“The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” – Chinese proverb
If you’ll forgive us for stating the blindingly obvious: China’s a big place, and a lot of people live there. The headaches arising from attempting to enforce policy across such a massive geography and population have plagued its officials since dynastic times. The historical record is full of officials in far-flung provinces who, knowing themselves to be safely beyond the reach of Beijing’s power, ignored or flouted imperial directives, forming pockets of lawlessness, corruption, and outright opposition.
Modern technologies (and a ton of infrastructure) have made China more closely knit than in the past, but many of the old problems still persist, and Beijing still struggles to keep regional governments on a tight leash.
Xi Jinping has prioritized the consolidation of top-down control since his first days on the job. He has overseen the longest-running, widest-ranging anti-corruption campaign in Party history. He has also championed a rule by law platform, and has often expressed that “power should be restricted by the cage of regulations”. 1
How much of that is authentic sentiment on Xi’s part and how much is a convenient scaffold on which to hang political rivals is up for debate; since assuming the presidency, Xi has certainly done his fair share of stringing up the opposition in the name of anti-corruption efforts. But most signs indicate that Xi genuinely believes China’s development, and specifically the development of the socialist market economy, has been stunted by widespread bureaucratic dishonesty.
And that’s where the final pillar of the SCS comes in. The government is aiming the social credit cannon not only at individuals and enterprises, but also at itself. It views the SCS as a political tool designed to extend Beijing’s power over officials, clamp down on corruption, tighten internal supervision, and increase policy enforcement in regional governments.
SCS policy and think pieces specifically outline a few common phenomena that officials believe point to a general lack of “integrity in government affairs” (政务诚信).
New officials don’t deliver on old contracts 2
When a new official takes office, promises made by their predecessors have a tendency to fall by the wayside as budgets are reallocated and priorities are adjusted, leading to a lack of continuity and stability in governance.
Half-hearted implementation of policy
Though some local officials may pay lip service to supporting central government policies, in practice, implementation is met with equivocation, subtle resistance, or responsibility-shifting, rather than concrete follow-through.
Racking up debt
Regional governments often abuse their privileged position to take out loans which remain unpaid, or engage contractors who remain uncompensated.
Lack of transparency 3
Regional governments often fail to publicize information that should be open to all, fail to clarify channels for the public to submit feedback and complaints, and otherwise operate opaquely.
Local officials use procurement decisions as a tool to line their own pockets, or parcel out projects to contractors with whom they are personally close.
As the central government sees it, these behaviors have led to problems, both for the government’s reputation and for the business environment, namely:
- Bad PR: When things get bad enough, local citizens protest or lodge complaints with the national government, which can lead to bad publicity and PR incidents.
- Inability to attract investment: International companies and companies from other parts of China are unwilling to participate in an unstable business environment.4
- Lack of public trust: Those living in corrupt areas lose faith in the rule of law and in the ability of their leaders to govern.
- Local companies don’t take risks: Fear that the rules will suddenly change leads local companies to exercise extreme caution when making business decisions, which in turn hampers economic growth.
These issues are what China’s leadership is aiming to solve via the SCS by using big data to track and measure the behavior of city governments, state agencies, and civil servants.