An Interview with the US Ambassador to China

Terry Branstad is an American politician, university administrator and diplomat serving as the United States Ambassador to China. The “Social Credit System” is a national reputation scoring system being developed by the Chinese government. By 2020, it is intended to standardize the assessment of citizens’ and businesses’ economic and social reputation.

Michael Richardson-Borne: Good afternoon. Today I want to talk about China’s implementation of an emergent form of social control. In certain regions of China, governments have started ranking citizens with what’s called a “social credit score.” Like private credit scores, a person’s social score can move up or down depending on their personal behavior. The exact methodology is a secret — but examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games and posting fake news online. Penalties include getting banned from flights or train travel, throttling internet speeds, being banned from the best jobs and schools, and even taking your dog away.

Based on your experience of the Chinese social credit system, how would you describe it?

Terry Branstad: I’d describe it as something that people are making a big deal of when it should be expected. The nature of believing in a separate self is one that is always starving for new forms of power, new ways to manipulate the others it perceives as outside of itself, new ways to distract itself that reinforce its sense of control and its comforting conclusion that separation is the basis of reality. When people are starving and food comes around, they’re going to eat.

When the separate self is presented with a new toy, it will use this toy to either create emergent divisions or to seamlessly integrate it into the already divisive systemic. Either way, the religion of separation is sustained. As the social credit system continues to be developed, the separate self’s never-ending appetite will be momentarily appeased in fits and starts – one moment there will be satisfaction, the next moment starvation will erupt again. As long as a social credit system is useful to the personal survival of the separate self, it will continue to be pushed to its logical conclusion, to its furthest limits.

That’s how I’d describe the social credit system. For me, it’s like noticing a grain of salt in the ocean – nothing even remotely shocking. We all know the ocean isn’t fresh water – so why are we surprised when this truth is upheld? Likewise, deep down, we all know the people of our world are deeply divided – so why are we surprised when people create new forms of division that utilize the emergent technologies becoming available to us?

So, I guess what I’m saying is a social credit system is just a continuation of more of the same. It’s a translation of what all people experience to varying degrees in their relationships with their governments. Governments, the world over, are controlled by men and women who think of themselves as separate autonomous entities. So the only kind of relationship they can offer is one based on separation, a relationship that treats the people they are governing just as they treat themselves. All of our leaders and representatives (as well as software engineers) are still lost in the personal surveillance of themselves – so they are just replicating the only thing they know.

Their worlds are restricted to a life that peers through the pinhole of a separate self. This pinhole has a strict boundary with a thin film of stories stretched across its circumference. Peering through this porthole, covered with a layer of restrictive stories they identify with, the only possibility is a limited worldview that creates structures that mimic its own limitations.

Again, the true being of these leaders, which is Non-separation, can be thought of as under the surveillance of the separate self. Any time the separate self begins to veer off into potential expansion, fear is activated and the pull to move back into conformity with their established identity and the separative culture in which this identity belongs is seemingly the closest, most immediate way to diffuse the shock of possibility. What is not understood is that this retreat just moves them from personal fear back to a dulled personal suffering that keeps them on the culture of separation’s chess board. Learning that this fear is just a story that keeps who you truly are under a false sort of surveillance is to find freedom, which is Non-separation.

Another way to put it is expressions like a social credit system promoted by the Chinese government are macrocosms of the microcosm – it’s a way for the personal stories that compose the separate self to keep the experience of the impersonal under surveillance. Even if our personal stories don’t know the impersonal is present in the background, just like the leaders in our governments, they do know that what they don’t know is a blind spot – and that what they don’t know is a direct threat to the stories of who they think they are. For the separate self to survive, its stories must be protected at all costs.

So again, we’re merely replicating the illusion that lives within us – the illusion of separation. Just as the narrative of the social credit system keeps the individuals in society in check, the narrative the separate self believes in keeps the wisdom of the impersonal in check. One is a cultural expression of separation. The other is an “individual” expression of separation. Belief in the truth of the latter is the batter to bake the collective cake of the former.

Governments have yet to arrive at a place where they govern beyond the assumption of a separate self – from the remembrance of Non-separation. Due to this, they must govern from personal experience and the illusion of the need for control rather than from the softer touch of observing what wants to happen as an expression of Non-separation. Governing from the belief in personal, independent existence dictates the context in which people operate their daily lives. This lack of awareness of the separative conduits through which our systems are currently arising locks their creative possibilities and outcomes into expressions of separation. The potentials of a Non-separative government have not been realized. They don’t yet exist in the porthole through which these men and women are interpreting the world.

The only way to move beyond this porthole is to take a journey that will lead them to the ship’s deck where they get a view of the entire ocean-scape. And then once their feet are solidly on the deck, they will notice this flooring is not needed for them to stand strong. They are just as much the ocean as the ship – which are both unified expressions of Non-separation.

