History Repeating Itself, Again

Beijing has launched a “social credit score” that tracks and scores the behavior of Chinese citizens. It began a few years ago when “Beijing city authorities on Friday issued new rules requiring microbloggers to register their real names before posting online.” Of course, the British tried this first. When authoritarian regimes sense that they are losing their grip on power, they typically tighten controls on information and improve their ability to prosecute those who oppose the regime.

An AP article from 2011 reported that “Last month the heads of 40 companies, including e-commerce giant Alibaba, search engine Baidu and Sina, vowed to stop the ‘spread of harmful information’ on the web after attending a three-day government workshop. The seminar was held after propaganda chief Li Changchun, fifth in the Communist Party hierarchy, met the heads of China’s main search engine Baidu in September.”[1]

The Stamp Act of 1765 has gone down in history as an attempt at taxation, yet as readers of Arsonist know, one of the seemingly minor yet most disturbing components of the Stamp Act was Parliament’s effort to lay comprehensive regulations on the Colonies, including the regulation of media. The Stamp Act’s innovation wasn’t taxation — Parliament had issued various stamp acts all century — but instead was information control.

The Act dictated the manner in which many businesses and private persons could interact and increased the ways in which ordinary daily interactions could be illegal. Nearly everything that pertained to paper was now regulated, and such regulations not only applied to the obvious, such as newspapers, but also to official documents of all sorts. A liquor business could be fined if its permit was not properly stamped; a wide variety of legal documents would be void if they lacked the appropriate stamps. And, as legislatures are sometimes wont, Parliament impregnated an ostensive revenue bill with special regulations for newspapers, pamphlets and books. First, the penalty for printing without stamps was steep:

the Author, Printer, and Publisher, and all other Persons concerned in or about the printing or publishing of such Pamphlet, shall, for every such Offence, forfeit the Sum of Ten Pounds

But the Act went further; not only were all those associated with an unstamped publication fined, but they lost their copyright to the publication, such that

any Person may freely print and publish the same, paying the Duty payable in respect thereof by virtue of this Act, without being liable to any Action, Prosecution, or Penalty for so doing.

The effect of such regulation would be to cool the hot colonial presses as every publication would now incur the additional expense of a stamp or a fine, and face the possibility of forfeiting ownership of the publication. But Parliament went further to cool the presses, particularly the heated political debates and paper wars, by banning anonymous publications:

And it is hereby further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That no Person whatsoever shall sell or expose to Sale any such Pamphlet, or any News-Paper, without the true respective Name or Names, and Place or Places of Abode, of some known Person or Persons by or for whom the same was really and truly printed or published, shall be written or printed thereon; upon Pain that every Person offending therein shall, for every such Offence, forfeit the Sum of Twenty Pounds.

All slanderous remarks and seditious observations must now have a name and “Place or Places of Abode” attached to them; it was clear to all that such a regulation not only permitted pervasive enforcement of the Black Act but also facilitated prosecution of anyone not a “friend of government.” The Stamp Act’s purpose went far beyond generating revenue; it inserted government regulation into the far reaches of private colonial activity and attached potentially significant liability to critiquing the government and government officials. And the colonists feared the Act was merely a prelude to greater regulation. Sound familiar?

Beijing’s attempt to regulate and prosecute is nothing new. The question is whether the Chinese people will follow in the footsteps the of Boston rebels: burn down the houses of government officials, raid and demolish the building that was to distribute the Stamps, and refuse to cooperate with anyone who entertained the validity of the Stamps.

Of course, the Chinese can call out the troops in a few hours, whereas it took the British three years to assign soldiers to Boston (and a few more years to put Boston under full martial law). Of course, those troops only made the situation far more explosive — Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party — and the revolution was already complete in the minds of Bostonians; they only required an incident or two in order to ignite the colonies.

So we’ve seen such regulation and prosecution before; the question that remains is whether the Chinese proceed as the Bostonians did 254 years ago. For it was in the middle of this great tension in Boston that Otis wrote: “For two years I have not had any time for myself; it has been taken up for others and some of them perhaps will never thank me. The time I hope is at hand when I shall be relieved from a task I shall never envy any man who in performing it shall pass the anxious wearisome days and nights which I have seen. This country must soon be at rest, or may be engaged in contests that will require neither the pen nor the tongue of a lawyer. … If we are to be slaves the living have only to envy the dead, for without liberty … I desire not exist….”[2]

Will the Chinese envy the dead or will a great contest be soon engaged?

About Nathan Allen

Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson Education. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….

Agitator.