05 June, 2019

It Is Not Like That Black Mirror Episode

Last month the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Intelligence held a public hearing on Chinese influence activities and the risks of a global Chinese-led technological regime. I found the prepared statements by Samantha Hoffman and by Peter Mattis to be particularly valuable, and both are good resources for understanding why this issue is important. One of the themes that unites both of their testimonies is the preemptive nature of the Party's internal threat model. Party leaders do not want to manage risks; they want to preemptively eliminate risks before they bloom into a crisis. A great deal of the Party's behavior, both inside its borders and outside them, start to make sense when you understand it through this lens.

I invite you to read their statements in full. In this post I want to focus on the actual hearing itself. The discussion was wide ranging, but there were two moments in particular that are worth plucking and presenting here for future reference. Both have to do with the broader issues raised by the social credit system, Chinese "smart cities," and the expansion of Chinese digital infrastructure. To quote:

REP. TURNER:
And pause for a moment. Let me ask you about that. So I participated in the House Government Oversight's hearings with respect to the OPM breach where it is alleged Chinese hackers came in and stole over 4 million individuals' pieces of data, clearly an attempt to expand its reach into the United States. And perhaps, Dr. Hoffman and Mr. Mattis, you could talk about that effect on the authoritarian regime's reach into the United States. 
 MR. MATTIS:
So the important piece of this is that -- and it goes to Dr. Hoffman's point -- that this doesn't change party policy. It amplifies their capacity to execute it. And if you look at China's intelligence collection going back decades, you see a focused effort on retired officials, and talking with retired officials. Because they don't have the same security briefings, they don't have the same background checks, they can speak much more freely. And a lot of the questions that get put to them are essentially building a roadmap. 
 And OPM is not unique. You have the effort to go after Anthem, which handles a lot of Federal employees' health data. The attack on United. In Taiwan, there have been a lot of focused attacks on district databases, and these are databases that everyone has to register in. For example, my daughter, who was born in Taiwan, had to be registered in them so that she could get her immunizations. And because there are certain parts of Taipei and other cities where there are government-owned apartment buildings and others, you know which databases are going to have a lot of government employees for the Ministry of National Defense, the National Security Bureau, many others. And so instead of just interviewing officials or going on exchanges, they are able to break into the databases and get all of that on their own. And when you put those pieces together and you bring them along with the delegations and the other forms of contact, you can actually get a pretty good idea of how to shape U.S. policy and how the different social relationships in the U.S. function when it comes to the making of China policy.
 MS. HOFFMAN: 
 And I suspect that eventually -- part of what something like the social credit system is supposed to do is it is really about integrating data, and you assign individuals a code where records are made. It is not the Black Mirror episode where people have numbers that are going up and down based on a social interaction happening in real time. It is more that part of the system is this unified social credit code. And you have those for companies. So the airlines case last year, for instance, each airline would, according to Chinese law, by January 1 last year have to have updated their business registration to have a unified social credit code attached to it. And the same with entities, other organizations and people will have unified social credit codes. And then there is a central government database and also provincial databases where you can use those codes to look up a person or entity's record.  
I strongly suspect, based on some various things that I have been reading, that that could extend overseas, particularly to overseas Chinese, certainly overseas Chinese who plan to return to China. The MPS is reportedly, according to a government document that I came across, developing codes for those individuals, the ones that are returning to China, as well as overseas Chinese federations based in China which also have overseas branches. So then the question is, in the long term how will this information, which right now is probably incredibly dense and difficult to go through, eventually be organized to become more useful? I think right now that is hard to see, but I think we need to have the imagination to think what could be possible in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years from now (emphasis added).[1]
I think this is a useful way to understand many of the digital initiatives that the Party is pursuing. Many forecasts for where the social credit system is heading focus on the automation of control. Perhaps, as Hoffman suggests here, they are more about making an ever larger part of private activity legible to the government. That does not diminish the potential of these systems--if you've read anything by James Scott, you know that simply making behavior legible has a powerful effect on the way decisions are made and societies are shaped. [2] But it does put us on firmer footing to understand why the Party has been enthusiastic about implementing these systems since the early 2000s, long before the technology existed to do so.

The limits of this system will be defined less by technology than with politics. To quote a different exchange:

