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#73 Historical Roots of China’s Social Credit Score (I) [Gastbeitrag]

Freedom will be forfeit to knowledge, but it will be the state’s knowledge that it exercises, not for the sake of revenue but for the sake of its own perpetuation.

Shoshanna Zuboff, ‘The China Syndrome’, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, p.394.

Historical Roots of China’s Social Credit Score (I)

Autorin: Zaya Chinbat

1. Introduction

The Social Credit Score (SCS) is defined as a digital socio-technical system that attempts to evaluate the trustworthiness of individuals, companies and state agencies with mechanisms of rewards and punishments (State Council, 2014). The objective of the system is to “monitor, rate, and shape the behaviour of participants in a way that advances ethical behaviour” (Economy, 2018, p. 79). Despite frequent comparisons to an Orwellian surveillance state in international media, “the system should be seen primarily as an innovative means to compensate for weak institutions and to increase statecraft efficiency” (Aho & Duffield, 2020, p.9). Discussions regarding the SCS in international press have centred on individuals’ right to privacy, however, “the core motivation behind the Social Credit System is to more effectively steer the behaviour of market participants” (Meissner, 2017).

In tracing the conceptual genealogy of SCS, I attempt to contextualize it within a specific socio-political and cultural framework and explore the trajectory of record keeping and compliance enforcement from the imperial to Communist periods. Chinese states have a long history of state mandated standards of morality, censorship and control of flow of information that predate the Communist period. Moreover, this approach of amassing archives and record keeping by the state has a particular trajectory which may provide some context for current data-driven tools of bureaucratic control.

Accumulation of archives during the imperial period and banning of texts predate the Dang’an files (档案) and censorship of the Communist period. Similarly, the SCS and the Great Firewall in its current reincarnation have conceptual roots in the latter two.

This text also focuses mainly on the state policy on the SCS rather than for-profit commercial social credit systems such as Alibaba’s Ant Financials’ “Sesame Credit” or “Tencent Credit”, which will be covered more extensively in a subsequent part of the series.

The staying power of the Chinese state can historically be attributed to the system’s ability to recruit, monitor, and hold accountable government officials. Further, to grow and guide the economy via flexible policy levers, enlist the active support of key social groups and to keep the lid on popular protest through a clever combination of coercion, censorship, co-optation, and conciliation (Perry, 2013, p.2).

In tracing the conceptual roots of the SCS, I overview archival practices of imperial dynasties, followed by the contextualization of contemporary but outdated Dang’an personnel files and experiments with the implementation of ‘morality files’ in the 2010’s in order to provide an alternative context to current discussions around the SCS.

2. The imperial period and tools of state bureaucracy

The history of record keeping, censorship, creation of narratives and controlling access to information in China can be traced back to its early imperial period. “Chinese leaders from imperial times to the present have lived with the constant threat of mobilized political discontent undermining their legitimacy and ability to rule” (Economy, 2019, p. 60). Imperial era governments not only dominated archival preservation practices in ancient China, but had also vested interest in controlling historical records. Each dynasty “administered a far-flung empire with a remarkably small cadre of bureaucratic officials…the shared literary and moral universe of intellectuals and officials, imparted through a classical Confucian education, institutionalized in government-sponsored examinations, and observed in family, community and state rituals, helped to uphold and invigorate a dynastic order for centuries” (Perry, 2015). Consequently, during the dynastic cycles, it was a common practice for the new Chinese rulers to destroy any surviving records of the previous dynasty and archival records (Zhang, 2004).

The archival records throughout the imperial period were exclusively records of the state – no public access was granted and the most common contents in the imperial archives (records of past administrative action, the laws of the land, military reports, and financial and other accounting files) originated from the need of emperors such as land surveys, household registration, and taxation records (Zhang, 2004). This notion persisted through to the 20th century with archives being used to “facilitate the work of party and state” (Moss, 1966, p. 112).

The Western Zhou period (1045 – 771 BC): earliest Dang’an  档案 records

The earliest records of China’s personnel archival system stretch all the way to the Western Zhou period (1045 – 771 BC) with royal historians keeping records of imperial codes and officials’ promotions and punishments. Following the dynamic changes during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the military actions of the Warring State Period (475-221 BC), the Zhou archives suffered significant damage. However, even the fragmented states that formed during this period kept records of “taxation, official appointments, denunciations, and calls to arms, as well as numerous treaties of alliance” (Zhang, 2004). In 563 BC, Zi Chan of the state of Zheng, known for his focus on establishing the rule of law, cast in bronze the first recorded criminal law in the Chinese history (Cao and Han, 1999).

The Qin Dynasty (221- 207 BC): standardization of written Chinese 

Among the warring states, Ying Zheng rose to power by defeating the six remaining kingdoms, thereby uniting the country, established the Qin Dynasty (221- 207 BC) and became the first emperor of a unified China. He is credited with implementing one of the most significant re-organizations of this period: the standardization of Chinese written characters (Zhang, 2004).

Bureaucrats of the newly established central government were tasked with record keeping of state activities, ancestral temples and worship, finance and taxation, law and punishment, diplomacy and minority affairs (Zou et al., 1985). The censorship rules and regulations established under Ying Zheng, were adopted by subsequent dynasties and amended accordingly (Economy, 2018, p.60). Ultimately, the downfall of the Qin dynasty was precipitated by the relentless persecution of Confucian scholars, who advocated for private education, implementation of strict censorship edicts and burning of books that deviated from official Qin narratives (Fitzgerald, 1961).

The Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD): civil examination exam

Following the overthrow the Qin Dynasty in 207 BC, the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD) established Confucianism as its guiding principle, introduced the civil examination exam and developed an elaborate personnel archival system containing information such as name, age, birth place, education, occupation; superiors’ evaluations of officials; as well as records of rewards and punishments (Deng, 1989). With an increase of access to important archival records during this period; imperial historians Si Ma Qian and Han Shu were able to compile important historical records and genealogy of the Han Dynasty – a practice that was replicated by subsequent dynasties (Zhang, 2004).

The period following the collapse of the Han to the establishment of the Sui dynasty in 581, was marked by fragmentation and establishment of competing regimes. Although paper was invented during the Han period, its use became more widespread once rival dynasties set up their own administrations and sought to document their genealogies and histories as well as “royal codes, decrees, memos…household registrations, taxation records, real estate transactions, lawsuit files, and military documents” (Zhang, 2004).

The Tang Dynasty (618- 907): pinnacle of state bureaucracy

The pinnacle of state bureaucracy was achieved during the Tang Dynasty (618- 907): top intellectuals were recruited through annual civil examinations, destruction or damage of official records was strictly prosecuted, special archives containing imperial, administrative and personnel records as well as household registration and taxation records were compiled. The latter were used to calculate the imperial budget and important records were duplicated and stored in county, regional, and central government archives (Zou et al, 1985). The so-called Tang Code included a regulation that prohibited any item that could be used for prognostication, as well republication of specific books, religious texts and government documents (Economy, 2018, p.60).

The Song Dynasty (960-1279)

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) continued the practice of conducting annual civil exams, and promotions of clerical staff were merit-based. As printing technology improved, so did the quantity of archival records. Procedures were introduced to catalogue and store records more effectively (necessitated by continuous military confrontations with northern nomadic confederations) and access to official collections was strictly supervised (Zhang, 2004). The code of the Song Dynasty mandated a reviewing process by printers before publication and “government and military documents, the classics, writings that inappropriately used the names of members of the royal family were banned”, religious freedom and speech were also restricted (Economy, 2018, p.60).

The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) 

The archival administration of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) combined the systems of the Tang and Song Dynasties with the practices of the multi-ethnic northern nomadic powers. Civil examinations were abandoned, and document clerks could be promoted to government officials after a certain period of service. As with previous dynasties, official documents were processed, verified, cataloged, and filed to the central archives of the new capital Beijing by dates on a quarterly basis. The main divergence from previous dynasties were the languages in which official documents were produced (Chinese, Mongolian, Uyghur, Khitan and Tibetan) (Zhang, 2004).

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

The techniques of state bureaucracy intensified during the rule of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Detailed rules were developed regarding preparation, storage methods and confidentiality of important documents. The buildings in the Forbidden City, where the archives of the Ming Dynasty were stored, were constructed with brick and mortar in order to prevent their damage from frequent fires. The central repositories, however, were located on linked islands on lake Hu Hu in Nanjing (the former capital of the Ming dynasty) under armed guard and with architecture that allowed for air circulation and temperature regulation, reflecting the importance placed on the preservation of imperial records. Echoing the militarised structure of Ming rule, the archives contained records of enlistment, land ownership and taxation records.

At its peak, more than 1,700 staff worked on the maintenance of these collections, which reached more than 170,000 volumes and were housed in 700 storage rooms (Zhang, 2004). Texts with pictures of past leaders, books on astronomy and other texts were banned (Economy, 2018, p.60).

Reflecting the militarised structure of Ming rule, the archives contained records of enlistment, land ownership and taxation records. At its peak, more than 1,700 staff worked on the maintenance of these collections, which reached more than 170,000 volumes and were housed in 700 storage rooms (Zhang, 2004). Texts with pictures of past leaders, books on astronomy and other texts were banned (Economy, 2018, p.60).

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

The last Chinese empire, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), having destroyed most of the archives of the previous dynasty, embarked on establishing the most comprehensive archival network in Chinese imperial history. As with previous dynasties, public access was strictly forbidden. Officials were evaluated on four aspects – morality, talents, diligence, and age – with grading scales for each, with personnel photos also becoming part of their archives (Jiang, 2020). Document clerks were recruited through detailed written applications, comprehensive exams and background checks. A practice of periodic reviews of archival documents was developed with damaged ones being transcribed and replaced.

Literature that might undermine Qing leadership was banned (Economy, 2018, p.60). The official language of the dynasty was Manchu (modified from Mongolian) and formal documents were issued in both Chinese and Manchu. After the First Opium War in 1840 the quantity of archival documents written in foreign languages greatly increased (Zhang, 2004).

3. The Republican period: (1912-1949)

The Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China unexpectedly produced two Chinese states vastly unequal in scale – the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC). The archives of the KMT were moved to Taiwan in 1949, however, many former KMT government personnel – including archivists – simply continued their work under the PRC government on the mainland (Moss, 1996 p.113).

A comparative analysis of nation-building processes in both the PRC and the ROC indicates common strategies in the 1950’s. After all, both newly established Chinese states were ruled by single party-states, and were shaped by pressures of imperial confrontations, invasions and the civil war. Governments of both states “continued to be deeply influenced by the institutional and normative legacies of late imperial governance” (Julia Strauss, 2019, p.10) and shared a deep suspicion of associational activity not overseen by the state.

Part II: China’s Social Credit Score from Mao to Hu Jintao

#74 Historical Roots of China’s Social Credit Score (II)


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