China Neican: social credit system, China studies, and perspectives from China

30 November 2020

China Neican is a newsletter by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni from the China Policy Centre in Canberra. It is also published as a weekly column on the China Story blog. Neican 内参 or “internal reference” are limited circulation reports only for the eyes of high-ranking officials in China, dealing with topics deemed too sensitive for public consumption. Our writing, however, is open to everyone. To receive regular updates, please subscribe. You can find past issues here.

This week marks one year since we started writing China Neican. A big thanks to you all for taking the time to read what we have to say.

- Yun and Adam

1. Social credit system

The State Council’s meeting on Wednesday (25 November 2020) highlighted the importance of developing China’s social credit system 社会信用体系 according to key principles, including lawfulness, prudence, and rights protection. 

The key message here is that the State Council is raising its standards for all levels of government in the use and development of social credit systems. For a more detailed analysis of the latest State Council directive, read Wang Zicheng’s note.

What is social credit?

Social credit 社会信用 is a shorthand for the range of efforts by the Chinese Party-state to improve public confidence, social trust, and moral standards. China’s social credit project is the overlapping of two ideas. The first is that data and technology can improve governance, and help to solve many socioeconomic problems. The second is that the party-state should be using knowledge, laws, and technology to shape the morals and conduct of the Chinese people. For a deep dive into the ideas at its foundation, see Chenchen Zhang’s article, Governing (through) trustworthiness: technologies of power and subjectification in China’s social credit system.

In terms of basic tactics adopted to achieve the aims of the system, Jeremy Daum at the China Law Translation project identifies four:

  1. Aggregating and integrating information within and across geographic regions and professional fields.

  2. Creating measures to incentivise ‘trustworthy’ conduct, and punish ‘untrustworthy’ conduct.

  3. Increasing reliance on credit evaluations in transactions, employment etc.

  4. Using the above mechanisms and moral education to foster a trusting environment.

Contrary to misconception, this is not one system with numeric scores that determines the position of every Chinese person in society. That system does not exist. Instead, there are many different pilot programs with their own particular focus. 

Here are some reactions by Chinese netizens to foreign misconceptions:

In closing, some words from Jeremy Daum:

Nothing in the discussion above is meant to suggest that Social Credit isn’t frightening....it is all too clear from watching Xinjiang or other areas of unrest, that these systems can be quickly weaponized for harsh control…

Debate over the appropriate balance between security and liberty is nothing new…

China’s Social Credit is often used as a way of discussing our own situation from a safe distance. This is, of course, also the role that science fiction like “Black Mirror” and Orwell’s 1984 has traditionally played, so it isn’t surprising to see them invoked here as well. We look at exotified foreign nations or speculative futures in order to reflect on our present, but what we take away from it likely says more about us than about the subject of our examination.

    (bold emphasis added)

2. China studies in the Anglophone countries

The number of people studying China or China-related topics has declined in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States in recent years.

Due to language barriers, China studies have always had difficulties attracting significant interest in Anglosphere countries. This is despite efforts to encourage such study. In Australia, for instance, governments have been investing in programs to promote the study of Asian languages in schools since the 1970s. Yet, there are still very few Australians of non-Chinese heritage who speak Mandarin at a high level of proficiency. One estimate put the figure as low as 130 people in the entire country with 25 million people.

No doubt China studies scholars are facing rising barriers due to the political environment in China. But such barriers are unlikely to be the cause of declining interest at undergraduate levels.

The decline in recent years is more likely due to the decreasing soft power of China and the increasing tension between China and the Anglophone countries. According to one former China studies scholar The Economist interviewed:

He found that many colleagues with non-China specialisms were horrified by his interest in [China]. “They asked, ‘Why do you want to study this really awful regime? We don’t want anything to do with China—look at what’s going on there.’” Having lost hope, for the time being, of pursuing any rewarding work on China “given everything that is going on”, Mr Entwistle now works as a headhunter.

It is unclear how widespread this kind of experience is.

On the language front, the “politicisation” of teaching the Chinese language can lead to problems:

However, while policy promotes the study of Chinese as a ‘language for the future’, such motives are readily cast aside in times of diplomatic crisis when the ‘enigma’ of China and speakers of the Chinese language are seen as a threat.

