Chinese social credit: a chilling vision of the future

Comment

Image credit: Voice of America

Imagine a world in which the British government monitored your life, controlling whether you could purchase the home you desired, judging your behaviour and rewarding and punishing you as they saw fit. This goes far beyond the dystopian world created by Black Mirror, in which tyranny of the crowd created a world in which each person rated and received ratings from their interactions with others. Rather, this role is monopolised by state and corporate power, an even worse concept. For 1.3 billion people on earth, this is fast becoming a nightmarish reality.

The Chinese government has been setting up an enormous ranking system that will monitor the behaviour of its burgeoning population, ranking them on the basis of their ‘social credit’. Currently, the scheme is still being implemented in a piecemeal way, with some systems being run by city councils, and others by private tech platforms which hold people’s personal data. One’s score can move up and down depending on behaviour and, although the precise modus operandi is unknown, minor offences such as bad driving or smoking in non-smoking areas like trains, as well as seemingly harmless actions, like buying video games, which the government believes promotes laziness, can be detrimental to a citizen’s score.

Over 3.1 million Chinese citizens were blacklisted by the government

Despite the scheme being in its genesis, the Chinese government has already started flexing its newly established social power, restricting its citizens’ ability to travel, with millions of low-scoring people being blocked from purchasing tickets for domestic flights, and many more prohibited from buying luxuries like business class train tickets and expensive hotel rooms. The punishments, however, do not stop here.

Already, those who refuse to carry out military service are barred from enrolling in higher education, applying for high school, or continuing their studies. Under the social credit scheme, low-scoring parents would be prevented from enrolling their children at top private schools and they themselves could find themselves banned from management roles in state-owned firms and large banks. Merely spending time in a house of ill repute, as revealed by GPS data, could reduce one’s score.

Citizens who conform will enjoy discounted energy bills, better interest rates at banks, and may even find that their dating profile is boosted as a result. Those with high scores will find it easier than those with lower scores to buy homes, rent without paying a deposit and gain approval for travel abroad faster than normal.

It is not hard to see the dark side to this system. By 2015, over 3.1 million Chinese citizens were blacklisted by the government. Taking into account the government’s use of other technology to control its population — all the vehicles in one province have been required by law to carry satellite tracking devices — it is frightening to see an authoritarian regime such as China’s perfecting the tools of dictatorship.

Some scholars suggest China does not have the stomach to fully exploit the capabilities of this system, citing the way in which they dropped a forerunner of the social credit scheme in 2010 after its pilot phase was heavily criticised. Yet, China has accepted Xi as their leader for life by scrapping the constitutional amendment that set presidential term limits. Given the horror suffered under the last man who led China for life, Mao, and whose rule of tyranny led the Communist Party to make this amendment, it is striking that the ruling elite has been so cowed and purged to the extent that would allow such a change to happen. With Xi in the ascendancy — and relatively young at 65 — there seems little to stop him from implementing this system as fully as he sees fit.

The West is experiencing a golden age in corporate mass surveillance: insurance companies equip cars with tracking devices to keep tabs on their mileage; and medical insurers give discounts to some customers if it can see from fitness devices that they have been exercising properly. Facebook, as we know all too well, has been harvesting extensive data on users, even recording calls and texts. As our future choices are increasingly shaped by these systems, one might suggest it encourages a degree of conformity that resembles the Chinese social credit scheme. Perhaps this scheme is simply extending the logic of social capitalism in a characteristically Chinese way.

China’s example shows us just why it is so important to grant citizens greater control over how their personal information is used by private companies and why, along with the promise such technology has to make our society better, we also need to be sceptical of its capabilities and ensure the small number of multi-national technology companies providing these services are made more accountable to national governments.

The West is experiencing a golden age in corporate mass surveillance

The West should be alarmed by what is happening in China; yet, there seems to be a distinct lack of concern. Many in the West are all too focused on harvesting good relations with Beijing and encouraging Chinese investment, and not concerned enough with considering the problems a close relationship presents. We should not lose sight of the fact that China presents a considerable, multi-dimensional threat to the West. It is a despotic one-party state that is witnessing a slide into personal dictatorship. The social credit scheme is not a sudden shift into such a form of government, but rather represents the latest in a long line of policies, ideas and changes in China that should urge a more cautious, less naive approach to relations.