Summary of Who Needs Democracy When You Have Data?

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Effective governance is a prerequisite for authoritarian regimes to stay in power. Yet there comes the autocrats’ dilemma: How do you find out what people most need from their government if you don’t let them tell you openly? China, the world’s largest autocracy, has turned to technology to try to resolve this predicament. Writing for MIT Technology Review, journalist Christina Larson lays out the dangers and pitfalls of using algorithms and secretive databases as governing tools. The technology that China employs to surveil and keep track of its population is available to governments around the world – which makes the Chinese case study relevant and intriguing to citizens of democracies.

About the Author

Christina Larson is a foreign correspondent and science journalist with a special focus on China and Asia.



The Chinese central government, which censors open political debate, gathers information on its large and diverse population.

China is a nation of 1.4 billion people with a complex social structure and economy. The central government is in need of up-to-date, high-quality data on its population and people’s most important needs. Yet Chinese president Xi Jinping has stepped up efforts to squash public criticism of the authorities. He has silenced or jailed journalists and human rights lawyers, and his government has successfully prevented activists from traveling to Beijing to air their grievances. Beijing needs to know what people around the country think and feel but won’t allow them to openly express it.

Beijing is harnessing...

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