28 June 2019
With its resort to data technologies, powerful enforcement machinery, and proclaimed goal of morality enhancement, the Social Credit System (SCS) emerges as a novelty. It captures the imagination of algorithms and a refreshed fear, or hope, of social engineering. The SCS differs from China’s existing mode of governance that operates primarily through a formal legal system. Early investigations of the impact of the differences share a preoccupation with technology.1)The philosophical dimensions of those differences await exploration,2) which this series of online debate timely addresses. While it is certainly beneficial to contrast the SCS to emerging governance mechanisms in the West or principles of civil liberties, it is equally important to connect it to traditional Chinese thought which may have influenced the policy-makers. In view of the tendency of associating the SCS with Confucianism, this blog post concentrates on fajia (legalism), a traditional school of political and legal thought that had shaped the mode of governance in imperial China. Given the intricacy of Legalism, discussions here would be unsatisfactorily sketchy, leaving questions to elaborate in a full-length paper. It is nevertheless worth taking this inward and retrospective approach to highlight problems in the SCS that may be overlooked under a futuristic and de-contextualised perspective.
Data technologies do not necessarily revolutionise the regulation of behaviours. They can also facilitate the realisation of aspirations for social control that are encapsulated by Legalism. As a major rival to Confucianism, Legalism advocates radical state control of the society and the primacy of criminal law as a means for upholding autocratic order. In addition to being the ideology in Qin (initially the strongest state in the Warring States period [cir. 500 – 221 BC] which became the first unitary dynasty [221 – 207 BC])), Legalism had guided and sustained the operation of legal systems throughout the two-thousand-year-old dynastic era,3) but also has remained a source of inspiration for revolutionists who wished to wield state powers to forge a social order in line with their respective ideals. Meanwhile, Legalism has been widely criticised in ancient and modern time because of the repressive and manipulative consequences of its measures. If ‘dystopian’ implies a categorical disregard of individuals’ core interests in pursuit of the ideals of a collectivity, Legalists can be regarded as embracing a dystopia, though their thoughts are indigenous. Insofar as there is a close affinity between core features of the SCS and Legalist tenets, as will be analysed below, the system is more like a déjà vu than a futuristic sue genesis... Click here to read the full post.