Grasping Power with Both Hands: Social Credit, the Mass Line, and Party Control

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 16

A United Airlines flight takes off from Washington, DC's Dulles International Airport on a flight to Beijing.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long claimed that only it can lead the Chinese people to prosperity. This claim underlies Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying that China must “grab with both hands, grasping firmly with both” (两手抓, 两手都要硬). Implied in Deng’s message is that the CCP’s political control must be made inseparable from China’s social and economic development [1].

Throughout its history, the CCP has used concepts like the “Mass Line” and “social management” to put this idea into practice, through efforts which have carried over into attempts to build a “spiritual civilization” and a more “service-oriented” government. The Party’s goal is to embed “correct” ideological and moral behavior into individuals and institutions, so they will automatically make choices that uphold Party power. According to the CCP, this requires a system of socialist ideology and morality, as well as a socialist legal system, both of which must be compatible with the PRC’s socialist market economic system (NPC.gov, April 7, 2004).

Although these efforts are designed to foster a more prosperous, better-functioning economy, they cannot be separated from the Party’s overriding political objectives. The CCP’s development of the ‘social credit’ system is, in this sense, another step in the Party’s long exploration of ways to fuse political control and economic prosperity. The expanding global reach of China’s economy means that social credit’s fusion of social and political control will also be used to bend entities outside China’s borders towards the Party’s political objectives. Dozens of international airlines, including four US airlines, recently discovered what this means in practice.

 

Social Credit and Civil Aviation

On April 25, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), the PRC’s civilian airline regulator, sent dozens of international airlines letters demanding that their websites be changed to show Taiwan as a part of the People’s Republic of China (SCMP, April 25).

The letter the CAAC sent to United Airlines was made public. In it, the CAAC said “our bureau will take further measures according to regulations, including on the basis of Article 8, Section 11 of the ‘Civil Aviation Industry Credit Management Measures (Trial Measures)’, and make a record of your company’s serious dishonesty and take disciplinary actions against your company in accordance with Chapter 3 of the Measures.”

Unlike the majority of international airlines, four US carriers—with United Airlines among them—delayed implementing the changes until late July. A ‘compromise’ the US airlines arrived at saw them remove references to Taiwan as a separate country, without adding “People’s Republic of China/China” after the names of Taiwanese destination cities (The Washington Post, July 26). According to a knowledgeable source, this compromise was reached only after Chinese authorities rejected other efforts, including a proposal for the airlines to create separate, PRC-specific websites. Only submission on a global scale, even for airline websites facing markets having nothing to do with the PRC, would satisfy the CAAC.

The CAAC used the trial version of the Civil Aviation Industry Credit Measures (民航行业信用管理办法 (试行))—written expressly to support the construction of the China’s social credit system—to force foreign airlines to comply with its political demands [2]. Airlines that failed to comply would see their “act of serious dishonesty” recorded on their credit records. Chapter 3 of the Measures, cited in the United letter, describes how an act of “serious dishonesty” can result in more frequent inspections of the concerned individuals/parties, and states that they should be penalized as severely as possible.

Chapter 3 also stipulates that any “serious dishonesty” will be recorded on an aviation industry credit platform, and shared with other credit platforms, including “Credit China”, “Credit Transportation” and the “National Enterprise Credit Information Publicity System”. This suggests that the aviation credit platform is supposed to automatically feed into national-level credit platforms, an assumption that makes sense, considering that Chapter 3 also stipulates that numerous other PRC government agencies should be informed of any “serious” dishonesty, and seek to implement joint disciplinary measures.

 

A Mass Line for the 21st Century

The CAAC’s choice to use the civil aviation credit measures to force airlines to comply with its political demands are especially significant when viewed in light of the Party’s larger “social governance” goals.

As the Party defines it, social credit is meant to support “social governance” in addition to economic development (Gov.cn, June 27, 2014). Social governance (also called “social management” in the CCP’s parlance) is the process of automating “public participation” and “self-management” (MERICS, December 12, 2017). Through “self-management”, Party leaders seek to solidify their control by inducing the “masses”—consisting of both society and the Party rank-and-file—to participate in their own management (China Brief, August 17, 2017).