The notion of using technology to connect with ‘real’ Chinese people in mainland China reinforces the perception that the purpose of language learning is to communicate with ‘foreign people’, outside Australia. This renders invisible the significant Chinese-speaking community in Australia’s ‘own back yard’.

We wonder whether the motivation for studying the language changes as political climate changes. A few years ago, many students may have chosen to study the Chinese language to have a career in business, commerce, and trade. These days, perhaps more students study the Chinese language to work in national security, similar to the surge in student interest in studying Arabic right after 2001.

3. China and the international system

The last issue of Neican presented views by Shi Yinhong 时殷弘 on US-China relations and recommendations on how China should deal with its US challenge. Now, let’s look into the mind of another respected Chinese strategist: Major General Tang Yongsheng 唐永胜. He is a professor at the People’s Liberation Army National Defence University 中国人民解放军国防大学 and deputy head of its College of National Security 国家安全学院.

Tang was featured as the second author after Shi in a recently published anthology, Trends in China-US Relations and the Changing International Landscape. His article, Advancing the International Security Order in a Changing World 在世界变局中推进国际安全秩序构建, highlights the ambivalence towards the international system common to mainstream Chinese strategists.

In Tang’s view, the international landscape is undergoing profound and rapid transformation. The effectiveness of the existing order is challenged by technology, rising unilateralism and nationalism. But at the same time, a new order is still in the making. This transition time is a time for chaos and flux, which means rising uncertainty in the short term. In his words:

一方面,支撑现有国际体系运转的原有逻辑仍然在发挥作用,这些逻辑包括资 本扩张、霸权护持、权力争夺、地缘博弈等,但发展至今受到不断增多的约束,表现出明显的颓势,甚至已经触碰到某种极限,尤其是美国的军事霸权和金融霸权已 不像过去那么管用,这种衰颓也构成判断国际体系已经饱和或超载的主要依据;另 一方面,一些原本基础性或不很显著、容易被忽视的因素却在发挥着越来越重要的作用,这些因素不断增多,包括科技的突破性进展、信息扩散引起的权力转移、非国家角色增多且影响力增加,以及包括新冠肺炎疫情在内的跨国性威胁、全球性挑战的凸显等。

On the one hand, the original logic that supported the functioning of the existing international system is still at work. These include capital expansion, hegemonic patronage, power struggles, geopolitical games, etc. But such logic has been subjected to ever-increasing constraints and has shown obvious decay, and has even reached a certain limit. This is especially the case as the military and financial hegemony of the US is no longer as effective as it used to be. This decay constitutes the main basis for assessing that the international system has saturated or overloaded. On the other hand, some factors that are basic, less obvious and easily overlooked are playing an increasingly important role. These factors are ever-increasing, including scientific and technological breakthroughs, power shifts due to information diffusion, the growth and influence of non-state actors, transnational threats, including the coronavirus epidemic, and the emergence of global challenges.

Tang highlights the negative role that the US has played recently:

近年来,人们清楚地见证了全球化遭遇的挫折,其脆弱的一面在疫情中得到集中显现,一些国家自顾不暇,没有能力也缺少意愿组织和参与高效的国际合作。在这样的背景下,国际安全秩序被严重削弱,一些地区安全形势出现动荡起伏,潜藏着较大的风险。特朗普政府强化“美国优先”政策,极大地挤压了国际安全合作的空间,导致大国竞争持续升温,零和博弈出现重新抬头迹象。主要大国家注重提升战略能力,在军事、经济、科技等多领域加大投入,力图在所谓的新一轮权力争夺中占据先机

...

当前,全球范围的不安定因素增多,国际安全治理遭遇诸多困难,其原因既在 于安全问题多样化、复杂化带来的挑战,也在于近年美国持续削减长期承担的国际 责任,造成了全球治理供求失衡。美国先后退出了《中导条约》和《开放天空条约》, 国际军控机制等安全架构受到严重冲击,美俄能否续签《削减战略武器条约》仍存 在很大变数,全球战略稳定基础面临松动的危险。面对全球治理和国际安全秩序构 建的缺失,国际社会尤其是大国必须承担必要的责任,强化协调与合作,有效预防 重大危机和安全风险的发生。

In recent years, we have clearly witnessed the setbacks of globalisation, whose fragility has been brought to the forefront by the epidemic, and the inability and lack of will of some countries to organise and engage in efficient international cooperation. Against this backdrop, the international security order has been severely weakened and the security situation in some regions is volatile and potentially risky. The Trump administration has strengthened its "America First" policy, which has greatly squeezed the space for international security cooperation, leading to a continuous rise in the competition between major powers and signs of a resurgence of the zero-sum game. Major powers are focusing on improving their strategic capabilities and investing more in military, economic, scientific and technological fields in an attempt to gain the upper hand in the so-called new round of power struggle.

...

At present, global instability is increasing and international security governance is encountering many difficulties. The reason for this is both the challenges posed by the diversification and complexity of security issues and the fact that in recent years the US has continued to cut back on its long-standing international responsibilities, resulting in an imbalance between supply and demand in global governance. The US has successively withdrawn from the INF Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, which has seriously impacted the international arms control regime and other security structures. The renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and Russia remains uncertain, and the foundations of global strategic stability are in danger. Faced with the deficiencies in global governance and the construction of an international security order, the international community, especially the major powers, must assume the necessary responsibilities, strengthen coordination and cooperation and effectively prevent the occurrence of major crises and security risks.

Tang’s views conform with mainstream thinking among China’s strategists. Despite a quite clear assessment of the international environment, his assessment of the US role is one-sided. What is lacking is the reflection on China’s role in unbalancing the international security order.

Word of the week

墙头草

Literally: grass on top of a wall

Explanation: the grass on the wall sways in the direction of the changing wind

To describe an unprincipled opportunist, someone who is astute in sensing the direction of the wind and knows which side to take.

墙头草 is an obvious 贬义词 (derogatory word). In fictions and TV dramas, it is usually a minor but the most hated character, often more hated than the main villain.

The action of someone who is a 墙头草 can be described as 见风使舵 (steer according to the wind), which retains the negative connotation. But the exact same action can also be described positively using a 褒义词 (complimentary word). 随机应变 (change actions to suit the circumstances) is basically the same concept, but a positive phrase.

In life, we often change what we say and do depending on the audience and circumstances. But when it is someone we dislike doing it, we often think that they’re 墙头草 who is 见风使舵. And their fickleness reflects lack of integrity. But when it is someone we approve, we then praise them for their ability to 随机应变, and their change is characterised merely as one of tactics in the pursuit of higher goals.

That is not to say that real 墙头草 doesn’t exist. History and literature are full of such examples. But it can be difficult to assess whether someone is “principled” or not at one point in time. It requires a pattern of repeated behaviour.

This week on China Story:

  • Anet McClintock, Is China buying the Middle East’s silence over the treatment of Uyghurs?As China’s influence in the Middle East rises, few countries in the region, including majority Muslim ones, have spoken out against Beijing’s repressive policies against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the region may be an important part of the reason.

  • Sharon Yam, Cracking Down on Political Agency and Imagination: The Suppression of Civil Liberties and Legislative Freedom in Hong Kong: Since the passage of the National Security Law (NSL) on June 30, 2020, Beijing and the Hong Kong government have been systemically undermining the civil liberties and separation of powers in the Special Administrative Region. The events that occurred in just one day on November 17, 2020 encapsulate the recent wave of assault against activists, teachers and pro-democracy lawmakers.

  • Tianyu M. Fang, The low-hanging fruits for Joe Biden’s China policy: As the world anxiously awaits the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden, one anticipates a return to normalcy from U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy rollercoasters. Biden can—and should—help the U.S. move on to a China strategy that tailors to long-term multilateral interests while addressing human rights, geopolitical, and economic concerns. Whether his policy takes a hawkish or dovish turn, Biden will need to start with reversing some of Trump’s harmful legacies that have worsened U.S.-China relations without achieving clear goals. Some easy low-hanging fruits for Biden could include lifting journalist visa restrictions, reopening consulates, re-opening U.S’ doors to Chinese talent, and rejoining international organizations.