China's mass surveillance and pervasive social controls are based on a rocket scientist's advocacy for "systems thinking"

In 1955, MIT- and Caltech-educated Qian Xuesen was fired from his job teaching at JPL and deported from the USA under suspicion of being a communist sympathizer; on his return to China, he led the country's nuclear weapons program and became a folk hero who is still worshipped today.

Qian's major accomplishment wasn't nukes, though: it was popularizing "systems thinking" among Chinese elites, and with it, the belief that technocrats could find the best course of action, and then engineer public support for it using pervasive systems of social control.

This approach has its roots in the early days of "hard" systems thinking in the USA, popularized by JPL and military contractor Aerojet General, who implemented it in the form of a "data-driven" streaming of students in California's public schools, with resources apportioned to students based on a prediction of their future academic accomplishments, based on their IQ scores, attendance records and previous report-cards.

Qian's proteges applied systems thinking to many of China's looming social programs: it was "systems thinking" that led to the country's one child policy (which led to imprisonment, housing demolitions, and forced abortions and sterlizations for noncompliance), the Three Gorges Dam (which displaced 1.3 million people), the country's systems of internet surveillance and control, and the Citizen Scores social credit system of total surveillance and realtime scoring. In China's fast-propagating "smart cities," systems thinking dictates that every bit of infrastructure be wired up for surveillance.

Outside of China, "systems thinking" has softened to a more collaborative approach that explicitly takes account of the feelings of the people who make up the system. This approach has its own Chinese analog, called "WSR" for wuli (fact-based scenario planning), shili (modeling and prediction) and renli (human relations). In this model, technocrat still decide what is right, but put effort into convincing people that they should go along with the plan, rather than using their resources to corral and coerce people who disagree.

As with the one-child policy, though, the systems scientists entrusted with studying the Three Gorges Dam devoted little time to consulting people whom the project would affect most. (Dam building and the reservoir that formed behind the structure displaced 1.3 million people in southwestern China.) Because the dam's construction was a foregone conclusion, the feasibility study was limited to outcomes that reinforced government plans. Researchers in China often approach megaprojects like Three Gorges "from the perspective of how to successfully implement the project whose execution has already been decided politically," says Yoshiteru Nakamori, a systems scientist and former dean of the School of Knowledge Science at Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Nomi.

More recently, the involvement of China's systems scientists in designing the country's digital infrastructure has raised similar questions about whether the scientists are aiding the state at the expense of the public. Take China's smart cities initiative. The Chinese government claims to have wired hundreds of cities with sensors that collect data on topics including city service usage and crime. At the opening ceremony of China's 19th Party Congress last fall, Xi said smart cities were part of a "deep integration of the internet, big data, and artificial intelligence with the real economy."

A revered rocket scientist set in motion China’s mass surveillance of its citizens [Mara Hvistendahl/Science]

(via Super Punch)