In 1955, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published a short story about an experiment in “electronic democracy,” in which a single citizen, selected to represent an entire population, responded to questions generated by a computer named Multivac. The machine took this data and calculated the results of an election that therefore never needed to happen. Asimov’s story was set in Bloomington, Indiana, but today an approximation of Multivac is being built in China.
For any authoritarian regime, “there is a basic problem for the center of figuring out what’s going on at lower levels and across society,” says Deborah Seligsohn, a political scientist and China expert at Villanova University in Philadelphia. How do you effectively govern a country that’s home to one in five people on the planet, with an increasingly complex economy and society, if you don’t allow public debate, civil activism, and electoral feedback? How do you gather enough information to actually make decisions? And how does a government that doesn’t invite its citizens to participate still engender trust and bend public behavior without putting police on every doorstep?
Hu Jintao, China’s leader from 2002 to 2012, had attempted to solve these problems by permitting a modest democratic thaw, allowing avenues for grievances to reach the ruling class. His successor, Xi Jinping, has reversed that trend. Instead, his strategy for understanding and responding to what is going on in a nation of 1.4 billion relies on a combination of surveillance, AI, and big data to monitor people’s lives and behavior in minute detail.