Greg Walton on Thu, 29 Mar 2018 17:33:26 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> The Greater Helmsman

A revered rocket scientist set in motion China’s mass surveillance of
its citizens

By Mara Hvistendahl . [ @MaraHvistendahl  ] | .  Mar. 14, 2018 , 9:00 AM


SHANGHAI, CHINA—It's rare that a scientist becomes a folk hero. But in
China, Qian Xuesen draws crowds almost a decade after his death. On a
Saturday morning in a three-story museum here, tourists admire Qian's
faded green sofa set, the worn leather briefcase he carried for 4
decades, and a picture of him shaking hands with opera star Luciano
Pavarotti. They file past a relic from a turning point in Qian's
life—and in China's rise as a superpower: a framed ticket from his
1955 voyage from San Francisco, California, to Hong Kong in China
aboard the SS President Cleveland. Once a professor at NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, he had been
accused of having communist sympathies in the heat of the Red Scare
and placed under virtual house arrest. Upon his release, he and his
family set sail for his motherland.

After arriving in China, Qian went on to spearhead the rapid ascent of
the country's nuclear weapons program, an achievement that explains
some of the adulation. But his legacy is still unfolding in a second
area that could have great consequences for China—and for the world.
Qian, who died in 2009 at the age of 97, helped lay the groundwork for
China's modern surveillance state.

Early in his career, he embraced systems engineering—an
interdisciplinary field focused on understanding the general
properties common to all physical and societal systems, and using that
knowledge to exert control. By mapping a system's dynamics and
constraints, including any feedback loops, systems theorists learn how
to intervene in it and shape outcomes. Since the field's founding in
the 1950s, systems approaches have been applied to areas as varied as
biology and transportation infrastructure.

In the West, systems engineering's heyday has long passed. But in
China, the discipline is deeply integrated into national planning. The
city of Wuhan is preparing to host in August the International
Conference on Control Science and Systems Engineering, which focuses
on topics such as autonomous transportation and the "control analysis
of social and human systems." Systems engineers have had a hand in
projects as diverse as hydropower dam construction and China's social
credit system, a vast effort aimed at using big data to track
citizens' behavior. Systems theory "doesn't just solve natural
sciences problems, social science problems, and engineering technology
problems," explains Xue Huifeng, director of the China Aerospace
Laboratory of Social System Engineering (CALSSE) and president of the
China Academy of Aerospace Systems Science and Engineering in Beijing.
"It also solves governance problems."

The field has resonated with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who in 2013
said that "comprehensively deepening reform is a complex systems
engineering problem." So important is the discipline to the Chinese
Communist Party that cadres in its Central Party School in Beijing are
required to study it. By applying systems engineering to challenges
such as maintaining social stability, the Chinese government aims to
"not just understand reality or predict reality, but to control
reality," says Rogier Creemers, a scholar of Chinese law at the Leiden
University Institute for Area Studies in the Netherlands.

With the discipline now touted at the highest levels of government,
Qian has been deified, with biographies, television segments, and
symposiums regularly devoted to him. In the 1990s, the Chinese
government even spearheaded a "learn from Qian Xuesen" movement.
Popular discourse now acknowledges that modern China's first leader,
Mao Zedong, "was a human being," says Zhichang Zhu, a systems
scientist at the Xiamen University Malaysia in Sepang. "But to a
circle of scientists in China, Qian Xuesen is now, in their mind, the
new god."

The traditional, or "hard," brand of systems engineering that Qian
pioneered has lately come under attack from Zhu and other scholars,
both inside and outside China. They contend that it discounts the
experiences of everyday people affected by systems models and values
state power above all else. They are trying to carve out an
alternative vision for systems science, one less reliant on
mathematical formulas and more attuned to civic participation. But
that could prove an uphill battle in a country where maintaining
stability trumps scholarly debate.

The master planner

In a building flanked by military guards, systems scientists from
CALSSE sit around a large conference table, explaining to Science the
complex diagrams behind their studies on controlling systems. The
researchers have helped model resource management and other processes
in smart cities powered by artificial intelligence. Xue, who oversees
a project named for Qian at CALSSE, traces his work back to the
U.S.-educated scientist. "You should not forget your original starting
point," he says.

