China's Social Credit System: Foucault’s Panopticon and Berlin’s Positive & Negative Liberty

China's Social Credit System: Foucault’s Panopticon and Berlin’s Positive & Negative Liberty

by Jessie Pitsillides

This is the second instalment in a series on China’s Social Credit System (SCS). In the introduction, we looked at what the SCS is, how it works, and how it has been implemented in China thus far. In this article, we will review some key philosophical theories to keep in mind when examining the SCS.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault claims "the exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation" (Foucault, 1977, p170). He describes surveillance as a coercive measure that promotes disciplinary action in line with the desires of the observer, implying a lack of liberty of the surveilled to act in their own self-interest. Foucault’s analysis comes from Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon and its implications on societal control. The Panopticon is a hypothetical building designed to control prisoners through self-regulation. Within a completely round building, every prisoner of the institution can be watched by one single security guard, who sits at the centre. However, the prisoners cannot know whether or not they are being observed. Since the prisoners cannot know if they are being surveilled, they are motivated to behave as though they were being constantly observed, thus compelling them to regulate their own behaviour (O'Reilly, 2019).  

Like China's surveillance techniques, the Panopticon symbolises societal control, which influences citizens to internalise authority, which is in itself a control mechanism for the State.

Like China's surveillance techniques, the Panopticon symbolises societal control, which influences citizens to internalise authority, which is in itself a control mechanism for the State. To evaluate whether such surveillance measures are compatible with citizen liberty, the distinctions made by Isaiah Berlin, the 20th century social and political theorist, between positive and negative liberty will be used as the framework for this investigation. 

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Meanwhile, Berlin described negative liberty as the "degree to which no human being interferes with my activity" (Berlin, 1958, p4). This means acting in an "unobstructed" manner, not being prevented by external factors from what one would otherwise do. Berlin defined negative freedom as the more basic, foundational form of liberty, answering the question of what the area is "within which the subject [...] is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons" (Berlin, 1969). As the theory of negative freedom focuses on the external space in which individuals interact, it provides a type of guarantee against the dangers of authoritarianism, highlighted by Berlin. He notes that a State that attempts to maximise the negative freedom of its citizens is one that places emphasis on non-intervention with individual affairs. To promote negative liberty is to promote a sphere of action within which an individual is sovereign and autonomous, and within which they can pursue their own projects subject only to the limitation that they respect the spheres of other individuals. The concept of negative freedom appears to be the traditional approach to protecting autonomy as it is focused on the sovereignty of individuals within a larger group such as the State; the role of a State that seeks to promote negative freedom for its citizens is to set wider restrictions for individual choice and decision-making through legal boundaries.  

To promote negative liberty is to promote a sphere of action within which an individual is sovereign and autonomous, and within which they can pursue their own projects subject only to the limitation that they respect the spheres of other individuals.

While negative freedom is freedom from external control, positive freedom is freedom to control oneself (Kasmirli, 2019). Positive liberty "derives from the desire on the part of the individual to be his own master" (Berlin, 1958, p14). Hence, positive freedom is based on one's own capacity for self-ruling and autonomy. A State that promotes positive liberty would assume an obligation to maximise how its citizens exercise their autonomy by providing them with the resources they require for this purpose and for developing their capability to make their own decisions. 

While most agree that accepting certain restrictions on negative freedom means avoiding chaos as a trade-off for other benefits like security and peace, Berlin warned against the implications of positive liberty, which he associated with tyranny in totalitarian states. Making reference to this problem and to aid the definition of positive liberty, Berlin hypothesised the “divided self”; we can think of each person as two distinct "selves”: a “higher”, more rational self,  and a “lower”, more empirical self (Brook, 2020). The “higher” self is superior to the other as it is the rational, self-reflecting and morally-capable self. One is positively free if their higher self is dominant over and not a slave to their passions and lower self. 

If this is true, then it is possible to perceive how one may be rendered positively free through coercion. Since some individuals are more rational than others, the more rational person may know best what is in their and others' best rational interests. This allows them to claim that, by coercing less rational people than themselves to choose the more rational decision and thus to realise their true selves, that person is in essence “liberating” the others from their empirical desires through coercion. In terms of those being surveilled, it can be assumed that the observer is the more rational individual, helping to liberate” the surveilled through self-realisation. For example, a drug addict with a low Social Credit Score may be banned from using public transport, meaning they are prevented from continuing to engage with their addiction. By limiting their negative freedom, the SCS increases their positive freedom, as they are forced to have increased self-control and be less beholden to the drug on which they depended. While this example of the drug abuser may prove equally beneficial for the individual and the State (if they are healthier, they can engage in more prosocial activities like paying tax), this method of control that employs coercion can be abused to justify interventions that are fallacious and destructive. Therefore, China's use of the SCS to govern the behaviour of its citizens interferes with their negative liberty in order to increase their positive liberty, exposing citizens to its risks.

The risk of exploitation of positive freedom could increase if one's higher self is identified with a  social group such as a State. This is because one can conclude that an individual is only free when the State suppresses individual desires, which stem from the lower, nonsocial selves, and imposes its will upon them. It is as if the act of being watched, as highlighted by Foucault in his critique of Panopticism, internalises the State in the form of one's higher self, offering one the illusion of autonomy when in fact, an individual's volition originates from their innate desire as a social being to conform. Foucault's use of the term "docile bodies" in Discipline and Punish can be interpreted as a result of the self-censorship and internalisation of State power that surveillance enforces on its subjects; citizens are coerced into conformity rather than creativity, eliminating the exceptional people in society and reducing the likelihood of citizens challenging the rule of the State or the surveillance itself (O'Reilly, 2019). This feature of surveillance implies incompatibility with liberty because citizens cannot question authority, linking to Berlin's warnings against totalitarianism and dictatorship in States which promote positive liberty.  

What is concerning about the SCS is that it can justify the coercion of individuals not only as a  means of assuring social benefits like cooperation and safety but also as a way of offering the illusion of "liberating" the individuals themselves. The SCS justifies this coercion on the basis that it leads to the realisation of a higher self’s goals, even if the lower, empirical self opposes that coercion. What is troubling is that the State could rebut any protestor of coercion by pointing out that it is not coercion because it increases one's freedom. Berlin stated, "once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man [...] must be identical with his freedom" (Berlin 1969). Therefore, China's offering of positive freedom is used to justify oppressive techniques like the penalisation of diverse political thought, as if its citizens are surrendering their higher selves to the panopticism utilised by their leaders.  

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Jessie Pitsillides
Jessie Pitsillides

Jessie Pitsillides is an 18-year-old prospective Harvard student, and the founder of MentorJr, an organisation focused on fixing inequality within the education system. Here, she talks about the origins of the organisation, and where she sees it going next.

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