ChinAI #142: Digitalized Public Governance: A Recoded Social Order

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Feature Translation: Digitalized Public Governance

Context: This week’s feature translation comes from “Taihe Industry Observer” (钛禾产业观察), a source I’ve covered in in detail before (ChinAI #91). Taihe brands itself as a “new-model think tank of national strategic core S&T industries.” This week’s article presents one line of thinking on digitalized public governance, as if it were just a rational, efficient process. This is obviously incomplete — the expansion of the surveillance state, for example, is not covered — but it’s also important because the effect of technology on China’s governance can be multidimensional.

Key Takeaways:

To emphasize the point that there must be a foundation of good governance for big data to be useful, the article compares China and India’s response to the epidemic.

  • The author writes, “The prevention and control of the epidemic is also a big test for the government systems of countries around the world, and the Chinese government has produced the academic transcript of the top student: “One Health Code Goes Everywhere” [一个健康码走天下]. From this, the government can effectively learn the population flow in real time, predict the spread of the epidemic, and eliminate the route of transmission in time; at the same time, it can make the epidemic prevention work as humane as possible and minimize the impact on economic activities.”

  • It then asks: “Why didn’t India copy China’s homework?” As the piece points out, India did launch its own version of a contact tracing health app. In fact, as Reuters reports, this app “made India the world’s only democratic country to make the use of a contact tracing app mandatory for its citizens, according to Software Freedom Law Center.”

  • The reasons why India could not replicate the success of China’s health QR codes, according to Taihe, are twofold: 1. Inefficient collaboration among governments at different levels. It describes India as a place where “government decrees do not leave New Delhi.” 2. The diffusion of mobile Internet and digital networks has not advanced as far in India. There are still at least 400 million people in India who do not have smartphones, for instance.

  • This line of argument seems to align with recent nationalist propaganda that highlights China’s success in curbing coronavirus infections while highlighting the failings of India. As I note in comments in the full translation Google doc, the analysis is not very rigorous, and some of the points about lack of access to Internet could equally apply to China.

The vision of digital governance in China can be mundane and ordinary, not just “scary digital authoritarianism”

  • Here are three examples from the piece on digital tehc and streamlining bureaucratic requirements: a) hospital forms and approvals in Rizhao (“The City Without Proof”); b) construction project approvals in Jinan, which originally involved “17 departments, preparing more than 500 materials, completing 74 approval items, filling out 81 sets of forms, with more than 1,900 form elements. After the reform, you only need to fill in 4 sets of forms and prepare 75 materials, and it only takes 8 working days to complete the process at the fastest;” c) a “digital village brain” in Chejia, in collaboration with Alibaba’s DingTalk, which provides regular notifications for the elderly to get haircuts.

  • The models for China’s digital reforms in government affairs are countries like the U.S. and South Korea. Taihe references President Obama establishing high-level steering groups on big data strategy and elevating data into a strategic resource as important as land, labor, and capital. It was funny reading that paragraph because I’ve seen so many English-language articles that reference China’s leadership in essentially the same way. The piece also cites South Korea as a country that ranks very highly on the United Nations e-government index, whereas “China's e-government development index ranks 45th, and the online service index ranks 12th, which is not yet in the forefront.”

  • I’ll leave you with this passage: “The legacy of China's ‘omnipotent government’ [全能型政府] is that it ‘oversees too much’ [管的太多], behind which invisible entanglements of power and interests have formed. Under the traditional system, the data of various departments have formed closed ‘information islands’ and ‘data chimneys.’ Therefore, the core problem to be solved by digital government is not at the technical level, but to improve and optimize governance efficiency, from an all-powerful government to a ‘limited government and service-oriented government.’ Digitization is not simply the transmission of information, but the logical reconstruction of public governance.”

***For a reference to Dubuque, Iowa as the world’s first smart city, as well as a table of various companies’ smart city projects, see FULL TRANSLATION: Digitalized Public Governance: A Recoded Social Order

ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

Must-read: A Guardian longread on “China, the US and me”

I can’t remember reading a piece that spoke to my experience more deeply than this one. Angela Qian writes about losing her grandfather this past year and having to attend his funeral via WeChat video call. She writes about collecting her family’s oral histories to make sense of where she came from. She writes about her vague dreams of living in China for a few years, even though she knows it will probably never happen. She also writes passages like these:

Since my grandparents passed, their children have filled the WeChat group with messages to them. They address my grandparents’ spirits directly, sometimes with heartfelt messages of longing, sometimes with regret, sometimes diary entries with news, complaints and gossip. For the parts where my Chinese wasn’t up to it, there was in-app machine translation available, its innocent English, though fraught with errors, achieving a kind of poetry.

One day in September, late in the summer after my grandparents passed, my aunts wrote an ordinary series of messages. The English translations are full of optimistic mistakes. In one, I, the “little granddaughter”, have published a “book” – in reality, just an article – and in another, a grandchild has bought a “villa with a pool” – in reality, a small house in Arkansas. It had been a difficult year for our family, and even the cockroaches, one of my aunts wrote, were bullies.

Should-read: Open Source R&D Accelerates Digital Transformation, and China’s Open Source Market is Heating Up (in Mandarin)

Considered translating this piece by jiqizhineng for this week’s issue. What happens when closed borders, in the form of tech restrictions, meet “open source”? This piece provides an overview of GitHub (which does not have a local server or team in China) vs. Gitee (a Chinese GitHub alternative) vs. Gitlab (a U.S.-based DevOps platform that has licensed its tech to an independent Chinese company).

Should-listen: The fightback against facial recognition

Had a good conversation with Cindy Yu on The Spectator’s “Chinese Whispers” podcast about resistance and public backlash to intrusive facial recognition applications in China. It was especially good to be joined by Jeremy Daum, whose China Law Translate blog is an essential resource. See, for example, his recent post on China’s draft security standards for facial recognition data.

Should-read: China’s Artificial Intelligence Industry Alliance

A CSET data brief by Ngor Luong and Zachary Arnold, which “provides a high-level assessment of the role of industry alliances in China’s AI strategy and closely examines one major group: the Artificial Intelligence Industry Alliance (AIIA) [中国人工智能产业发展联盟]. Through the AIIA, the Chinese government aims to foster collaboration among local governments, academic institutions, and companies. In some cases, the Chinese state uses the AIIA to ‘pick winners,’ choosing among favored companies in the AI industry to receive government subsidies. . . These conclusions draw on open-source data, collected and annotated by CSET, on the AIIA’s hundreds of members, including their websites, media coverage, and commercial databases.”

Thank you for reading and engaging.

These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Predoctoral Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, sponsored by Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

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