Although the term “public participation” might carry democratic connotations for western ears, the process is not remotely democratic. “Public participation” as the Party understands it today is, by and large, an updated version of the Maoist organizational concept of the “Mass Line”. The Mass Line was the term used in Maoist-era China to describe the Party leadership’s process for shaping, managing and responding to society’s demands, in the service of their primary objective: protecting and expanding the Party’s power. In Mao’s China, the Mass Line relied on ideological mass mobilization, using Mao Zedong’s personal charisma, to force participation.

After Mao passed from the scene and Deng launched Reform and Opening, ideology did not become irrelevant, but ideological mobilization could no longer be the primary tool of the Mass Line process. Instead, the CCP was forced to reinvent its tactics for fusing political control with economic and social development, finding new ways to keep the Party in power as central planning was rolled back and the PRC economy took off. “Public participation” and “self-management” in the reform era had to be re-defined as collective adherence to the unified moral and spiritual Party guidance underlying the pursuit of CCP-defined social and economic development goals [3].

 

Service-Oriented Management

Operationalizing the Mass Line in the reform era required that the Party improve its capacity to solve problems and deliver social services. This is often described as a “service oriented” government [4]. The social credit system’s efforts to unify data, monitoring, and record-keeping across disparate government platforms is a direct outgrowth of efforts to build this service-oriented government.

Better intra-government coordination is integral to social management. According to one 2016 Xinhua article on the subject, the goal is that “each member of society as being integrated into the social management process.” As a result, it elaborated, “society’s self-management ability will not only improve, but [it will] also force greater professionalization of institutions,” where ‘professionalization of institutions’ refers to a better-coordinated, better functioning government (Xinhua, January 26, 2016).

Social credit is the culmination of a drive for technical coordination that began, perhaps somewhat appropriately, in 1984. Between 1984 and 1990, the State Council approved plans to develop national information systems in about a dozen areas, including the economy, banking, electrical power, civil aviation, statistics, taxation, customs, meteorology and disaster mitigation [5]. By 1993, these early e-government plans turned into projects initially known as the “Three Golden” projects. These were: “Golden Bridge”, a national information network and communications project; “Golden Gate”, a customs informatization project; and “Golden Card”, related to credit card and electronic banking development [6]. Gradually the initiative expanded to about a dozen projects between 1995-1999, among them the famous “Golden Shield” project (China Brief, August 17, 2017).

The Golden Projects were the starting point for “unified planning”, “unified standards”, “unified coordination” and “unified deployment”, of policies driving informatization of government departments across the country [7]. More than data integration, cross-agency coordination also requires streamlining administrative procedure. In his report to the 15th Party Congress in 1997, for example, then-CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin noted that a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy hampers economic development, and the Party’s ability to manage both itself and its relationship with society. His prescription was the establishment of a “highly efficient, well-coordinated and standardized administrative system” [8]. Streamlining administration does more than improve the government’s capacity to provide advertised administrative services; it also unifies processes and removes the obstacles required for systems like social credit to function as intended.

 

Outlook

There are those who argue that the transparency and interpersonal trust that social credit will help engender make it a natural expression of the PRC government’s healthy desire to better administer an enormous, chaotic country. But because social credit evolves from a clear methodology of control based on the spirit of the Mass Line, it comes with coercion built in. The societal problems it solves, and the incentives it creates for individuals and entities to willingly “self-manage” are meant to reinforce the CCP’s effort to fully integrate its political control with China’s social and economic development.

Jiang Zemin’s efforts at administrative coherence and efficiently were intimately connected with his desire to build a cohesive ideological and moral system, summed up in the second of his “Three Represents” maxim on the “orientation of China’s advanced culture” (People’s Daily, September 18 2006). As one contemporary article explained:

We must better persist [in upholding] the directive to “grab with both hands, grasping firmly with both”, and promote the progress of society as a whole…Every year, various bills and articles have been raised on this issue, [including] … how to reinforce and maintain the guiding position of Marxism, [and] how to establish an ideological and moral system that can adapt to the market economy …. At bottom, this is a question of how to address the [future] direction of advanced culture. The ‘Three Represents’ have taken a novel approach to offering guidance on the construction of [this] culture.” (People’s Daily, March 5, 2002)

These systems of ideology and morality are the tools the Party leans on to justify the systematic persecution of groups and individuals that challenge its control. For example, Jiang Zemin used the Three Represents as a justification for the persecution of Falun Gong from 1999 onward, framing it as a question of correct ideology and morality (Guangming Daily, March 20, 2001).

