By Yuxin Hou
Earlier this year, the launch of ‘Suining Public Credit Managing policy’ placed the county government of Suining in the spotlight of public scrutiny. This new policy ranks the local citizens according to their “credit records”, the criteria ranging from charity donation, bringing in investment, to criminal infraction, civil dispute, debt defaulting, domestic violence, traffic violations, continuously petitioning the government, “defamation” via internet posts and SMSs, etc. Once rated “Credible”, the individual would receive “priority treatment” in education, employment, promotion and other activities. Individuals rated “warning” or “untrustworthy” will on the other hand be put into extra strict inspection, or even “not be considered” in political reviews, qualification examinations, license application, even social welfare programmes. The local government justifies such measures stating: “One stays credible, he benefits from all; being untrustworthy once, restricted everywhere”.
Much has been discussed over the issue. The main focus of attention has been on five areas: 1) Government Irregularity – the legislative basis for this policy is not consistent with the institution and there had not been proper legal process. 2) Government Encroachment – the “credit information system” collects information beyond “credit”, furthermore it uses the expanded “credit” to restrict people’s civil rights at large. 3) Double Standards – the government imposes the system to “manage” citizens’ credits, meanwhile there is an absence of a system to monitor the government’s credits. 4) Improper Measurements – lack of scientific basis, the assessment standard is set purely based on government preference. 5) Protection of Citizen Privacy. These discussions have been very valid, but they all missed the bull’s eye. Behind Suining’s new policy, is the local government’s unenlightened and biased governing mentality. The core of the issue here is not whether the policymaking followed legal procedures, nor whether the government has been applying reasonable judgments; but the premise of all these: can we use an administrative system to create a unified system of citizen’s rights and responsibilities, and expand the responsibility in a certain field to a comprehensive social responsibility?
Facing persistent questioning, the government gave its reasons for making the new policy as: the law always lags behind social practice; for the parts that are not regulated by law, and cannot be bounded by morals, the government has to step in and fill the gap. This reflects the “strong government, weak society” way of thinking and a paternalistic ruling mentality, which has been influencing China since very early on in history during its imperial period. It also indicates a lack of autonomy in the society.
In recent decades China has experienced a period of time during which the state over-mobilizes its citizens and exercises total take-over of individual life. In this period social autonomy was phased out, the “state” took over the role of “society” and all its functions, and the concept of society therefore wasn’t included in the national discourse. In the recent past, many people have realized this problem and were dedicated to pushing the reconstruction of civil society and its functions. However, as the social functions have been re-developed and civil values regenerated, the state didn’t hand back the power to the society as it should. Instead the society had to make a trade-off in order to rebuild its rights/power. When we look at the Suining Government’s new policy, not only does it not encourage the development of social autonomy; through the policy the government actually reclaims more power that was previously returned to the society back to the hands of the government. Civil rights are once again under pressure and restrictions.
Evidence is not hard to find from the policy itself: social security (welfare) is a basic civil right. In Suining, however, citizens can “not be considered” and can be outcasted from welfare schemes due to reasons like petition or traffic violations. Some basic government services, such as license qualification, in this case have become conditional and restrictions attached to citizens’ other social activities (e.g. if one jaywalks enough times, he might loose the opportunity of getting a commercial license, even if he meets all economic requirments).
Suining’s new policy, in essence, is an infinite expansion of government power, which results in dramatic reduction of civil rights of citizens; and the government unilaterally raises the price in a game of power, which it plays with the society.It also deserves attention that in Suining, the interpretation of “moral” and “credit” is all in the hands of the local government. This has systematically granted the government the full license toward condemnation of its citizens; and the public power1 has become more rigid and unshakeable. In this framework, the administrative control reaches into every corner of people’s daily life.
The pan-moralization of political control and the elimination of the bargaining power in people’s daily life that accompanies it, leads to the chill and horror of “Big Brother” that Orwell described in 1984.Polarization, uneven wealth distribution, product and food quality crises, corruption… The social problems in China highlighted in recent years have pushed the society’s stability to a critical point. Again and again the facts have proved to us, the government’s comprehensive take-over of individual life through administrative means can neither fundamentally encourage morals as it so claims, nor can it effectively prevent the expansion of self-interest and political corruption; not mentioning the development of civil society. While Suining’s new policy might appear effective in the short-term, it entirely fails to solve the social problems. If the current status of “strong government, weak society” doesn’t change, and the social autonomy is not mobilized, China’s future path of “stability maintenance” will only become more difficult.
1. “Public power” here typically means the power that belongs to the whole society but is carried out by the government as an executive body.
Yuxin Hou is responsible for programme operations at the Global Institute For Tomorrow