The Chinese Leviathan

Posted 2/20/2018

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Adam Greenfield writes perceptively about the growth of intrusive, government-initiated social technologies in China. Artificial intelligence, through face-recognition technologies and cameras on every corner, allow the Chinese government almost complete knowledge of the each citizen’s actions, and as a result, they want to establish a system of “social credit,” through which a citizen is awarded or penalized for how well his life measures up to the official standard. Take public transit instead of driving and get better insurance rates. Or perhaps more sinisterly, in order to keep your passport, don’t attend Christian worship services. Greenfield points out an interesting philosophical assumption of the Chinese elite that makes such government micro-management palatable:

As far as the ruling elites of Zhongnanhai are concerned, though, “sincerity construction,” or the process that results in stability and public rectitude, is something far too important to be left to the unplanned interactions of millions of city dwellers. From their point of view, orderliness is paramount, because orderliness makes for stability, and stability makes for continued economic growth. In their 21st-century interpretation of the “mandate of heaven,” the 3,000-year-old doctrine of Chinese imperial rule, only continued economic growth underwrites continued legitimacy.

Seen in this light, order produced from below is not reliable enough to be trusted. It leaves too much room for chance. And worst of all, from the perspective of a party bent on perpetuating its control, it does nothing to prevent the possibility of contagious urban insurrection. Social credit offers a salve to all these concerns.

What assumption is hidden under the belief that “sincerity construction” is a process far too important to be left to the decisions of individuals? Namely, that there is something distinct about the power or standards of the community that is more than the sum of the individual. Order is something that comes from above, because order is a concept external to the nature of man as an individual. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke referred to the state of man in the absense of civil government as the “state of nature;” the Chinese elite believe man in the state of nature to be simply instruments of chaos. It is only in their status as a whole civil community, ruled by the imperial state, that order is possible. Hobbes also believed that man in the state of nature was in a state of chaos, a state of war, as he called it. As a result, he was entirely comfortable with man surrendering his rights to the ruler, the absolute state, the Leviathan, as he called the state, and his famous book about its origins and rights. Hobbes went even further. Because of man’s fundamentally chaotic, pre-moral being when he is in the state of nature, submission to civil authority requires the giving up of man’s most fundamental rights. Hobbes defined a covenant between two men, the most basic building block of civilized society, as the giving up of rights which man previously had in the state of nature. “The mutural transferring of Right, is that which men call Contract,” he said (Leviathan, I.14). He goes on to define the origins of the commonwealth in an entire community of men giving up their rights to the sovereign. This sounds remarkably similar to the assumption that Chinese elite make about their citizens. In order to achieve civil order, they must give up fundamental rights, such as the ability to choose their religion, their livelihoods, or the most basic decisions. As it turns out, the question of how to limit the government’s use of technology turns, as so many questions do, on the nature of man.