Social Credit and China


Social credit system plans for enactment by 2020

China has certainly not been a shining beacon of freedom in the world for a long time. But even for China, this is shockingly dystopian.

Credit is not a new concept to anybody in Canada. We’re all aware that the probability of a bank loan application being accepted, or a desired mortgage rate being approved depends on our credit rating. Our past ability to pay credit card bills, car payments and other regular fees on time is translated into a three-digit number, our credit score. Creditors use this number to determine what payment plan we qualify for or whether we qualify at all.

But what if this credit system was applied to everything, from business to private life? We need not imagine the circumstance. It exists in China today.

Known as “social credit”, the system works in much the same way as financial credit. Citizens are provided with a three-digit score based on observance of their ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour. Going far beyond the scope of financial credit, social credit is based on judgement of all parts of a citizen’s life, from where they spend their money to who they have relationships with. The system was originally presented in 2014, and China has recently begun proof of concept trials for the systems implementation.

Utilizing China’s enormous spy grid of more than 20 million surveillance cameras, nearly every move a citizen makes is analyzed. The raw data of surveillance footage and online activities is overseen by an advanced artificial intelligence program, which uses complex facial recognition software to assign names to actions. A clean, calculating system for handling China’s population of 1.4 billion. The issue comes down to the matter of deciding what constitutes right and wrong action. This is, of course, up to the discretion of the so-called ‘Central People’s Party’.

The specifics of what makes good and bad behaviour remain mostly enigmatic. With that said however, we do have a few examples of offences, including: smoking in non-smoking areas, buying too many video games or playing them for too many hours, bad-driving, attempting to ride a train without paying, jaywalking, and disseminating ‘fake-news’ online.

A citizen’s social credit score can move up, or down. Consequently, there are rewards for high scores, and punishments for low ones.

Punishments are not few. A citizen with a poor score could have restrictions on their ability to travel. Many in test areas have been barred from taking business class rides on trains, and many more are blocked from purchasing domestic flight tickets altogether. Other punishments include: throttled internet speed, impeded access to luxury hotels, and restriction from certain high-status jobs for citizens marked as “trust-breaking.” Worse yet, those with a low social credit score may not be able to attend higher education or send their children to high-cost private schools. One final punishment that we’re aware of is the possibility for citizens to be publicly blacklisted as ‘bad citizens’, encouraging employers not to hire them. Supposedly, citizens will receive a notice before being added to the list and will be granted 10 days to appeal.

A few examples of rewards can also be estimated, based on what has been observed in areas that have begun experimenting with the system. The magazine Foreign Policy did a profile in the tester-city, Rongcheng, and found a list of benefits for ‘good citizens’. They included: Savings on energy bills, the ability to rent without a deposit, and improved interest rates with financial institutions. Other zones have reported that high scorers received special treatment at airports, fast-tracks to the best universities, and the ability to rent or purchase property in the nicest neighbourhoods.

The social credit system sounds outlandish to most of us in the western world. It brings to mind stories like George Orwell’s 1984, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. So, it may be hard for some to believe that many in China are actually praising the system. Foreign Policy interviewed a denizen of Daxunjiangjia village, Mu Linming, who said that “Life in our village has always been good,” and “After introducing the system, it’s gotten even better.” It’s worth noting though, that in his village the social credit system mostly monitors how well one treats their neighbours and family members. But, in other cities, those who praise the social credit system have similarly cited that it improves public behaviour and rewards good citizens.

The obvious problem with the system is one of freedom. It is certainly the largest social engineering project ever undertaken in the world. It places immense power in the hands of a government that is already not well trusted globally, and it marks a major development in surveillance network and artificial intelligence technologies. It is conceivable that the system could be used to good effect, but the temptation to use it for evil would be present even in the best of hands. Time will tell if the system be used for good, or if it proves to be a nefarious tool for the Communist Party of China to tighten its control over the Chinese people.

Perhaps the social credit system’s aim is truly the establishment of a perfect society; however, utopia and dystopia are often just a perspective apart. Paradise for one, can be hell for another. Although human civilizations have strove for perfection for almost as long as they have existed, the tools now at the fingertips of the powerful capable of making dreams a reality, are nightmarish.

The social credit system will continue to be tested, with plans for full enactment by 2020. To our friends in China, be careful. In the words of George Orwell, “Big Brother is watching you.”