Falun Gong posed an especially serious threat, since its 1999 sit-in demonstration in front of Zhongnanhai was organized, in part, by Party members, including senior security and intelligence officials, using Party technological resources associated with e-governance projects [9]. But threats to the Party’s ability to “manage society” are not geographically contained. International events like the “Color Revolutions” of the early 2000s demonstrated that a breakdown in narrative control can be the starting point of a “peaceful evolution”, and can be driven, in the Party’s view, by the interference of “hostile foreign forces” [10].

As the CAAC’s demand of foreign airlines demonstrated, the social credit system may provide a useful, administratively unified platform for addressing these threats, at home and abroad, in ways unattainable by previous systems of social management.

 

Samantha Hoffman is a Visiting Academic Fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

 

Notes

[1] For more information on the connotations of Deng’s phrase, see for instance: Fengcheng Yang, ““两手抓”的源起、内涵与演变 (Origins, Connotations and Evolution of “Grabbing with Both Hands”)”, Guangming Daily, 23 February 2011.

[2] The Civil Aviation Industry Credit Measures were written to implement the spirit of two key plans related to social credit, according to the first paragraph of the measures: the “Social Credit System Construction Planning Outline (2014-2020)” and the “Guiding Opinion from the State Council Relating to the Construction and Perfection of the System for Collective Encouragement of Honesty and Collective Punishment of Dishonesty, in order to Accelerate the Construction of Social Trust”.

[3] More detail is provided on this in Bingyuan Zhang, “说“人性” (Speak of “Human Nature”) ”  The People’s Daily, 20 May 1991. accessed via The People’s Daily Archive; Junheng Lu, “培养社会责任意识 (Cultivate a Consciousness of Social Responsibility),”  The People’s Daily, 19 December 2002. accessed via The People’s Daily Archive.

[4] For example: Wengen Liao, “服务型政府步入法治化 (Service-Oriented Government Enters the Age of the Rule of Law),”  The People’s Daily, 15 September 2010. accessed via The People’s Daily Archive; Haibo Long, “努力建设新时代人民满意的服务型政府  (Endeavor to Construct a Service-Oriented Government of the New Era that the People are Satisfied with),”  China Economic Times, 27 December 2017. accessed via Development and Research Center of the State Council: <http://www.drc.gov.cn/xscg/20171227/182-473-2895210.htm>.

[5] See, for example: Xiaomei Chen, Occidentalism: a Theory of Counter-Discourse in post-Mao China (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 28-29; Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China, 25; Xueliang Ding, The Decline of Communism in China: Legitimacy Crisis, 1977-1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 123.

[6] Additional detail on this question can be found in Hongren Zhou, Hongyuan Xu, Yuxian Zhang, Changsheng Wang, and Xinhong Zhang, 中国电子政务发展报告 No.1 (China E-Government Development Report No. 1) 电子政务蓝皮书 (Blue Book of Electronic Development) (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2003); 中国电子政务发展报告 No. 2 (China E-Government Development Report No. 2) 电子政务蓝皮书 (Blue Book of Electronic Development). Edited by Chengsheng Wang Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2005.

[7] 中国软件和信息服务业发展报告 (2011) (Report on China’s Software and Information Service Industry (2011)), ed. Ying Li, 软件和信息服务业蓝皮书 (Blue Book of Software and Information Service Industry) (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2011), 73.

[8] For instance, see “Jiang Zemin’s Report at 15th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China,” Beijing Review, March 25, 2011: <http://www.bjreview.com.cn/document/txt/2011-03/25/content_363499_11.htm>.

[9] For additional detail, see: John Pomfret. “China Sect Penetrated Military and Police.” The Washington Post, 7 August 1999; Seth Faison. “Ex-General, Member of Banned Sect, Confesses ‘Mistakes,’ China Says.” The New York Times, 21 July 1999; Joseph Fewsmith, Elite Politics in Contemporary China (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2001), 145; Nigel Inkster, China’s Cyber Power. (London: Routledge for the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, 2016), 24; and John Pomfret. “China Charges 4 Sect Leaders: Trial Would Be First in Beijing During Crackdown on Falun Gong.” The Washington Post, 1 November 1999.

[10] Titus C. Chen, “China’s Reaction to the Color Revolutions: Adaptive Authoritarianism in Full Swing,” Asian Perspective 34, no. 2 (2010): 1-2.