CHINA’S PAPER DYSTOPIA

CHINA’S PAPER DYSTOPIA

Few issues generate as much concern about our technologically-driven future as China’s ambitious social credit system.


In case you haven’t heard, China wants to build a giant database to track the behavior of its 1.3 billion-plus citizens. It then plans to reward “sincere” or “trustworthy” conduct, such as paying bills on time, while punishing bad actions, like jaywalking or ignoring a court judgment – all in the name of creating a more harmonious society. Beijing’s vision has sparked all sorts of breathless headlines and comparisons to Black Mirror or the all-seeing Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984.

Here are three things to keep in mind as you ponder what it all means.

China has a real problem it is trying to solve: how to effectively govern a sprawling country of 1.3 billion increasingly demanding citizens, where tax evasion, fraud, and other social ills are rife. Sure, Beijing is doing so in a top-down, authoritarian fashion. But as much as people might be creeped out by the fact that their government is publicly shaming jaywalkers by posting their photos on billboards, its approach could prove widely popular if it makes the country easier to govern and improves people’s lives.

The system is more human than you think: China’s tech-driven totalitarianism isn’t as tech-savvy as it appears. Chinese authorities may be using sophisticated facial recognition software to corral Uighurs, an ethnic minority group concentrated in the country’s northwest, but jaywalkers whose faces show up on billboards in Xinjiang are still picked out of the crowd by flesh-and-blood people. There is real potential for this system to be used to stifle dissent on an unprecedented scale with as-yet undeveloped technologies that can then be exported to governments around the world. But there’s a huge gap between China’s ambitions to make the system work reliably at the scale of a billion-plus people and where the technology is today.

This is already happening to you, dear reader: Here in the West, it’s corporations (not the government) that control the keys to a massive surveillance machine. We’re accustomed to credit bureaus tracking our every financial move, employers conducting background checks, social networks and search engines scooping up our personal information, and ride-hailing apps asking us to rate the quality of our drivers. China’s plans for a surveillance state may be startling to Western observers, but they’re driven by the same underlying trend: using massive amounts of personal data to shape how people behave. There are big differences around who determines what happens with that data, and how that authority is regulated, of course. But China’s social credit experiment is not totally without competition.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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