…based on the tone of Party commentaries over the past year or so (and now this meeting), the leadership in Beijing seems a bit frustrated with the pace that government is digitally transforming.

Xi Jinping chaired the 25th meeting of the Central Commission on Comprehensively Deepening Reform today. The meeting itself is an important story, but maintaining the focus of this space, I’ll only touch briefly on one of the meeting’s topics: digital government. Here’s what I’d like to highlight right at the start, “digital government” topped the meeting’s agenda, according to PRC state-run media reporting both in English and Chinese.

There’s a problem though. Like many aspects of Digital China, the topic of digital government is rarely explained. If you search the topic online in English, you will find very little, but thankfully there is a body of solid work, see for example here and here.  In contrast, try searching the topic in Chinese and your browser will blow up. This is to say, it’s an important topic for the leadership in Beijing. And as you might expect, it has a specialized meaning that does not always conform with Western expectations or intuition.

Digital government is one of Digital China’s “ways.” It is also a topic of personal importance to Xi Jinping dating back more than twenty years when he was governor of Fujian Province (according to the Party’s historical narrative). But based on the tone of Party commentaries over the past year or so (and now this meeting), the leadership in Beijing seems a bit frustrated with the pace that government is digitally transforming. You see, the digital government “way” is the positive Digital China optic. 

“Digital government” is designed to raise the efficiency and transparency (yes, transparency!) of government, and to improve the lives of PRC citizens. Translated: it is supposed to improve the Party image. As the famous (in China) line attributed to Xi Jinping himself goes: “people should run less errands and run more data.” In technical terms, you’ve read about each city’s “urban brain” that will provide “one-stop government services” for citizens through the “single-network unified management” of data.  Sounds great, doesn’t it? 

Yes, of course it does! Citizens will spend less time, the narrative goes, running to or between bureaucracies. But you’re thinking I’m sure, this also sounds like something an authoritarian government could misuse. You’d be right, but that’s not “digital government.” That’s a different Digital China “way,” and the topic of future blogs, I hope.  

So why would the leadership be a bit frustrated now? Well, the digitalization and informatization of government (including informatizing grid management) was supposed to be a “magic weapon” to battle COVID, or so the Party told the people. The reporting on COVID robots, unified health codes, and automated surveillance systems has been continuous. (I’ll post a few of them one day). But despite all this digital transformation, it hasn’t gone so well.  Now back to today’s meeting and digital government: I’m thinking that if the general secretary pushes down from the top, then – well – it really wasn’t his fault.