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Engineering China’s Autonomic Nervous System

The objectives of China’s social management process directly correlate with autonomic computing’s “Four Self-”s. In particular, the language of the 12th Five Year Plan (2011), in which the phrase “social management” was included as a key objective, illustrates how China’s social management mirrors the “Four Self-”s in autonomic computing. The plan called for speeding up the establishment of a [1] “social management system” that combines [2] “source governance,” [3] “dynamic management,” and [4] “emergency response.” 26

These four social management objectives under Hu Jintao have clearly persisted thematically under Xi Jinping, even if the preferred word choices have changed. Under Xi, the process is more explicitly placed within the state security system and rhetoric. The technology designed to enable each of China’s “Four Self-”s objectives to automate is also more pronounced under Xi.


1. Self-Configuring

Social management requires the configuration of an organizational structure that can support the success of the “source governance,” “dynamic management,” and “emergency response” objectives. It explains why the 12th Five Year Plan also called for “the integration of power” and “the overall coordination of all sides to improve the leadership of society, the organization of society, the management of society, and the capacity to serve the community.”

Likewise, the ANS Self-Configuring objective requires a central system that can support the optimal operation of the sub-systems within it.27 This social management system must optimize interactions vertically (within the Party), and horizontally (between agencies).28 The structure must be flexible, enabling the system’s reactions to adapt to issue-based, geographical and situational differences.

The post-Mao effort to create this architecture began in the 1980s and accelerated after Tiananmen. It is visible in the Comprehensive Management of Public Security (社会治安综合治理, CMPS) system, which emerged in the 1980s (CMPS is the common translation, although a more precise translation, and a translation that better captures the meaning of the phrase, is “the comprehensive governance of social order”). CMPS, as part of the Political-Legal system apparatus, reflected an attempted structural integration of internal security and social resources aimed at producing a more effective social management system. The development of the CMPS system partly responded to issues in coordination between the Political-Legal departments and the Party’s grassroots system. It is an approach that has always called on both cooperative and coercive tactics constantly acting together.

The Political-Legal system became steadily more powerful throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s. The individuals in control of the day-to-day operation of social management possessed a growing individual power that corresponded with their control over vast material resources for maintaining the Party-state’s power. A problem that will not disappear is that the political system’s structure must be able to control the contestation for power within the Party, while simultaneously ensuring the Party’s own absolute power. By mid-2012, a shift was evident through a series of articles in the Study Times, Red Flag and Seeking Truth – all publications by the Central Party School, whose president was Xi Jinping from 2007 to 2012.29 This discussion pointed to a central problem in building a social management process: creating a dependable institutional mechanism to serve the Party leadership’s interests.

The Central State Security Commission (CSSC) created in 2013 is designed partially as a response to the structural problems identified in the summer of 2012.30 The CSSC acts as an overarching policy formation and crisis pre-emption body. The CSSC’s primary function is the coordination of the work of all key agencies and ministries charged with ensuring state security. The CMPS system has not disappeared nor have its functions diminished, but on the policy formation level the system has now been aligned under the state security umbrella.31

With Xi Jinping as CSSC chairman, the committee centralizes state security policy design and coordination at the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)-level directly under the “most powerful” person in the Party. The CSSC reportedly consists of a standing committee and several sub-committees, which are either formed on a permanent or ad-hoc basis, and it is designed to coordinate work on state security.32 These sub-committees are cross-agency and departmental, horizontally coordinating work on an issue basis. The CSSC enables the optimization of interactions vertically (within the Party) and horizontally (between agencies). The CSSC’s structure and membership is replicated across the country, where provincial, city, county and district governments have established State Security Work Leading Small Groups (SSLSGs).33

On paper, the CSSC-led system creates the structural integration required to support policy formation and dissemination as well as to control power from the top down. If it works as intended, the ANS Self-Configuring objective would create structural support for the remaining objectives of China’s ANS: ‘self-healing’ (source governance), ‘self-optimizing’ (dynamic management) and ‘self-protecting’ (emergency response).


2. Self-Healing

The source governance aspect of social management is described through China’s ANS Self-Healing objective. The 12th Five Year Plan described the objective of strengthening “source governance” as: “[paying] more attention to the construction of civil utility and institutions, [and persevering] with scientific and democratic decision making according to law, to prevent and reduce the emergence of social problems.”34

Self-healing can be defined as: “In the reactive sense, the capability of self-fixing faults” and, “in the proactive sense, the capability of predicting and preventing faults.”35 For China, the objective relates to threat management. China’s holistic state security concept describes threats to state security as coming from both inside and outside the Party, and inside and outside the state’s borders.36  

Managing the threats that the Party-state leadership perceives requires pre-emption. Pre-emption can be automated through technology. Just like the self-healing attribute, source governance is directed at identifying problems, preferably pre-emptively, and fixing them. 

China’s ANS Self-Healing objective is achieved within a defined real or virtual space. Source governance involves the improvement of surveillance that can detect and monitor and handle threats (through both cooperative and coercive methods). Historically, the method for controlling the grassroots organization of the Party took place through a system of grids (a social control system that in China is not unique to the CCP but originated during the Song dynasty).37

Modern grid policing was being implemented between 2001 and 2002 in separate localities across the country. In this early stage, it was characterized mostly by enhanced monitoring and surveillance and more efficient data sharing within designated areas and within public security bureaus. The attempt to automate social management through grid policing significantly expanded under Hu Jintao. This project was largely under the direction of Zhou Yongkang, Minister of Public Security (2003–2007) and head of the Central Political-Legal Affairs Committee (2007–2012). Within a few years of grid policing’s initial appearance, the more encompassing “grid management” (网格化管理) began to publicly emerge. This method also helps support non-coercive tasks of social management, such as the provision of social services.

