may not even exist. The Party "seeks power entirely for its own sake. It is not interested in the good of others; it is interested solely in power."
The second part of the Economist article heads with “A question of trust".
It mentions Chinas years of economical growth, but also widespread corruption; out of date vaccines.
It points out that China is a One-Party-State, yet immediately here one can mention, that the USA is a basically Two-Party-State, that non regardless who wins the presidential election follows a One-Direction-Policy; to be a global, imperial super power.
Within the second part of the Economist article it is said, that President Xi Jining is a leader with even more authoritarianism than its immediate predecessors. The "planning outline" published in 2014 said the government "pays high regard to the construction of a social-credit system".
The third part of the Economist article is called "Getting to know you"
It starts as followed: Such thinking is in keeping with the party's long record of using bureaucratic tools to restrict freedom and invade privacy in the name of public order.
Sounds familiar? If not, then here is the counter part. The USA has PRISM.
PRISM is a former secret code name for a program under which the United States National Security Agency (NSA) collects internet communications from at least nine major US internet companies. The program is also known by the SIGAD US-984XN. PRISM collects stored internet communications based on demands made to internet companies such as Google Inc. under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 to turn over any data that match court-approved search terms.
The difference is in its approach. Instead of spying directly on people, the US requests data from private companies, that store all communication, and then hands it over to government.
PRISM was enabled under President Bush by the Protect America Act of 2007 and by the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunizes private companies from legal action when they cooperate with U.S. government agencies in intelligence collection. In 2012 the act was renewed by Congress under President Obama for an additional five years, through December 2017. According to The Register, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 "specifically authorizes intelligence agencies to monitor the phone, email, and other communications of U.S. citizens for up to a week without obtaining a warrant" when one of the parties is outside the U.S.
Corporate executives of several companies identified in the leaked documents told The Guardian that they had no knowledge of the PRISM program in particular and also denied making information available to the government on the scale alleged by news reports. Statements of several of the companies named in the leaked documents were reported by TechCrunch and The Washington Post as follows:
Microsoft: "We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don't participate in it."
Yahoo!: "Yahoo! takes users' privacy very seriously. We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network."
"Of the hundreds of millions of users we serve, an infinitesimal percentage will ever be the subject of a government data collection directive."
Facebook: "We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers. When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law."
Google: "Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a back-door for the government to access private user data."
"Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users' internet activity on such a scale is completely false."
Apple: "We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order."
Dropbox: "We've seen reports that Dropbox might be asked to participate in a government program called PRISM. We are not part of any such program and remain committed to protecting our users' privacy."
One may leave this to ones trust or belief, yes in this case belief may be the best term, if these statements are true or not; doubt is yet always a wise adviser.
"Getting to know you" is truly not a Chinese 'alone' phenomena.
The same paragraph reads further: Wholesale surveillance, increasingly of the digital sort, is a central pillar of Chinese communist rule. (This statement alone is already hanging itself too far out of the window.) A system of block-by-block surveillance called "grid management" is being set up in several parts of the country: police and volunteers keep tabs on groups of a few hundred people, supposedly to ensure the rubbish to collected and disputes resolved.
The usage of the internet has grown in China, reaching around 60% of the population. Chinas cyberspace "Great Firewall" blocks access to thousands of web sites to complement the surveillance system, by keeping out 'China critical" informations.
The West does not block internet access to thousands of sites, but counters in a black and white scheme, by portraying certain sites and people as 'the bad', 'the far right' or 'the enemy'. In short, China tries to hide information to avoid critical thinking; the West corners and labels certain information as bad and brainwashes citizens into a direction declared as good. It results also into the reluctance to critically think; a bit religion like to ad this appendix.
Towards the end of the part three the article mentions that according to leaked documents (leaked from whom or where?), America's National Security Agency can collect 42bn internet records a month and 5bn mobile-phone location records a day.
It is finally acknowledged, that although there are many real name registrations for example, also countless fake name registrations can be observed. It is unclear how censors plan to tackle virtual private networks, which mask a user's IP address, it says.
"Who's naughty and nice" brings the reader to the fourth part. It starts with the following intro: The emerging social-credit system builds on this history of monitoring and control of people's private lives. Lists are central to the project: you need lists of identities to order the data you gather. And lists are a Chinese speciality. One could make a major objection here, as lists are not only Chinas speciality, but the speciality of all countries running a 'big brother' system.
