China

Beijing has a plan for automated governance

Big data could help connect municipal and local governments into one big web.

A visitor watches an elaborate digital video display.

A visitor watches a digital video display at a big data industrial park on May 29, 2021 in Tai'an, Shandong Province of China.

Photo: Wang Jilin/VCG via Getty Images

Even as Beijing signals a continuation of crackdowns on the country's largest tech companies, top officials are calling for data measures that would make governing them and the general public more streamlined — perhaps even automated.

In a recent policy document released by China's powerful State Council focused on 2021 through 2025, Beijing doubled down on its push for various levels of government and private businesses to exchange data with one another. But rather than using the resource to grow the country's digital economy and drive economic efficiency —the focus of previous guidelines — the new plan, themed around the rule of law, looks to data, analytics and AI and how they can be useful in law enforcement and market regulation.

According to the document, which was released Aug. 11, before the end of 2022, China wants to integrate its state supervision and internet capabilities, which include IT infrastructure and digital platforms. Meanwhile on the local level, provinces and municipalities have been tasked with creating interconnected government platforms through which the public can access services and have them administered, ones that would allow Beijing to view and coordinate local actions in real time. By the middle of this decade, Chinese authorities envision accessing this level of "smart," "remote" and "mobile" law enforcement all through convenient "handheld apps."

Perhaps gone will be the days of uneven or contradictory rules being employed in various parts of China, and a legal infraction by a person or company in one jurisdiction will trigger alerts across the country, no longer allowing them to skirt consequences thanks to regional disparities.

The policy document names national security, public health, education, ethnic issues, religion, wildlife, the environment, financial services, "foreign-related rule of law" and notably labor protections and antitrust as areas where the rule of law should be strengthened, something observers have interpreted as a sign that the ongoing crackdown on major tech companies will continue for years to come.

The new national treasure

For this level of digital governance to happen, the government has once again called for data sharing between the government and "public service agencies," which could include private businesses. Data would be stored in a "national integrated government big data system," and would be analyzed, mined and applied to market supervision, administrative decision-making, legislation and law enforcement.

The text is reminiscent of China's 14th Five-Year Plan released in March, which designated data as one of a small number of "factors of production" to be traded and whose potential to generate GDP should be tapped. This and other similar policies have already seen the emergence of a slew of online platforms created by regional governments that facilitate data exchanges, though they appeared to be a far cry from the interconnected ecosystem Beijing now demands, and adoption by private businesses has been slow.

In recent months, China's tech sector has grappled with an industry-wide crackdown that has seen giants Alibaba and Tencent censured for monopolistic behavior, DiDi probed for cybersecurity, a suspension of overseas IPOs for large companies and Ant Group cave to regulator demands for its consumer data. Observers say the clampdown, for which there is currently no end in sight, is at least partially driven by Beijing's new emphasis on securing data within its borders.

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