It could be said that modern grid management is an early attempt at an automated version of the commune and danwei systems, except now in defined grid spaces. Grid management has enabled the organization of data to generate better situational awareness and predictive capacity, as well as enhanced tracking and monitoring of individuals.38 Operating in physically and virtually separated grid areas for surveillance and knowledge building, the system can support both cooperative and coercive social management tactics.

The ANS Self-Healing objective, from the Party state leadership’s perspective, has likely generated a more reliable form of source governance. This success taken alone, however, would not allow China’s ANS system to function as a cohesive whole. Further integration is required.


3. Self-Optimizing

When the 12th Five Year Plan elevated social management to the status of a key objective, it called for strengthening the “display of the government’s leading role, strengthening social management and public service functions, building a service-oriented government and raising service-oriented management capacity.” The Party’s concept of “dynamic management” relates to China’s ANS Self-Optimizing objective. The ANS Self-Optimizing objective describes maximizing resources and pre-emptively “initiating a change in itself to improve performance or service quality.”39

The Party’s definition of social management has always emphasized “public participation” and “self-management.” In the Mao era, this included campaign-style mass mobilization. At the start of the reform era, this management system changed but did not disappear. It has, over time, been incrementally adapted to fit within the current context.  

Social management is the management of the entire society, but it also requires the participation of the entire society. Participation does not describe a form of liberalization, but rather a more flexible form of complete control that incorporates both positive and negative reinforcement.

The concept of “responsibility” is key. Responsibility implies that every Chinese citizen, whether they are located inside or outside of the Party, is tasked with fulfilling the responsibility to uphold the Communist Party’s leadership. Technology will ideally enable the automation of responsibility. In fact, the “Social Credit System,” which monitors and rates citizens’ behavior from payment morale and traffic violations to comments on social media, represents the technological marriage of individual “responsibility” and social control mechanisms.

Social credit creates a form of government performance optimization. Importantly it creates a process for pre-empting threat by changing behaviors that might lead to or exacerbate their manifestation into larger problems. Ideally, it would also aid the efficient management of resources in order to handle threats or problems of all types as they emerge.

Through social credit, society would be co-opted to participate because the same technology is directly linked to conveniences that improve everyday life, for instance electronic payment. At the same time, society would also be coerced to participate, for instance by self-censoring online. Not participating could have consequences not only for the individual but also for their personal networks.

The realization of the ANS Self-Optimizing objective requires the integration of information resources and interoperability of platforms. If social credit becomes successful, the same technology applications used to provide social and commercial services will feed directly into government information gathering and sharing processes.40 These are on-going projects, however, and will require multiple phases of development even after initial stages of implementation are complete.


4. Self-Protecting

The 12th Five Year Plan, which elevated social management to a key objective, called for strengthening emergency response capacity as part of social management system construction.41 The “emergency response” aspect of social management is China’s ANS Self-Protecting objective.

The ANS Self-Protecting objective describes “a system’s capability of organizing its own efforts,” and it is “often used relative to networks and communications.”42 China’s ANS Self-Protecting objective is aimed at programming a pre-emption and response mechanism for all types of crises.

In the hierarchy of response to a domestic crisis scenario, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would only be deployed in the most serious crisis type – one in which the Party’s rule is directly challenged. In that case, the PLA may be all that stands between the Party’s survival and its demise. The People’s Armed Police (PAP) and other public security organs are equally responsible to the Party. Together, the security forces serve one basic mission: protect the Communist Party.

The most serious threats the Communist Party perceives are dealt with in the “holistic state security” concept. Internal and external security overlap in China’s state security concept. This cannot be simplified as only a combination of domestic and foreign security policy. The concept also describes security issues inside of and outside of the Party.43 Loyalty of the security forces to the Party is key; without it the Party cannot guarantee rapid mobilization in response to the most serious crisis type it perceives. This objective is not guaranteed, which is a key reason for why social management strongly emphasizes “emergency response.”

The structure of China’s defense mobilization committee system, initiated in 1994, is designed for the integration, balancing and coordinating of overall national defense mobilization, and to ensure that the system is capable of “unifying all plans, unifying all organizations, and unifying all actions in order to improve the efficiency of mobilization.”44

The national defense mobilization structure and membership at the local government levels indicates that military-civil integration also functions as an emergency pre-emption tactic. On the city, district, and county levels, defense mobilization committees include departments ranging from People’s Armed Forces Departments and Political-Legal Affairs Committees to Women’s Federations and Party Work Committees. At the street level, mobilization is connected to the local committees that are responsible for carrying out political and ideological work, such as civil affairs, cultural, health and family planning, education, and spreading “scientific common sense.”45

The structure is also designed to enable more effective and rapid defense mobilization and logistical mobilization for any type of crisis, from a natural disaster to war. The unification of military and government functions further ensures the interests of pre-emptive Party-state security.

Dozens of local governments have described objectives to improve the construction of a grid social management system next to objectives to improve emergency response systems.46 The same systems are used to mobilize and coordinate response to unrest. Depending on severity, regular police, SWAT teams, and PAP units are required to coordinate. Grid management systems have an existing joint logistical and joint mobilization function, which is being optimized as technology improves. Grid managers also receive national defence mobilization training, and have also been reported as members of local militia units.47

Success of the ANS Self-Protecting objective will ultimately depend on effective coordination and rapid response during a crisis. Technology is being designed to add further coordination to the system. Eventually, it will enable a comprehensive “smart mobilization” system, which utilizes grid management systems.48 The objective is to “organically integrate” the national defence mobilization network and the [military] command network. It would allow for “holistic” unification and coordination to solve problems related to interconnectivity, intercommunication and interoperability.49