'Lists' are elevated high on this part, as lists are a natural result of many areas of life, business or government. Hotels have lists of their customers, companies of their clients, and schools of their students. All for a purpose, like marketing, turnover and statistics.
Yet if those lists are used to restrict or separate people, we find the disturbing part of it. It says therefore: People on the list can be prevented from buying aeroplane, bullet-train or first- or business- class rail tickets; selling, buying or building a house; or enrolling their children in expensive fee-paying schools. There are restrictions on offenders joining or being promoted in the party and army, and on receiving honours and titles.
This starts quit neutral, but shifts towards China, but leaving the clear option to also experience this outside China.
The fifth heading is a it derailed, as it writes "Sins with Chinese characteristics".
Sin is a religious term, and China obviously cannot be compared with such. This part deals with the victims of such a control system and its blacklisting.
From the title it goes straight to the point:
From blacklisting debt-defaulters the system could be expanded a bit, say, to keep track of companies that sell poisoned milk or build shoddy houses...
... Other sorts of "untrustworthy behaviour" meriting attention include: "conduct that seriously undermines... the normal social order of cyberspace transmissions", as well as "assembling to disrupt social order (and) endangering national defence interests".
Looking at that already doesn't define a 'China only" surveillance or control system. Tracking companies selling poisoned milk, one would highly expect from western countries too.
The article now mentions Google, Facebook, data-brokers and marketing companies in western countries, saying that the vast quantities of personal information is not causing serious harm to civil liberties, at least not so far, and 'the social-credit project of China could become a 360-degree digital-surveillance panopticon. Why so carefully "could'? Isn't it already, but not in regard to China, but to the West? It further says that companies that hold data such as Alibaba, Baidu (Chinas largest search engine) and Tencent (a popular sucial-meggaging app) routinely obey government demands for data. That makes it sound as if the US doesn't.
Now it becomes shockingly false when it reads: Big-data systems in democracies are not designed for social control. China's explicitly would be. And because its leaders consider the interest of the party and society to be the same, instruments of social control can be used for political purposes.
The West is running also surveillance systems, and just uses private companies data if needed. Alibaba in China is also a private company, so retrieving information from Alibaba is the same as it would be from Facebook or Ebay; Baidu the ‘pendent’ of Google. Not much of a difference when removing the wrapping.
Towards the end it mentions that companies work out credit scores; and of course they do. In Germany we can find the "Creditreform" or "Schufa". When listed in their system, the individual will no longer be able to receive a loan or worse, be labelled credit unworthy. For the person involved it makes no difference. If the stamp he or she has to carry is private or from the state; he or she is blacklisted!
The sixth part is called: What could go wrong?
This part deals with the scoring rates and limits it should or may set. It writes that a commentary in Beijing Times complained about plans to punish people who do not pay their electricity bills, by limiting foreign travel and bank borrowing. It says further: A recent high-level "social-credit summit" in Shanghai, for example, talked about how scores can be checked, and mistakes rectified; many argued that legal protections needed to be improved.
What we hear here is again not China typically unique, and the article waters down even more towards the end when stating that government has not yet determined whether it wants the system mainly for cracking down crooks or to go the full Big Brother.
Finally the last part also doesn't sound exclusively Chinese, but could be templated onto a US discussion too. Its says: But the government is creating the capacity for a long-tentacled regime of social control. Many of the elements are ready; the databases; the digital surveillance; the system of reward and punishment; and the we-know-best paternalism. What remains is to join the pieces together. If and when that is done, China would have the worlds first digital totalitarian state.
The US defines itself as the number one super power, imperial with presence on all seas of the globe. It defines what is good or bad, it rewards and punishes, even for across its borders. The President is called the most powerful person of the world. Its flag flutters on all Hollywood movies, and all global crisis, resolving and heroes are American in its productions. The US controls not only within its borders, but spies on Europe and its leaders, like the German chancellor. It flies drones to kill from German soil, and its satellites have spun a net around our earth.
We, the citizens of the world may be in high need to think and realise critically, that the world has not just one good or a bad defined by one side only.
If this article were not written by a private publishing company, it could easily pass as western propaganda.
By Thomas Fleckner
Footnote: The article is not meant to be in defence of China and its government, nor is it meant to propagate China and its government. This review of the Economist article is meant to point out the one sided western publication, inventing a 'good and bad' setting by default.