Excavating through the stories clouding their portholes to arrive on deck is to reach the impersonal, a deeper space that redirects the personal-ness of stories into a single movement that has nothing to do with what they formerly thought of as the entirety of their existence. A government from this deeper “context” would effortlessly give rise to a system that is truly alive and manifests as an invitation to Non-separation.

So all of the uproar about the social credit system is just an uproar by voices of separation about an expression of separation, even if those voices imagine themselves to be the protectors of human rights. Whether we have a social credit system or not, the belief in separation remains exactly as it is – the shade of color of the lens they are looking through hasn’t made the slightest change. The blue that was before the social credit system is the exact same blue that exists after the social credit system. The wall didn’t change and neither did the paint.

MR-B: The most comprehensive of these local social credit efforts is Shanghai’s “Honest Shanghai” app, which pulls data from nearly 100 government entities. These technologies can live at the intersection of Big Data and surveillance. How do the Chinese people feel about these applications?

TB: Funny thing is, it’s popular. For the moment at least, surveys show the social credit system is approved of within China, as citizens perceive it as a way to access elite benefits for themselves associated with high scores.

But, again, this should be expected. The separate self is concerned with instant gratification and focused on accomplishing its individual desires. That is its only focus. If having a high social score guarantees it access to five star hotels, better jobs, priority seating while traveling etc., then the separate self is elated because it can live today in a projected future of assured gratification – it knows it will get to experience little ticks of happiness, brief respite from the contraction it lives as the pleasure of these fleeting moments quickly fades.

The separate selves of those who approve of social credit also feel an added sense of security and superiority. As one company in China, Zhima Credit, claims, “We will ensure that the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction.” And it doesn’t stop there. Once a person’s score gets below a certain level, their life tends to spiral out of control because they not only lose access to travel, but also jobs, banking, schools for their children and, in some cases, they’re even abandoned by their social systems as their friends’ social credit scores are negatively impacted by the low scores of family members and connections on social media.

So the implementation of this kind of “social credit” is already becoming a way to punish specific “others” for the fact they’re being lived into existence the exact, and only, way that is possible for them. It’s another example of the confused condition of the separate self. A belief in separation assumes autonomous behavior is real and punishes ones who break the rules within this assumption. The arrival of social credit is just like all laws ever conceived. It is established on the foundation of a separative projection on the nature of human behavior – the false sense of autonomous action.

Separation does not understand that a single existence, one that lives prior to and as the movement perceived as autonomous, is the unnoticed empty presence behind the mock seriousness of a social credit system. This misunderstanding is the misunderstanding of what social life truly is, a misunderstanding of how the movement of life is the actual stillness of Non-separation. The core of the social credit system assumes individual autonomy where there is none.

Social credit is a system born from minds who believed their minds to be the totality of their existences. It is a separative expression of Non-separation by a systemic of individuals who are blurring the reality of Non-separation with a belief in the separate self. And what we’re seeing is a new divide between the rich and poor, a new way to divvy up the haves and the have nots, a new way for a government to create an underclass of people punished by the more fortunate’s ignorance of Non-separation.

MR-B: The social credit system aims to reinforce the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful.” It is billed as an attempt to raise standards and restore trust as well as a means to uphold basic laws that are often flouted.

TB: Yes, it’s using the lowest common denominator to incite a subtle fear in enough of the country’s citizens to make it acceptable and seen as “for their own good.” Government leaders either do not see, or do not care, that the way to heal a culture that is flouting the law is not to address the external symptoms by clamping down harder, but rather, to support the people to get to the true source of the problem, the assumption of a separate self.

It reminds me of the immigration stories you hear in the United States right now. They’re utilized to incite fears of living in a dangerous society and speak of the need for extreme measures to combat a hostile world. The culture wars in America are a battle over which “brand” of separation is going to be the predominant version. But again, they’re fighting over if a wall will be pink or pink. They think it’s a fight over red or blue – but it’s a fight over pink or pink because the choice is between separation or separation. Only remembering Non-separation can provide an option to step off the arc of divisiveness into that which can see the separate self for what it is – a collection of stories.

MR-B: As an ambassador, how does your relationship with Chinese leadership play out when you ask questions about the social credit system from a Panopticon or an Orwellian perspective?

TB: Just as any relationship would when one of the participants feels threatened. It places a story of suspicion and judgment around the interaction. There is nothing the separate self hates worse than to have its stories challenged.

That said, for me, the relationships I have with Chinese leaders are not about trust. Trust can never happen between two separate selves. The rapport I’m offering can only be present when the need for trust is no longer bothered with – when both parties are consciously being lived into the moment where no act of betrayal can ever occur.

*This is a fictional interview written by Michael Richardson-Borne as a teaching of Non-separation.