Qian was born in 1911 in Hangzhou, in eastern China. In 1935, a
scholarship brought him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
in Cambridge. He then went on to the California Institute of
Technology in Pasadena, where he worked with the Hungarian
mathematician Theodore von Kármán. When Von Kármán and others founded
JPL in 1944 to develop rocket technology, Qian was given a security
clearance and brought on to work on classified weapons research.

As the Red Scare took hold in the 1950s, the scientist came into the
Federal Bureau of Investigation's crosshairs. His security clearance
was revoked, and after years of bilateral negotiations, Qian was
allowed to return to China. Back in Beijing, his previous experience
designing complicated weapons systems and rockets for the United
States became integral to China's budding efforts. On 16 October 1964,
at 3 p.m. local time, China detonated its first atomic bomb. Xue says
the program succeeded in part because Qian modeled a complex weapons
system down to its most unpredictable parts. He automated China's
weapons command and control system, enabling planners to direct the
activities of thousands of people at once.

As Qian honed China's weapons systems, scientists in North America and
Europe began applying systems approaches to intractable policy
problems, modeling them as a collection of inputs and variables linked
by direct or inverse relationships and feedback loops. In the 1960s,
for example, school districts across California tried systems
approaches. To help educators set budget priorities,
multimillion-dollar data processing programs designed by JPL and the
rocket manufacturer Aerojet General Corporation collated children's
academic records, IQ scores, and attendance.

According to critics, such efforts wasted money that could have gone
toward hiring teachers and reduced to rational analysis what should
have been a complex political process. "When the policymakers came in
and started asking questions, [they] were talking about variables that
weren't in the models," says Gerald Midgley, a systems scientist at
the University of Hull in the United Kingdom. California's data-driven
approach to education was eventually scrapped. Those and other
embarrassments brought the field into disrepute in the West.

Engineering for societal control

Back in China, though, the notion that scientists could neatly model
societal endeavors resonated with leaders reared on central planning.
An early major contribution of social systems scientists occurred in
the late 1970s, when Qian's protégé, missile scientist Song Jian, led
a team whose computer-generated projections showed China's population
rising to 4 billion by 2080. That work helped justify extreme
restrictions on births after the government implemented the one-child
policy in 1980.

Soon after, systems scientists began assessing the feasibility of
building the titanic Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. The goal
was to determine the optimal dam height and water level in the
reservoir, balancing the demands of power generation with other
factors, including the massive project's negative impacts. One group
working on the project took stock of 14 "subsystems," including
geology, ecology, and human migration. The researchers then analyzed
how various water levels would affect outputs such as seismic activity
or the number of people forced to relocate. Ultimately, the group
arrived at an ideal water impoundment level, 175 meters. The dam's
operator hewed to that advice, raising water levels to 175 meters by

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

The initiative, which has received funding from the United Nations
Development Programme, has benign components. Xue and colleagues, for
example, are working on how smart cities can manage water resources.
In Guangdong province, the researchers are evaluating how to develop a
standardized approach for monitoring water use that might be extended
to other smart cities.

But Xue says that smart cities are as much about preserving societal
stability as streamlining transportation flows and mitigating air
pollution. Samantha Hoffman, a consultant with the International
Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the program is tied to
long-standing efforts to build a digital surveillance infrastructure
and is "specifically there for social control reasons". The smart
cities initiative builds on 1990s systems engineering projects—the
"golden" projects—aimed at dividing cities into geographic grids for
monitoring, she adds.

Layered onto the smart cities project is another systems engineering
effort: China's social credit system. In 2014, the country's State
Council outlined a plan to compile data on individuals, government
officials, and companies into a nationwide tracking system by 2020.
The goal is to shape behavior by using a mixture of carrots and
sticks. In some citywide and commercial pilot projects already
underway, individuals can be dinged for transgressions such as
spreading rumors online. People who receive poor marks in the national
system may eventually be barred from travel and denied access to
social services, according to government documents.

Civil liberties groups charge that the system will deepen monitoring
of the citizenry, especially if combined with the Chinese state's
growing biometrics capabilities. Social credit is aimed at "further
tightening the web of social control," says Maya Wang, a researcher
with Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. (The Chinese government
maintains that the system is about building trust and accountability
as well as helping law enforcement identify criminals.)