REP. HECK:
 Dr. Hoffman, you said something earlier that I thought was very provocative -- I hope I wrote this down correctly -- regarding social credit: Over the long term, I don't know how successful it will be. Gosh, you have to say another couple of words about what doubt you are casting over the efficacy of this approach long term. 
MS. HOFFMAN:
The doubt is more that social credit is a technology-enhanced form of what the Chinese Communist Party has been doing for decades. Sometimes you will read that social credit is an electronic version of an individual record system or an electronic version of an individual black listing -- or a black listing system. And those are elements of social credit, but what social credit really is is the automation of what the Chinese Communist Party -- and sorry for using the term that they use -- it is called social management. And social management is something that the party has always been engaged in, but the problem with that is really the contestation for power within the party. You know, we often talk about power as if it is the Chinese Communist Party's power over society, and we miss the dimension that you are also talking about the contestation for power within the party. And I think that is the number one -- 
REP. HECK:
I have no idea what you just said.
MS. HOFFMAN:    
Okay. Sorry. 
REP. HECK:
The question is, you cast doubt as to whether or not it will succeed.
MS. HOFFMAN: 
Yeah. 
REP. HECK:
Why may it not succeed? 
MS. HOFFMAN:
 It is the problem that you always have to overcome the fact that there are going to be officials who are trying to stake their claim for power. 
REP. HECK:
 Internal power struggle within? 
 MS. HOFFMAN:
 Internal within the CCP. And that is always recurring. Every generation has a major political crisis. And even if you look back, now we are heading to the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, and you look back at those documents and you see that it took two weeks, just over two weeks to implement martial law. Deng Xiaoping had to go around to each individual military region to demand that the military step up. Falun Gong in 1999 involved using early electronic resources to organize a protest in front of the government headquarters in Beijing. So you always have this happening. The leadership transition now, there was an alleged coup attempt -- or in 2013 -- alleged coup attempt. So you have that happening. 
And what social credit relies on, and the reason that I say that this power dynamic is important, is it relies on the integration of resources, government agencies cooperating, and not only government agencies, but also the various levels of government cooperating to some extent. Incrementally, the party has been trying to improve data sharing and information sharing for many years and decades, and that is a long-term process and it is not ending. So social credit isn't going to be constructed by 2020. There is an objective to meet certain points by 2020. Now, if social credit -- 
REP. HECK:
 What factors, if any, are limiting the velocity of dissemination? 
MS. HOFFMAN:
 Sorry? 
REP. HECK:
 They say they want to get this done by 2020. You just seemed to imply that they are not going to get it done by 2020. What is limiting them? 
MS. HOFFMAN:
Yes. 
 So 2020 isn't the goal. There is a document, 2014 to 2020 construction of the social credit system, and that is more like a 5-year plan where within this period of time we have these objectives, that we are going to work on meeting these particular standards. But the way the party describes it itself, social credit, is that it is an unending process. Social credit is never going to be complete. That all being said -- 
REP. HECK:
 Well, put another way, what is limiting them from having smart cities in all major cities sooner rather than later? 
MS. HOFFMAN:
 The technology has to catch up with the ideas. That is one thing. But then the other thing that I want to say is, even if these systems aren't completely effective, it doesn't mean that they aren't going to achieve some incremental results.
The more people feel like they are being judged or the more they feel like every part of their life is connected to the system. So if you have all of your records being put into one place and you know that the consequences could be more far-reaching, it is not that that is a new concept, but technology increases. It will eventually increase the effectiveness of that. And then it is also the idea that it can be effective. So then you are changing how you behave. But I don't think that ultimately the CCP will be able to completely normalize people according to their version of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and that is what the goal is. 
REP. HECK:
 Thank you.[3]

Representative Heck narrows in on power struggles and coups, and the question of internal power struggles occupies a great deal of the committee's focus in the questions that follow. My version of the problem Hoffman describes is more prosaic. It is not hard to imagine old-fashioned bureaucratic competition over who gets to steward what data not altogether different from the sort of bureaucratic stove-piping and infighting seen in the U.S. intelligence community (especially before 9-11). To get a sense for why this is a plausible outcome, readers will want to go back to my earlier writing on the Belt and Road Initiative, which had degraded into a wild, uncoordinated feeding frenzy as a mass of SOEs, local governments, and various bureaucracies tried to divert funding to their pet projects by branding everything they did as part of the Initiative.[4] Many agencies and enterprises adopted projects that worked at cross purposes with each other. Given the profits that will come from the digital surveillance market, it is easy to imagine a similar fiasco in the realm of 'social management.'

The difference between the Belt and Road and social management, however, is that social management directly touches on the core interests of the Party. They survive or they die based off of what they do here. The Party leadership has a strong motivation to get this right. That might lead to more effective centralization and integration than we see in the economic sphere.

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If you found this post on China's security politics useful, you might also find the posts "Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy," "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II and "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] U.S. House of Representatives,Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, "Digital Authoritarianism: Surveillance, Influence, and Political Control," hearing transcript (uploaded 17 May 2019).


[2] This theme runs through all of Scott's work, but it is expressed most forcibly in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed (New haven: Yale University Press, 1998). More concise explications of  his concepts can be found here and here.

[3] Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, "Digital Authoritarianism,"

[4] Tanner Greer, "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road," Scholar's Stage (8 May 2019); "One Belt, One Road, One Big Mistake," Foreign Policy (6 December 2018).

1 comment:

Maitai Haier said...

Along with the rise of digital payments through Wechat and Alipay, this is also going to allow a huge increase in their ability to effectively collect taxes and “normalize” the accretion of capital besides exploiting land sales, SOE profits, and various government monopolies. Of course identifying which official has which resources will certainly sharpen the palace intrigue as you can know ahead of time how much loot to distribute to one’s allies after a “corruption investigation.”