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I spy with my little eye

China: a 'digital dictatorship with an overflowing amount of eyes

Text: Wineke Brans Image: Oscar Slagveer

More than 2,5 million cameras in one city. Like an army of miniature men spread through the town, continuously watching every move. In Chongqing, a city in South-Western China, this is not merely a fearsome science-fiction fantasy, but reality. However, it’s not miniature men watching you, but the eyes of the government. Nevertheless, many Chinese people speak praise about something that many people in the Global West may consider a nightmare.

Whoever walks on the wrong side of the road in China is being captured by many a security camera with facial recognition and then displayed on a large billboard with name and identification number. ‘你違反了!’ (You are breaking the rules!), is glaring right at you in red lettering. Shaming the general public is not the only consequence if the government catches you not following the rules. Since 2014, China has been working on creating a digital social credit-system. This system is meant as a way for the government to use a point system that can add or subtract points of your social credit. You literally get a label with a ‘value’, telling people whether you are a good citizen or not. If the digital watchmen catch you breaking the rules several times, this can put you on a blacklist. These blacklists do not only lead to direct restrictions, like limitations in mobility when traveling, but some blacklists are also made public. This way everyone can access personal information via these blacklists. This can then result in, for instance, potential employers refusing to give you a job. Privacy is nowhere to be found; the government knows where you are, with whom and what you are doing at all times.

An iron fist and thousands of eyes Several parties are criticizing China’s policy. Scientist and activist Lokman Tsui compares the digital social credit-system with the panopticon. This is the hypothetical experiment of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, named after the Greek mythological figure with a thousand eyes, in which prisoners are captured in a prison constructed in a way all prisoners can constantly be watched by guards. The idea of being watched was, according to Bentham, enough for the prisoners to behave, even after they were released from the prison. The Chinese government uses, according to Tsui, a similar dystopian method to discipline its citizens and to keep them in line.

An argument as such seems logical. A world in which you’re constantly being watched and in which you’re punished in a hard, shameful way for every misstep seems inhuman. A quick Google search of the digital social credit-system seems to confirm this. It shows headlines such as ‘China’s new “social credit system” is a complete dystopian nightmare’ from the New York Post and ‘Big Brother 2.0: in China your “social score” decides your life’ by the NOS. That the system decides your entire life and that all Chinese citizens supposedly live in a horrible simulation of the panopticon is, however, not entirely true. Whoever delves into the system deeper, discovers that the system has much less harsh consequences than it seems on first impression. China-expert Rogier Creemers, specialized in Chinese technology policy, explains that the restrictions that you can get for breaking the rules are always in line with said rule break. If you didn’t pay a long-standing parking ticket, it’s not like your children will lose access to proper schools, but you do have less chance at getting a loan. It’s also not like you will be held responsible your entire life for the misstep you made; the moment you pay the fine, you will be removed from the blacklist. According to Creemers, it’s also not about precisely following all rules exactly according to government ideals, but instead it is a way to better enforce existing laws. ‘As long as you follow the law, there’s nothing to worry about’, according to Creemers.

Longing for safety Nevertheless, you can’t deny the way many Chinese citizens have to give up a large chunk of their privacy. But research by sinologist Genia Kostka shows that many Chinese citizens don’t experience the way of governing by the Chinese government as out of line or extreme. To the contrary, 64,1% states that they are very content with the system. One of the people who Kostka interviewed notes that the system prevents bad behavior and creates trust. This goes for many others, a whooping 76% of the people Kostka interviewed said that there is a problem with a lack of trust. According to Garrie van Pinxteren, China correspondent at NRC, this is due to the history of scandals and fraud that China has faced. Think of the baby formula scandal that caused hundreds of thousands of babies to have kidney problems. Many Chinese citizens want to get rid of this lack of trust and see the digital social credit system as a proper method to filter out individuals who were involved in bad practices and are therefore not to be trusted.

The image the global West has towards China is often extreme, repressing and in some cases even inhuman. If you look further and keep historical and cultural context in mind, however; this shows a much more nuanced image. In many places in China, human rights are being violated and local authorities abuse the system. People who are against the surveillance system are offered no way to opt out of it. But the system is not repressing for everyone. By using headlines such as ‘China’s surveillance state should scare everyone’, such as in American magazine The Atlantic, the focus is being put on the extreme aspect and China is exclusively being treated as ‘the dangerous other’. China has seen a ton of scandals and issues, of which local authorities and the state are to blame. The current system is also sensitive to abuse and this happens all too often. It is, therefore, very important that this comes to light and the Chinese government is criticized for it. But there is also a danger in harsh, blunt judgement about broad and complex issues such as digital surveillance by the state. Nuance and similarities are often forgotten; after all: London is third in line for cities with most digital surveillance, we label our Uber-drivers with star-credits and the Netherlands also uses a financial credit-system where negative financial behavior can prevent you from getting loans in the future. China is very different from the global West. But by merely focusing on the differences and dismissing China as ‘the extreme other’, both parties are put up against each other, leading only to division. We could therefore do good in looking at the ‘ordinary’ sometimes.

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