Inside China - An expert explains

Interview with Mareike Ohlberg from the Mercator Institute for China Studies.


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Why is China leading the field today with artificial intelligence? What might the Chinese doing better or worse than us in Europe?

Mareike Ohlberg: It’s simple on the whole. The Chinese government decided that it is important strategically for China to invest in this area. That’s why they’re simply pumping in vast amounts of money into artificial intelligence and doing lots of planning at present.

And in 2020 China intends to introduce a social credit system. It’s something you might have already heard about. What is it exactly?

Ohlberg: The word ‘system’ often brings to mind a centrally controlled system. That isn’t the case here. Here you need to understand the word ‘system’ more as a legal framework. That means it’s a huge initiative where you’ve got various projects underway that should rate citizens and enterprises on the basis of big data. 
The year 2020 is often mentioned. However, there will be no uniform central government system through 2020. That’s what you’ll find in the plans that the Chinese government published. They published a main plan in 2014 and that’s where this date appears. But things will still continue after 2020.

Not yet finished, but, even so, you say it involves forwarding data. So does data privacy then actually still exist?

Ohlberg: Contrary to what you might expect you do have privacy laws and a privacy debate in China. But the problem is that it’s very focused just on enterprises. That means that data privacy vis-à-vis enterprises is being debated and implemented in certain areas, but data privacy vis-à-vis the government itself doesn’t exist as a concept per se.

And what about progress, you say, there are individual projects currently being implemented. Can you give us some examples of how much progress China has made with implementation?

Ohlberg: On a nationwide level you’ve primarily got blacklists used as a tool in China. You have certain offenses for citizens, particularly debt, once a court finds out that you haven’t paid your debts, then you’re placed on this blacklist and are subject to massive restrictions. You can’t take a train anymore, can’t fly, can no longer check into certain categories of hotel. And for enterprises there are similar lists of offenses through which enterprises can end up on a blacklist. You’ve also got pilots at local level where citizens are actually already rated by their government. But that’s still very locally limited at present and varies wildly.

And what do the Chinese think about that? Is it something people talk about?

Ohlberg: There are a few indicative studies of the general support by the Chinese. That’s my personal impression too whenever I talk to Chinese. A lot of them simply feel that it helps solve the major problem of trust within Chinese society. But that doesn’t mean that basically all Chinese are in favor or that their assessment is necessarily based on sound information.

The outcry in Europe is huge, as is the warning about what’s happening in China. Can we be so sure that something similar won’t be introduced here? The saying “Trust is good – control is better” is something most people here will be familiar with.

Ohlberg: It won't be introduced here to the extent that it now exists in China. But the system is also misunderstood in many quarters because it’s viewed as a large centralized system and as soon as you look at the details, you do see lots of parallels. In other words, people being rated by large internet groups, by Facebook, by Twitter. There they build up a profile of each individual, a rating of people for insurers, for various other things. So it’s something that’s not totally alien to us. On the whole though, things are put together in China in a totally different way.

And if you were to give us a sense of what’s happening or sum it up, what would you say? 

Ohlberg: We need a differentiated debate on this issue whereby we look at the individual parts of the Chinese system, knowing that it isn’t a single large centralized control system, but examine the individual parts without downplaying the whole at the same time.

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