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China’s Cyber-Authoritarianism is on the March

Big data is being used to enslave the world's most populous nation—and it's happening here too.
Tech addiction

In regard to China’s Social Credit System, you have your choice of headlines.

First, this one from the Global Times, published in China on May 13: “Social credit system to restore morality.”

Second, from the New York Post on May 18: “China’s new ‘social credit system’ is a dystopian nightmare.”

That second headline is more likely to resonate with readers in a free country. In the words of author Steven Mosher, a longtime China observer and critic, “China’s already formidable police state has been upgraded using big data, machine learning, face recognition technology and artificial intelligence into a fearsome cyborg of state control. The Chinese Communist Party has given birth to the world’s first high-tech digital dictatorship.”

In defense of the Chinese social credit system, the author of the Global Times article, Liu Caiyu, quotes one government official saying that it is “supported by the vast majority of Chinese people.”

There’s no way for an outsider to verify that statement, of course, although it’s possible that the Beijing regime has conveniently determined the “truth” about the system’s popularity—via state-controlled algorithm.

Yet interestingly, the Chinese piece confirms cheerfully the gist of the American piece: that the People’s Republic of China has developed a system using big data to assay such trivial offenses as “eating on the train” and “chang[ing] jobs with ‘malicious intent.’” And according to the article, the penalties can be far more severe than the offenses: “13.49 million individuals have been classified as untrustworthy and rejected access to 20.47 million plane tickets and 5.71 million high-speed train tickets for being dishonest.”

It’s not clear what will ultimately happen to those burdened with low scores. Will they permanently be second-class citizens? Outright pariahs? Will they end up imprisoned—or worse?

To be sure, the Chinese communists don’t need new technology to be totalitarian. In the low-tech Maoist era, many millions died at the hands of secret police or in prison camps or from forced starvation. (The same Steven Mosher has written searchingly about another Chinese massacre, forced abortions.)

Moreover, the People’s Republic is using old-time police state tactics to suppress millions of Muslim Uyghurs. In a May 23 tweet, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, better known for her criticisms of President Trump and Israel, was even tougher on the Chinese regime (emphasis added): “China is currently inflicting physical and psychological torture on its Uyghur population, according to numerous reports. These are the precursors to genocide.

In a similar vein, just on May 25, the Washington Post ran a lengthy article on the repression of dissident students at Peking University. Once again, the basic model of totalitarianism—surveillance, harassment, detention, disappearance—doesn’t depend on digital technology.

Still, attention should be paid to China’s new social credit system, because it’s so profound, going right to the root of our digital existence—not just in China but everywhere in the world. To put the matter simply, if we all depend on digital technology for our daily existences, then those who control the commanding heights of that technology will enjoy, well, command.

Once upon a time, it was hoped that the Internet would be about liberation, not domination. Way back in 1996, John Perry Barlow published “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which reads as if it was co-authored by Thomas Jefferson and Ayn Rand. Addressing governments on behalf of his fellow Netizens, Barlow declared, “You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Of course, things didn’t work out that way. Governments, Hobbesian leviathans that they are, were simply never going to let everyone do everything on the Net—and concerns over crime and terrorism have indeed vindicated state intervention.

Yet at the same time, it must be acknowledged that the Internet—owned, gamed, and surveilled as it is—is still for billions an engine of choice, convenience, and empowerment.

Still, what’s happening in China is an obvious warning sign—and what Western governments and corporations are doing is also a source of grave concern. Thus is it worth recalling Julian Assange’s 2012 warning when he outlined the worst-case scenario for the Internet as being the “most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen.” He added, “The universality of the Internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control.”

Indeed, one is reminded of Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech in which he warned that the world was at risk of sinking into “the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” Yes, we defeated Hitler, but for some, totalitarianism, as well as evil-doing, is always a temptation. And maybe it’s a temptation that’s enabled by tech.

Assange’s preferred solution to the Net threat is encryption, although such secrecy—when it works—can be, as Assange himself has demonstrated, notably problematic.

It’s also possible that democratic and free countries will develop an adequate system of privacy mandates and other regulations, such that the epic power of the Net can be restrained and channeled into some workable system of checks and balances. To be sure, this will take some political skill. As Matthew B. Crawford writes in the current issue of American Affairs, the siren song of “algorithmic governance” is so powerful that it’s easy to believe that the computer can handle everything—leaving people as passive observers to the cyber-calculation of their own fates. Crawford writes, “The algorithm’s role is to preserve the appearance of liberal proceduralism, that austerely fair-minded ideal, the spirit of which is long dead.”

In other words, the computer could lull us, lotus-eater-like, into lazy apathy—perhaps to be followed by tech tyranny.

At the risk of being a downer, another concern about algorithmic advance is the melding of the human mind with the digital mind—and that melding augurs a new way of thinking, at least for some. That is, if machine learning is ultimately binary—a function of all those ones and zeroes—then it’s possible that human thinking will become similarly binary. That is to say, human thought will become rigid and inflexible, certain that there is a One Best Way.

Indeed, such binary inflexibility is already being seen in the form of the recent surge in political correctness, especially on campuses. It appears that the impact of computer screens on young minds is coming home to roost, as it were. Thus immature “snowflakes,” fearful of being “triggered,” find themselves fearful of ideas and people that they can’t make disappear with a click or a swipe. Thus they retreat into politically correct dogmatism.

One would like to think that young PC zombies will snap out of it as they get older, when they fall inevitably upon the thorns of life. Yet it’s also possible that the influence of computers will be so pervasive that they will remain in a screened state of technonarcosis for a lifetime.

Happily, there’s pushback. Last year, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that 52 percent of Americans were against the nation becoming “more politically correct,” while just 36 percent said they were in favor of more PC. That’s a decent enough margin on behalf of human yeastiness, although one has to wonder about the 36 percent—would they see virtue, perhaps, in China’s social credit system?

So the 52 percent has its work cut out for it. It must point out the menace of China’s 21st-century Panopticon, and then it must make the case for human freedom as the key to human flourishing. We might have thought that the case had been clinched in 1776, or 1865, or 1945, or 1989. Yet now we are being reminded of that most ancient—and un-PC—wisdom about human affairs: there are no final victories.

Computers and their human acolytes might see things differently; computers do, after all, quickly reach hard and fast conclusions—and woe to those who don’t compute.

So that’s the big fight of the 21st century: humanity versus machinery. And of course, we humans will face the additional challenge that some of us, hearkening back to those PC sirens, have already gone over to the other side—and not just in China.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.