Checking in on digital government in China

The Guangzhou skyline at sunrise on New Year's Day on January 1, 2021.

The Guangzhou skyline at sunrise on New Year's Day on January 1, 2021. Gan Jun/VCG via Getty Images

COMMENTARY | Steve Kelman writes that an online system for registering complaints and comments about government services has its roots in China's imperial past.

During a recent two-week stay in Guangzhou, China, the country’s third largest city after Beijing and Shanghai, I had a chance to meet with three local professors who worked on digital government in China and learned something about how their system works. 

An important part of digital government in China is the country’s formalized system for receiving and registering online complaints and comments about government services from the public. It grew out of an ancient practice from the imperial dynasties in which people dissatisfied with mistreatment by a local official could go to Beijing to register complaints with designated court officials. 

Around 15 years or so reports started to emerge of local officials kidnapping and imprisoning locals seeking to go to Beijing, and those abuses have significantly declined with time. More recently, the government had begun establishing in-person “citizen service centers” as one-stop shops for getting information and registering complaints – I wrote about one in Shanghai for FCW back in 2016

But in the digital age, instead of dissatisfied people traveling to Beijing to complain or going to an in-person service center, they now go online to do so. And in recent years, the way people have typically entered complaints and comments is by using their smartphones rather than going to a website as we are more likely to do in the U.S.

Complaints and comments for all of China, and online requests for service, are entered on systems operated for the government by the two big Chinese mobile companies Alipay (founded by tech entrepreneur Jack Ma) and WeChat Pay, the mobile payments division of the social network WeChat. Only two vendors are authorized by the government as forums for comments, complaints and service applications. From the consumer’s perspective, it makes it much easier to know where to go to do these sorts of interactions, compared to our system in the U.S. where there are a plethora of places to go, which means many people may not know where to go. Compared to Americans, Chinese are also more familiar with mobile payments systems, which are far more frequently used, rather than credit cards, for payments.

These same two platforms are also used to apply online for services the government makes available to the whole population, such as buying train tickets, renewing driver’s licenses and government-issued ID cards, as well as making doctor appointments. In all, about a hundred services are all available through this system.

The government has also chosen two companies, Huawei (the telecoms company that became known in the U.S. when our government banned government agencies from using the company because data these companies got was likely being turned over to the Chinese government) and Alibaba (the Jack Ma-founded parent of Alipay) to take charge of promoting citizen use of digital government services.

The Chinese government contracting system is winner takes all –­­ Chinese have a greater willingness to promote centralized decisions, while we would probably be more inclined to see the performance and quality advantages of multiple vendors who can bid against each other and get some piece of the business.

One interesting feature of the Chinese system is that if people take photos of potholes and send them in, they receive points in their social credit score. Social credit is a Chinese system, sometimes criticized in the West as something allowing extralegal retaliation for political dissidents by making it more difficult to get loans or imposing higher interest rates. The system here rewards those who share information about local conditions. Such photos are put on a website and are seen as a way to crowdsource information.

One of the professors I spoke with was concerned that using these systems was fairly complicated and not user-friendly. (The government has closed down many of the in-person citizen service centers, though there are still some around.) He even used the term “digital divide” to describe the situation with citizen use of these services. So some things are the same in the two countries.

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