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Seen in China: Control and Social Norms

Part 2

INTERVIEW - 21 June 2019

China is one of the countries in which the government's ability to control through technology is the most developed. If, from Europe, we look at these advances with a critical eye, particularly because of their liberticidal aspect, the situation is different when viewed from this country of 1.38 billion inhabitants. Back from a trip to China, Gilles Babinet, Advisor on digital issues at Institut Montaigne, gives us his analysis.

China's evolution is so rapid that returning to it after only a few years guarantees the discovery of an almost completely new country. Beijing surprises by the significant progress it has made in just four years. The hundreds of thousands mature trees planted have grown and the city has become considerably greener; the total disappearance of explosion scooters, replaced by electric models, significantly reduces urban noise and the number and length of corridors reserved for soft transport (bicycles and electric scooters) are just as impressive as in the most "hipsterized" cities, like Paris and Amsterdam. On the other hand, it is hard not to note the return of Communist Party's propaganda posters, which the non-Chinese speakers cannot understand, but whose general injunctions are very clear.

Back to the future

While the gap in living standards between the countryside and the city is probably much wider than in Europe (more than half of the population still lives in rural areas), large metropolitan areas are increasingly similar to those in the rest of the world and people are living in the same way. That includes freedom of speech, except regarding issues that are mainly political of course. But the key difference lies in technology.

Large metropolitan areas are increasingly similar to those in the rest of the world and people are living in the same way. That includes freedom of speech, except regarding issues that are mainly political of course.

To any visitor arriving in China, it is strongly recommended - in addition to setting up a VPN in order to continue using traditional services such as Google, read Le Monde, etc. - to create an account on WeChat, a Chinese digital Swiss army knife that allows you to pay, order a taxi (much faster than a VTC in France), read a menu in a restaurant, geolocate yourself, and an infinite number of other services. The WeChat platform is a deep ecosystem in itself, almost like Apple's AppStore or Google's PlayStore.

Beyond this application, many small everyday practices are being revolutionized by digital technology and artificial intelligence. Withdrawing money from the ATM with your face as your only ID, going to a clinic without any other staff than a receptionist, going to a supermarket without a cashier, entering the Forbidden City with a passport only (and a ticket reserved by a third party on WeChat), chatting with a taxi driver using a simultaneous voice translation application.... Here are some of the technological adventures that visitors to contemporary China may encounter. While those are not yet widespread, their deployment speed is such that it is easy to imagine what it could be like in the near future.

The Social Rating

Everyone remembers the generally frightening articles that have been written about this facial recognition technology connected to a huge national database and used to punish perpetrators of all kinds of criminal acts: crossing at traffic lights, throwing cigarettes on the sidewalk, etc. Those who venture onto pedestrian crossings when the traffic light is red have not yet arrived on the other side of the street that they have already received a 10 rmb (1.2€) fine via their WeChat application - this feature is currently only “available” at some intersections, mainly in the most modern cities, such as Shenzhen. However, it will likely become more widespread in the coming years.

The same principle also works online for those who express themselves a little too openly, on social networks for example. Sanctions range from a call to order to more serious restrictions on freedoms. It should be noted that the notion of anonymity or even "pseudonymity" simply does not exist in China: it is impossible to register on WeChat without following a complex path of peer identification, which forces the user to reveal themselves in order to use all the features of this service.

While the issue of social rating is highly publicized in Western countries, it is widely accepted in China.

While the issue of social rating is highly publicized in Western countries, it is widely accepted in China. However, it is difficult to have an accurate picture of the daily impact of this technology on public freedoms. Although the limitations on freedoms are undeniable, the idea of a police society, where everyone should pay attention to their every move, is immediately contradicted by the still joyfully Latin way in which people move in the city, crossing at a red light for pedestrians, cheerfully cutting in lines, etc. Clearly, the fear of Chinese authorities controlling their citizens’ actions has not - yet - contaminated all acts of Chinese daily life.

A control supported by Chinese academics

We are therefore struck by the advocacy for this technology, including within the academic and more broadly intellectual circles. The argument shared by all is the need to create a high level of social efficiency in a country of 1.5 billion people. While it is generally accepted as regrettable that discrimination can be carried out on a political basis, it is considered necessary that people who cut in line, cyclists who do not respect road regulations or even those indelicate people who get rid of their cigarette butts and waste in the street be punished.

It seems difficult to understand the reality of this technology from Europe, as the articles published in the Western media are generally contested by the Chinese we met. In practice, the strongest sanctions so far would be to prohibit the purchase of airplane tickets (on domestic flights a priori) or access to certain so-called secondary public services (assistance with administrative declarations, etc.). On the other hand, citizens with high social ratings would get skip-the-line tickets and other advantages. But profiling for political purposes probably affects a large number of individuals: an article in The Economist mentioned the figure of 5 million people discriminated against on a political basis, many of whom are members of the Uighur ethnic minority, demonstrating in itself that only advanced democracies could use it in a rational way.

 

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