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China’s use of big data might actually make it less Big Brother-ish

Why the country’s adoption of ever-more-intrusive technology could, paradoxically, lead to stronger civil liberties.
August 22, 2018

By 2020, China’s new system of social credit scoring is expected to give each citizen a trustworthiness rating based on anything from shopping habits to choice of friends. It may seem like an ideal tool for an authoritarian government that wants to control its citizens. But while authoritarian regimes have always been enthusiastic adopters of surveillance technology, in China’s case big data may (inadvertently) make the country a little less repressive.

Privacy is now a thing in China

A few years ago, in an article for the Boston Globe called “How Privacy Became an American Value,” historian and author Ted Widmer detailed how Americans inherited and amplified the British sense of privacy—the idea of “keeping oneself to oneself.” Things such as income, health, and leisure pursuits are routinely considered private—most of all from the government. The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures,” promising that Americans have the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.”

Although it’s dangerous to make generalizations, it’s fair to say Chinese and Western citizens differ in the weights they assign to privacy, individual rights, and freedom of speech. It’s not that Chinese people don’t value those things; it’s just that they may value things like economic growth and income more. (In the West, too, people are sometimes willing to trade rights for other benefits. In a survey earlier this year by Credible, a personal-finance website, nearly half of American millennials said they would give up their vote in the next two presidential elections in exchange for having their student loans forgiven.)

One reason Chinese attitudes are different is that as recently as the 1980s, the word “privacy” had negative connotations in China. Chinese norms are anchored in 2,000 years of a Confucian culture that values the intensity of interpersonal relationships. One way to solidify those relationships is through transparency and full disclosure. A circumstance that triggers secrecy is typically an unsavory one. If something is good, why not tell us? Privacy in this context was equated with preserving a dirty secret. To be private was to be antisocial.

Yet as social interactions have evolved in China, so have Chinese values. The rise of big-data technology in China has contributed to a far more acute awareness of privacy than other—momentous—socioeconomic developments such as GDP growth, globalization, and urbanization.

The reason for this is that big data has decisively broken the personal intimacy of Confucian culture. On WeChat, you can friend thousands of people you barely know. On Alibaba, you can do business with people you wouldn’t recognize if they knocked on your door. The digital economy is impersonal to an unprecedented degree, and as a consequence the old Confucian social contract, built on solidifying personal relationships by telling your neighbors everything, has crumbled. Though it may threaten privacy, big data has also brought unprecedented attention to the very notion of privacy. In the long run, this may be the force that undermines Big Brother.

Better or worse than what?

China’s surveillance culture existed long before the rise of big data. In his book The Government Next Door, Luigi Tomba details how Chinese politics have been micromanaged at the neighborhood level. Residential communities are monitored by neighborhood committees performing semigovernmental functions: reporting dissent, resolving conflicts, and managing both petitions to the government and protests against it. These functions used to be the task of retired elderly women, whom the former Wall Street Journal reporter Adi Ignatius memorably called the “small-feet KGB.” (In traditional China, women had their feet bound at birth.) The question is whether monitoring and repression through impersonal technology is better or worse than these personal intrusions.

One of the most important roles of the small-feet KGB was to enforce China’s one-child policy. The Chinese fertility rate fell dramatically while the policy applied, from 1979 to 2015—a testament to the effectiveness of these personal surveillance tactics.

In ancient China, there was a joint liability system under which three to five households were linked together. If a member of one household committed an offense, all the households were punished. During the Cultural Revolution, punishments for political dissenters were routinely meted out to their immediate family members. The political system compensated for a lack of data on individual activities by deterring dissent broadly and harshly.

Big data would be a threat if Chinese citizens could be expected to have an abundance of political and civil liberties in its absence. But China is a repressive, authoritarian society with or without big data. Technology has made the repression more precise, but precise repression might be an improvement over indiscriminate repression.

Traffic is expensive

In a segment on The Late Show earlier this year, comedian Stephen Colbert told his audience that the social credit scores being rolled out in China would dock citizens for instances of jaywalking, among other things. That might sound harsh, but then Colbert has evidently never driven in Beijing.

Alibaba, China’s largest online retailer, is using cloud computing to combat China’s suffocating traffic. In 2016, the company introduced a traffic management system called City Brain in Hangzhou, where Alibaba is headquartered. Unlike Google Maps, City Brain is a collaborative project with the city government; it can tap into the traffic and transportation bureaus’ systems for video footage of traffic incidents. The municipal government relies on City Brain to identify the best routes for emergency vehicles and to plan new roads and bus routes.

Might City Brain also be used for some Big Brother–ish functions? Probably, but easing China’s traffic nightmares and getting emergency patients to the hospital faster aren’t trivial gains. According to the Chinese transportation ministry, traffic congestion in 2017 cost about 20 percent of total urban disposable income, or about 5 to 7 percent of China’s GDP. About 20 percent of the gasoline consumed in China is wasted.

The social benefits gained through big-data technology don’t obviate the political downsides. The question is: just how “down” is the downside, and how “up” is the upside?

Yasheng Huang is a professor in international management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also the author of Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State.

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