Is there anything good to be said about China’s emerging social credit system? Spiked has given it a try.
Defending what the conventional left Guardian refers to as an “an Orwellian tool of social monitoring” is a tall order for a libertarian left publication but Spiked is spunky so I was not totally surprised to see a partial and limited defense mounted there.
And that is one thing to like about Spiked. If there is one thing more important than having principles–and Spiked has them–it is recognizing that life is complicated, that no set of principles is worth a damn if it doesn’t acknowledge those complexities, and that a healthy respect for positions you do not embrace can be a useful and necessary thing.
And so with this article. Yes the system is “insidious”, yes the growth of state monitoring is “alarming”, and no the author (Austin Williams) is not “endorsing it in any way.” But . . . . but . . . are there things that can be said about the system that do not warrant the kind of ritual denunciations that we typically associate with, well . . . China?
One observation worth making is that the social credit system ought to be considered not in the context of historical Western notions of freedom but in the context of Chinese notions of the lack of it. It is arguably gentler than past practice by the official authorities: getting dinged on the system beats a beating in a prison. And it is arguably fairer than the kinds of communal punishments meted out by the informal system of peasant relations that flies under official radar: “now punishments will be administered by the Cloud rather than the crowd”.
There is also the matter of the pot calling the kettle black. The West does not yet have a system with aspirations to effect micro- or macro-punishments for offenses small and large. But why resort to meting out punishments if social control is more easily achieved in other, less obviously intrusive ways?
The emerging nexus of government and large social media presents a less obvious but in some ways more sinister threat to the citizenry (if indeed that term is relevant these days). There is less need to punish if subtler forms of social control cut off the impulse before it arises. Ironically, the West’s habits of civility and social trust can be used against it more readily than is the case in China, still in many senses a developing country and one without a long tradition of cohesion.
It is on the question of trust that Williams makes his most serious point. Simply put,
China needs to reinvent social cohesion. With the collapse of Communism internationally, there is no ideological framework governing Chinese society these days.
China is increasingly nationalistic, yes. But does that national bond flow all the way down to social relations? We hear much about the role of harmony and the collective. But do the Chinese have a strong sense of mutual obligation, of the individual’s role not just in supporting the role of the Party but in maintaining harmonious relations day-to-day?
I think we see a few too many videos of pedestrians being run down and left at the side of the road to fully endorse the notion of social cohesion as we understand that term in the West.
When in Vietnam I could walk into the river of oncoming moped traffic knowing that it would gently part and flow around me as I walked. When in China my translator gave me sound advice as we were preparing to cross a busy street. “When I say go you RUN! And you run fast, as soon as I say to! The drivers will not stop for you.”
China, being only a short distance away in time from mass famine, can be forgiven for some of the cultural habits it exhibits that are not fully in line with what we in the West profess to value. And so one can perhaps sympathize with Chinese authorities who may feel the need to administer some shock treatment to historic bad habits to align them more with a socialist future: a Great Leap Forward not for the economy but for human sentiments.
It is here that China’s totalitarian instincts cut both ways.
Williams says to the severest critics of the system “(w)hat part of ‘China is a single-party state’ do people not understand?” Like it or not that is the system China has, and it may well be that all things considered a one-party approach to social control will enable a leap forward in producing higher levels of social cohesion. The Party aims to “build a harmonious socialist market economy” and more social cohesion would arguably be a good thing.
But — at least as this Westerner sees it — social cohesion is bound up with concepts of civil society. It is hard to build a civil society from the top down. Forming a queue naturally is a different thing from forming a queue to avoid ostracism or to be able to take vacations. Perhaps B.F. Skinner will win the day and habit will become automatic, and felt to be of internal origin. Perhaps not.
The fragile civil societies we have enjoyed were built more from the bottom up, through trial and error. China’s one-party state is not at all fond of Western notions of civil society as they carry with them the notion that entire worlds of social relations outside the state are both legitimate and important. The Party cannot have that.
So I have strong doubts that China can build a Western-style civil society through the actions of an all-powerful and self-interested political elite. In that sense I am skeptical.
On the other hand does cohesion require civil society? Williams remarks that
(t)he social-credit system is an efficient way of running a country that sees its citizens as mere statistics.
Will people be satisfied being statistics in the long run? The republican in me says no but a long historical view suggests that the authoritarian rule would have petered out by now if it had no adaptive value, and that the presence of democratic norms is no guarantee of their staying power.
Williams is right in his conclusion to remind us that while what happens in China is interesting and important our first obligation is to tend our own garden.
It is important to oppose the abuses of state power in China. But that shouldn’t distract us from pointing out the growing contempt for civil liberties in the West, too.