Systems approaches should not be just a convenient tool in the
expert's hands for realizing the party's wills. They should be a
powerful weapon in people's hands for building a fair, just,
prosperous society.

Zhichang Zhu, Xiamen University Malaysia

Government documents refer to the social credit system as a "social
systems engineering project." Details about which systems engineers
consulted on the project are scant. But one theory that may have
proved useful is Qian's "open complex giant system," Zhu says. A
quarter-century ago, Qian proposed that society is a system comprising
millions of subsystems: individual persons, in human parlance.
Maintaining control in such a system is challenging because people
have diverse backgrounds, hold a broad spectrum of opinions, and
communicate using a variety of media, he wrote in 1993 in the Journal
of Systems Engineering and Electronics. His answer sounds like an
early road map for the social credit system: to use then-embryonic
tools such as artificial intelligence to collect and synthesize reams
of data.

According to published papers, China's hard systems scientists also
use approaches derived from Qian's work to monitor public opinion and
gauge crowd behavior. And systems science approaches are on display in
Xinjiang, a region in northwest China with a high percentage of
Muslims. According to Human Rights Watch, Xinjiang's public security
bureau is aggregating data from sources such as closed-circuit TV
cameras, security checkpoints, and residents' networked devices.
Authorities then use a form of systems analysis adapted from People's
Liberation Army doctrine to flag people seen as potentially

A softer, gentler approach

After systems egineering fell from grace in the West, researchers
spearheaded a fundamentally new approach. In 1981, Peter Checkland of
Lancaster University in the United Kingdom called for a "soft" systems
science that valued input from stakeholders over mathematical
modeling. In Checkland's vision, experts exist not to impose their
values, but instead to learn from people involved in the problem at
hand. When Zhu left China in 1988 to earn a master's degree at the
University of Hull, that was the approach he encountered. Zhu studied
there under Midgley, just as systems engineering was transforming in
the West.

A few years later, Zhu began collaborating with Gu Jifa in Beijing,
who had worked on the Three Gorges Dam assessment and become head of
the Systems Engineering Society of China. Zhu had come to see Qian's
brand of systems science as "brain without soul." Gu, meanwhile, had
learned firsthand the importance of what he called renli, or human
relations, in shaping project outcomes. For example, his
recommendations for an urban development plan in Beijing were not
adopted because his team neglected to engage key stakeholders. Hard
systems engineering worked well for rocket science, but not for more
complex social problems, Gu says: "We realized we needed to change our
approach." He felt strongly that any methods used in China had to be
grounded in Chinese culture.

The duo came up with what it called the WSR approach: It integrated
wuli, an investigation of facts and future scenarios; shili, the
mathematical and conceptual models used to organize systems; and
renli. Though influenced by U.K. systems thinking, the approach was
decidedly eastern, its precepts inspired by the emphasis on social
relationships in Chinese culture. Instead of shunning mathematical
approaches, WSR tried to integrate them with softer inquiries, such as
taking stock of what groups a project would benefit or harm. WSR has
since been used to calculate wait times for large events in China and
to determine how China's universities perform, among other projects.

Despite the efforts of Gu and others, systems science in China today
remains rooted in the hard systems engineering approaches that rocket
scientists pioneered decades ago. That emphasis is apparent at the
cinder block apartment in Beijing where Qian lived for nearly a
half-century, which is now an unofficial museum for state visitors.

Giving a tour of the apartment, Qian Yonggang, Xuesen's 69-year-old
son, gestures to a living room decorated with blond wood accents.
"Many Chinese leaders have sat here," he says. He moves on to the
bedroom, indicating the twin bed in which his father spent his final
days. Hanging above it is a framed photo of a somber-looking Qian

Zhu contends that the time has come to bring the god down to Earth. He
recently wrote that systems science in China is "under a rationalistic
grip, with the ‘scientific’ leg long and the democratic leg short."
Zhu says he has no doubt that systems scientists can make projects
such as the social credit system more effective. However, he cautions,
"Systems approaches should not be just a convenient tool in the
expert's hands for realizing the party's wills. They should be a
powerful weapon in people's hands for building a fair, just,
prosperous society."

Posted in:

Scientific Community


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact:
#  @nettime_bot tweets mail w/ sender unless #ANON is in Subject: