Country Case Study China


Most of China’s institutions are state-owned and, therefore, provide public services in a broad sense. In order to study how data analysis and artificial intelligence influence China’s public services, it is necessary to consider China’s special social background, its government-based governance, and its specific approach to modern technology.

In China, public services are central to people encompassing employment, education, medical care, pension care and other fields. In current political discourse, the main purpose of public services is to meet the growing demand for “a better life”, as mentioned in the report of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

Historically, since the foundation of the Peoples’ Republic of China seventy years ago, China’s public services underwent constant reformation and development. It is based on the centrally planned economy that gradually formed in 1949/1950: characteristics do not only reflect on the economic realm, but also dominate the institutional characteristics and governance models of other fields, including public services.

System designs and policy frameworks of public services are deeply affected by the planned system in two aspects. The first is a structural differentiation on the level of systems and regions: it manifests itself, for example, in the urban-rural distinction or in the local financial and tax systems. The second aspect is the governance model based on concepts of unity, welfare and administration: it manifests itself in the administration of economic and social activities under the planned economy system. 1

Both aspects stemming from the planned-economy period constitute the starting point of public policy reforms and the opening of China to the world. With the transformation from the planned economy to a market economy, the system of public services also underwent ongoing reforms: system and region distinctions are gradually evened out; the baseline concepts of unity, welfare and administration are weakening. However, in the process of continuous reforming, China’s public services have always maintained a sustainable national coverage, which is a great achievement for a country with a population of 1.4 billion people.

As a driving force for Chinese development, government-based governance of public services is an evolutionary phenomenon running from the foundation of China’s Republic until today. Another driving force is technology, and this core driver has only been evolving over the past twenty years. Compared to other developed countries, China’s information technology development started relatively late, but there is a trend of catching-up from the behind, especially in the construction of information technology infrastructure. At present, China’s network scale is in the first place in the world, with more than 800 million smart phone users. Driven by technology and infrastructure, China’s digital government development has also made rapid progress. In the report of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, two new concepts have been put forward, one is the “Smart Society”, the other is “Digital China”.

The “Smart Society” concept reflects the rapid development process of social informatisation. At present, the number of internet users in China is more than 800 million, the number of users of social media participating in We-Chat alone has reached 1 billion, the number of online shoppers has exceeded 400 million, the number of e-commerce transactions has exceeded 30 trillion last year, and mobile payment is also developing rapidly.

These developments provide a strong application foundation for digitalisation in government. The public’s new demands for government services and better living standards are addressed by promotion of developments in “Digital Government”. Big data and cloud computing technologies are used to promote the transformation and upgrading of the “Internet & Government Service Model” for achieving simplified administration and decentralisation for service efficiency.

The architecture of the “One Netcom Office” can be summarised as “one network, one cloud, one window, one library, multiple applications”. “One Network” refers to an online service platform that provides a unified process for consulting, applying, accepting, inquiring, and evaluating government affairs. “One window” is the window of the online government affairs hall. The city-level “One Netcom Office” implements a unified “single window” of city and district online government affairs halls, and cooperates with district-level administrative service centers and township community affairs acceptance centers for online and offline operations. “One library” refers to the construction of a public information database containing population, legal persons, spatial geography, and credit status. The key to implementing the “One Netcom Office” is to open up the data channel and realise the sharing of information and data between departments. “One cloud” is the e-government cloud. The application of cloud services helps the e-government construction and management model to transform from extensive, fragmented to intensive and integrated. The government cloud platform can aggregate and share data resources of the physical government affairs hall and online halls, making government affairs services closed from the past. The operation shifted to cross-regional and cross-department coordination and cooperation, and realised the full-network and office-wide operations of corporate and personal affairs. “Multiple applications” is the diversified platform expansion functions. The “One Netcom Office” platform not only addresses the problems of unified acceptance of front-end services and the construction of government data sharing resource pools, but also provides multi-scenario platform expansion functions.

In a China Netcom Office system, through deep digging and intelligent matching service content, the “One Netcom Office” is continuously making multi-dimensional “portraits” of users. For individual users, the platform can label citizens such as “birth”, “enrollment”, “job hunting”, “buying a house”, and “marriage” on the “life events” dimension; on the “crowd” dimension, mark users as “children” “Old people”, “helping people in difficulty” … In the “occupational dimension”, “students”, “teachers” and “security” are identified … as long as the user logs in to “My Homepage”. For enterprise users, “One Netcom Office” can also provide personalised services according to their industry, registration place, etc. Moreover, whether a company or an individual, as users continue to communicate with the platform, “One Netcom Office” will also dynamically learn user behaviours during this period, and get more and more understanding of users.

Case study

The Chinese case study will look at data analytics /AI use for public service provisions in two areas: the “Only run once” service (a one-shop public service solution where any government service is offered by any service desk of official departments) and the social credit system. Database integration will allow government to offer government services in one window, and database integration will display connections and touchpoints with applications of the social credit system from a scientific and technological point of view justifying a combined focus for the case study.

On the social science part, the Chinese case study will conduct empirical social research, both quantitative and qualitative, and run participatory multi-stakeholder workshops. Quantitative research will provide an overview on the structural components of the organisational system in the two chosen domains (actors, resources, inputs, outputs, processes, performance etc.). Qualitative research will provide some insights into the processes and mechanisms of the social system by researching the behaviours and attitudes of relevant actors (incentives, orientations, norms, values, strategies, intentions, barriers, limitations, visions, options etc.). Participatory multi-stakeholder workshops will develop scenarios for desired future socio-technical systems.

Research will especially center around actor networks of two types of institutions:

  • existing public service departments, which are actively embracing data analysis and artificial intelligence technology, where the case study will analyse changes in their work content and model
  • special institutions set up in many parts of China to adapt to data analysis and artificial intelligence technology challenges (e.g. big data centers in many provinces) replacing some of the work of the original public service sector to provide service improvements, where the case study will analyse new processes

Expected output of this part of the research will be a socio-technical map of the two domains stemming from participatory systems mapping, and recommendations for ethically- and socially sensitive technology production in AI. Results will be used as input for AI FORA’s work packages 2 and 3.

On the technical part, the Chinese case study will explore the current technological state of the art in the two chosen domains and their development with reference to international benchmarking. Investigating databases and systems in place, the aim is prototyping a toy system imitating the current socio-technical applications in place and prototyping some improvements in cooperation with the social sciences for ethically and socially-sensitive AI.

Expected outputs of this part of research are two toy model prototypes: one of the existing technological system, and the other of the desired technological system (recommendations coming from social science research). These prototypes will be used in the participatory stakeholder workshops to experiment with. Results will be used as input for AI FORA’s work packages 2 and 3.

Results from the Chinese case study are expected to generate high-profile international and national research publications.

1 WANG Zhen. Seventy Years of Public Policy in China: Development and Reform of Social Security and Public Services Provision System Journal of Beijing University of Technology (social sciences edition).Sep.2019