China Scores Its People

DUSTIN VESEY explains China’s new social credit system, which will score all citizens according to their “trustworthiness” by 2020.

1280px-tiananmen_square_beijing_china_1988_1
Tiananmen Square, 1988.

In China, Big Brother’s influence is expanding, seemingly without bounds.

Last year the State Council of the People’s Republic of China announced a controversial plan to assign each Chinese citizen a credibility score by the year 2020. This score, set on a spectrum of 350-950, will be a representation of an individual’s “trustworthiness” and will effectively generate a competitive hierarchy among Chinese citizens.

Generated by a complex algorithm set to mine information from nearly every aspect of an individual’s civic life, it will scrutinize details like unpaid debts, traffic infractions, and academic honesty. In addition to these ostensibly acceptable forms of judgment, the score will also be affected by factors such as shopping history–the quality and kind of items purchased–types of books read, and for women even whether or not they take birth control. Though China’s official mandatory rating system is not set to debut for another four years, private experimental systems have already operated successfully with government approval for the last year.

Sesame Credit, the financial wing of Alibaba, the world’s biggest online shopping platform, began assigning scores in 2015 to those voluntarily choosing to participate under the direction and supervision of the Chinese government. Unsurprisingly, participants flocked in droves, eager to get ahead of their peers who, by virtue of the new system, will become financial, social, and civic rivals.

Those boasting high scores, especially over 750, have already started to see tangible rewards. They can make hotel reservations without deposits, receive special travel permits, and skip airport security lines. Many proudly display their scores on Baihe profiles, one of China’s premier dating sites. The hundreds of thousands of people taking to Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) to publish their scores, however, seem entirely unconcerned with the system’s potential negative effects.

Nearly anything can lower a credibility score. Publicizing any kind of dissenting opinion that the government does not like lowers the score. Purchasing the wrong consumer goods–those seen to lack social value–like video games, lowers the score. Unthinkably, even being friends with people who do these things lowers the score.

The Chinese State Council wants to create a “harmonious socialist society”, but what kind of society can be harmonious when intense competition for government approval scores requires ostracizing the arbitrary lesser? “My friends and I joke that we are no longer in a police state, but a police empire,” Hu Jia, a political activist previously jailed for addressing issues such as environmental protection and AIDS, told the LA Times. Beyond the social consequences, penalties for low scores also include slower Internet speeds and job restrictions.

Despite the clear defects in the Social Credit system, many critics in China believe it to be beneficial. “A credit system puts people’s past history on the record. It builds a better and fairer society,” Wen Quan, a Chinese technology and finance blogger, told the BBC. Since many people don’t own houses, cars, or credit cards in China, as evidenced by the staggering number of Chinese citizens without a traditional credit history – over a billion people – Wen Quan believes any kind of credit system is badly needed.

No matter the international response, which is generally one of alarm at the authoritarian abuses of modern technology, the system seems to have been successful in its tests over the last year, gaining popularity among users, which bodes well for its future. “Only if there is mutual sincere treatment between members of society, and only if sincerity is fundamental, will it be possible to create harmonious and amicable interpersonal relationships…and realize social harmony,” read the State Council Notice Concerning Issuance of the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System.

As long as the Chinese people view high scores as the necessary means to more comfortable lives, and as long as critics like Hu continue to be silenced, it is likely that this system will take a firmer grip over the lives of the Chinese people in the near future. The policy marks a truly Orwellian manifestation of centralized oppression.

“China doesn’t have an Edward Snowden to focus the public’s attention on these privacy issues,” Hu forewarned.

Dustin Vesey is a senior at Yale University. Contact him at dustin.vesey@yale.edu.

The opinion in this article is the author’s own. It does not necessarily reflect the view of China Hands.

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