Why can't Han Chinese rule nomads?


Kristin Shi-Copper

Dr. Kristin Shi-Kupfer heads the Politics, Society and Media research department at MERICS. She is an expert on digital transformation processes, civil society and religious policy in China.

Matthias Stepan

Matthias Stepan heads the China Domestic Policy program at MERICS. His research focuses on governance in multilevel systems, the distribution of roles between state, party and society in policy-making in China, and the change in social security systems.

Shawn Shieh

Prof. Dr. Shawn Shieh is the assistant director of China Labor Bulletin, a non-governmental organization for workers' rights in Hong Kong. Before that, he worked in Beijing from 2007 to 2014, where he headed the English-language editing of the China Development Brief, a bilingual media and research platform on China's civil society, which he founded. His work focuses on strengthening an independent NGO sector in China.

Privileged urban elites and migrant workers, a discerning youth and unaffordable housing in the cities, less poverty but inadequate security systems, oppressed minorities and protest movements: China's society can be described from many perspectives. Meanwhile, a sophisticated social credit system seems to limit individuality more and more.

Street scene in Shenzhen 2015 - In recent years, especially in China's cities, a self-confident middle class has emerged, which has gradually gained freedom in private and social life. (& copy fotofinders / Xinhua)

Between freedom and state control

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the communist leadership under Mao Zedong began to bring society into line and, particularly since the late 1950s, had people isolated, persecuted and killed as "class enemies" or "counter-revolutionaries".

After the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, the political control of the Chinese leadership, which was embroiled in power struggles, waned. In rural and urban areas, people gradually gained freedom in their private and social life: differences in class - be it to the workers, to the class of landowners or to the group of intellectuals - were no longer a political obstacle to marriage. The collective people's communes in the countryside were dissolved and families once again enjoyed familiar privacy around their own small plot of land. The strict uniform clothing in Mao style gave way to more colorful clothes, the range of goods became more extensive, different ways of life and values ​​developed.

Ethnic minorities, who currently make up around eight percent of the population, have received certain special socio-economic rights such as exemptions from the one-child policy and extra points for university entrance exams. These special rights, however, were not extended to include political rights and in some cases increased discrimination.

More and more urban areas and larger metropolises developed: young people and intellectuals who had been sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution returned to the cities, restrictions on private markets and services were gradually lifted and universities reopened their doors.

However, calls for more democratic co-determination in the winter of 1978 were suppressed by the leadership in Beijing and showed their "red line": tolerance of private freedom with a clear rejection of self-organized political participation. This line is still valid today.

At present, new technologies and social media offer opportunities to network with like-minded people; there are also channels beyond the party-state media with which information can be checked and disseminated. However, the communist leadership under the incumbent party and state leader Xi Jinping has increasingly restricted the spaces for pluralistic debates on current issues. It also uses the new information and communication technology (ICT) for surveillance on the Internet and in public places and is again getting more involved in questions of public morality. In 2017, an increasingly long taboo list banned depictions of homosexuality, reincarnation or luxury in TV series and online videos, among other things.

The mechanisms of social control include:
  • the social credit system with which Beijing wants to educate companies and individuals to be economically constructive and politically loyal in the interests of the party; this system of evaluation, reward and punishment should be in place by 2020.
  • The residence registration system. It has existed since 1958, although conditions for acquiring urban residence have gradually been relaxed since the 1990s: it gives people with urban residence preferential access to government resources, including educational institutions and health care; It grants people with rural residence the right to lease a piece of land for 70 years.
  • Self-government at village and city level. It exists on paper, but in fact these organs are closely integrated into the official party hierarchy.
  • The "security volunteers": informal informants from the party state;
  • financial incentives for reports of "troublemakers" and "foreign spies" via websites or hotlines.
The struggle between society and the party state for freedom and influence continues. In addition to this basic tension, there is the latent contradiction between the Communist Party's comprehensive claim to rule on the one hand and a pluralistic society on the other. However, in 2015 the Chinese government abandoned one of the most radical state control mechanisms: the one-child policy.

Source text

Plus points for good behavior - the digital social control

The test runs for the Chinese "social credit system" are making good progress. From 2020, all citizens, companies and authorities of the People's Republic should have a digitally and centrally recorded points account that shows their financial, moral, political, in a word: social trustworthiness. Exactly which areas of life should influence the score is still being tested; It is only clear that all legally relevant information will play a role, from tax evasion to neglecting the elderly parents to crossing the intersection at red. Good deeds should improve your score, be it through a special professional achievement or as a social commitment classified as valuable, ie "promoting stability".

The rewards and punishments provided for in the system are also experimented with; In any case, the rule will apply: the higher the score, the greater the freedom of movement should be due to correspondingly cheaper loans and market conditions. Conversely, the radius becomes even smaller and smaller physically when the score is low. In April [2018], 10,360,000 citizens ended up on a court-published blacklist of people who are no longer allowed to easily buy tickets for air travel or for journeys on high-speed trains because of a lack of payment behavior or for failure to pay fines. Restrictions on property purchases, school registration and the use of motorways are also tested (only from a score of 550).

The crux of the test phase, which began in 2014, is the embedding of billions of pieces of information that advanced artificial intelligence is able to collect and evaluate in a comprehensive social-technological concept. [...] The system will be all the more complete, the more consumption, financial traffic and communication are transferred to the net and the more perfect the possibilities of digital devices become to capture the remnants of life that are still analogue. [...]

The traffic police in the metropolis of Shenzhen use facial recognition software [from the start-up Yitu Technology] [...] on their surveillance cameras at intersections. So far, violators of the rules have been exposed there by showing their razor-sharp snapshot portraits together with their family name and part of their ID card number on large LED screens at the intersections; In the future, this could be solved more elegantly, in that every illegal road crossing automatically leads to a credit point deduction. [...]

The more and more precisely functioning mind-reading technology, which is already being tested by many Chinese companies for its suitability for increasing productivity, could also have great potential. As the "South China Morning Post" just reported, "Neuro Cap", a government-funded brain monitoring project at the University of Ningbo, equips assembly line workers in more than twelve factories with small helmets whose sensors have anti-effectiveness conditions such as depression, fear or anger be able to track down and report on them early on. "That caused some discomfort and resistance in the beginning," one researcher is quoted as saying; but the workers had gradually got used to the machines. [...]

The commercial point system "zhima Xinyong [Sesame Credit]" operated by the Internet group Alibaba [...] can draw on the entire consumption and communication behavior of the three hundred million customers of the Internet department store; The payment behavior, the personality profile, as can be seen in purchasing preferences (many computer games? reckless! baby clothes? responsible!), and even social contacts are evaluated according to an unknown algorithm: those who deal with people with a low score are automatically lowered also one's own creditworthiness; Friendships with high point people, on the other hand, increase the trust that is placed in oneself. [...]

The group denies passing on data to the state or evaluating the content that users distribute in social networks. Technically, however, neither would be a problem if the government should decide to integrate commercial scoring into its own system in the future. [...]
The amazing thing is that in China itself, with the objects of measured claim, the project has so far hardly caused any excitement. [...]
The key could be that the point system is embedded in a more comprehensive strategy that no longer makes the rule of the Communist Party appear as interference from outside, but rather as a quasi-automatic self-organization of the various social subsystems. In the medium term, this could give authoritarianism a new shape and thus become an as yet undreamt-of challenge for the liberal constitutional states of the West. [...]

Mark Siemons, "The total control", in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung from May 6, 2018, updated May 11, 2018 (FAZ.net)
© All rights reserved. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung GmbH, Frankfurt. Provided by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Archiv