China is a repressive country. Perversely, it’s also a laboratory for democracy in the digital age.
In 2010, Google pulled out of China amid pressure from the Chinese Government. In the West, the story was about a backward looking authoritarian state rejecting innovation and strangling freedom of expression.
Then Edward Snowden showed the world that Google was facilitating the NSA’s mass surveillance, and it started to look like China might have had some legitimate concerns about letting a US corporate collect vast amounts of data about its citizens. Now we’ve seen Russia using a sock puppet army to manipulate public opinion in the US, another very good reason why a country might want to regulate it’s own digital sphere. Did China get it right? You certainly don’t see many newspaper stories about China’s vindication.
I’m not naive enough to think that the Chinese government was only motivated by a benign intent to protect its society: it’s also a authoritarian state strangling freedom of expression. But repression is not the only lesson to draw from the Google story. In China, the government controls the Internet; in the West governments tell us the digital sphere must be left to market forces — which in practice has meant a handful of monopolies —while covertly monitoring social media, largely without democratic consent, to keep a lid on the worst excesses.
China is a country where you can disappear for sharing the wrong opinion, but we have so few data points on how society should respond to digital technologies we need to take empirical evidence from where ever we can get it.
Here are two ‘good ideas’ from China.
Measuring non-monetary value
How about a society that rewards people for the good they do, taking into account not only their labour in the office or factory, but their hard work as a mother; not just the day rate they can command as a consultant but also the emotional labour of supporting a friend with depression.
China’s system of scoring citizens is …kind of… this — combining educational achievements, traffic infractions, financial behaviour and social media activity into one number that it publicly assigns to every citizen. It’s not clear what other activities it will influence the number, but, as a piece of infrastructure, it has the potential to nudge your rating up for helping an old lady across the road, or, for example, contributing to the public sphere a helpful blogpost that deftly justifies it’s apparently clickbaity title.
Sounds a bit authoritarian? Well, if you live in the West, you also have a score. The government secretly monitors your digital activity and assigns every citizen a number which indicates how likely you are to be a terrorist. Except this process is — was—secret. You also have a credit score, which is extremely analogous to the social credit system. Except, rather than being delivered by a government, it’s a kangaroo court run by big banks who are institutionally indifferent to ethics.
In China, the social score policy is public and transparent (one idea is that your score might appear on your dating site profile); though you can obviously make a strong case that the social scoring system is illegitimate because it’s done by an unelected government. In the West, you can make a roughly equivalent case that scoring is illegitimate because it’s undertaken by incumbent monopolies, or in secret by the government. You have a vote, but in practice its unlikely to give society control over such activities.
Social scoring is a version of ideas like alternative currencies and the need to value affective labour that are prevalent in the civic tech sector — if China’s social scoring system goes ahead its could provide valuable insights for similar schemes in the West.
If you are worried about an increasingly polarised society driven by filter bubble effects, again, China may have an answer. Deliberative democracy: where a group of citizens are invited to feedback to local officials on policy. Details vary, but normally a demographically representative group of people are selected to meet up and spend some time ‘deliberating’, discussing issues among themselves and with access to impartial experts, before making their views known to those in power.
The principal that everyone gets to vote is the core of Western democracy. At the momenth though, it’s undeniable that the electoral cycle is become an alarmingly centrifugal force, chaotically cartwheeling opinions to the extremes and tribalising the electorate. Deliberative democracy fixes a number of problems. Firstly, in deliberative democracy voters are selected to be truly demographically representative, rather than just those that turn up to the polling booth, which inevitably tends to be the better off. Secondly, in deliberative democracy, participants have a chance to become informed and discuss issues in a structured way, bypassing the filter bubble. These are not features that are easy to ensure if you insist that everyone must vote, it would simply be too resource intensive to give every single voter access to a deliberative process (though it has been suggested). Deliberative democracy has been tested in the West too, leading, for example, to oil obsessed Texas making a significant investment in wind farms for electricity, after a deliberative process showed that consumers were less price sensitive and more eco-conscious than expected.
Just as with social scoring, but to a lesser extent, there are arguments about legitimacy in both directions — obviously, China isn’t a democracy. On the other hand, if your public sphere is in the hands of a few newspaper barons, Russian trolls and social networks that algorithmically deepen polarisation, then citizen’s ability to vote in their best interests will inevitably be undermined by the flow of manipulative information.
China can provide evidence for all kinds of alternative approaches, for example, its intellectual property laws; or it’s app ecosystem, which is sometimes described as a digital Madagascar because it’s been cut off from the rest of the world so long it’s evolved it’s own solutions to common problems.
Transport for London (TfL), the institution responsible for regulating taxis in London, recently questioned Uber’s fitness to operate a taxi company. A lot of civic tech people suggested that TfL should run it’s own Uber alternative. The other camp said that if London wasn’t open to Uber, it was against innovation, the free market and the future — the tribalising echo chamber working as effectively as ever. When Uber tried to set up in China, the government had no compunctions about setting up a local alternative, Didi Chuxing, which is doing very nicely. Unlike Uber, which mobilises its PR and legal teams to frustrate local democracy in the cities in which it operates, you can bet that Didi will act if the Chinese government tells it to sort out its safety record.
So even though China fails to provide legitimate governance, it is another society struggling to work out how to make digital technology work better. If you believe that society is going to have to change radically in the face of technological innovation, its helpful to have somewhere radically different to draw lessons from.