By 2020, the Chinese government plans to implement a mandatory, nationwide social credit system, with ratings achieved by monitoring citizens’ behaviour, both on and offline.
The government, and colluding large private tech companies, track the consumer behaviour and social network’s output of citizens. The resulting collated information will create a social credit rating based on “sesame points” that will determine the freedoms citizens enjoy, and privileges they are allowed. Often compared to the system of private credit scores familiar to the Western world, the rating can move up and down.
First announced in 2014, the mandatory scheme is set to be widespread by 2020. Currently, where it has been established, it is run by a mixture of city councils and private tech companies.
In 2014, the State Council issued the “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit” which first outlined the government of the People’s Republic of China’s plan to create a ranking system. Everything from smartphones to CCTV cameras would be enlisted in the project. China already has a widespread public network of facial surveillance cameras, estimates say close to 180 million, which can be enlisted in monitoring citizen’s behaviour.
Allegedly, the aim was to quash corruption and counterfeit consumer goods. The system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”, ran the official line.
In fact, what was being described was a system of extreme government control. China needs the networking potential of the internet in order to fulfil its goal of becoming a true world power. But the unfettered connectivity and opportunities for expression provided by the online world do not sit with the ever increasingly authoritative nature of the Chinese government. Here though, was a way in which the government could harness the power of the net to further its own goals.
Where the Mao era used wiretapping, and a system of neighbours and family members spying on one and other to maintain control, the government of President Xi Jinping, who can now rule indefinitely after the Chinese Communist Party abolished limitations on presidential terms (he is expected to stay in power until at least 2022), is using the monitoring capabilities of the online world to extend and solidify control of Chinese citizens.
Watchers of the Black Mirror episode Nosedive, in which Bryce Dallas Howard lives in a society based upon a social credit score decided by others, will find the potential dystopian consequences of such measures familiar. “It’s Amazon’s consumer tracking with an Orwellian political twist,” Johan Lagerkvist, a Chinese internet specialist at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, has commented.
What earns you high social credit rating? Favouring public transport. Recycling. Informing on a neighbour. Buying nappies (parents are presumed to be responsible). Pro-government posts on social media.
Ratings can be negatively affected by taking part in meetings deemed subversive, smoking in a non-smoking area, posting fake news online, excessive online gaming, bad driving, failing to pay bills on time, not looking after your parents sufficiently.
A high score entitles a citizen to a range of benefits; discounts or upgrades on products or services, including energy bill; fast-tracked applications for foreign travel; more favourable profiles on dating websites; renting without a deposit; better interest rates from banks; access to better schooling for one’s children; skipping hospital queues.
Lower scores can mean limitations on domestic travel, purchasing a house, or taking out a loan. They can impede job prospects; companies have apparently been encouraged to check ratings before offering employment, and those with a low score are unlikely to be offered management roles in state-owned companies.
Censored online behaviour, what Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent of the Networked, termed “networked authoritarianism”, has long been a fact of life for Chinese citizens.
What is referred to as China’s Great Firewall blocks thousands of websites including Facebook, Google, Instagram, Gmail and Dropbox. In this past year, the government has increasingly cracked down on those selling software necessary to circumvent government restrictions and gain access to what is known as a VPN (virtual private network).
Certain search topics and terms (“Tiananmen Square”, “I oppose”, “migration” for example) are blocked. The terms “my emperor”, “lifelong control”, “disagree” and references to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, both dystopian novels about authoritarian regimes, were banned from Weibo, China’s largest social media platform.
Human Rights Watch reports that in June of last year dozens of entertainment and celebrity gossip social media accounts were shut down by the government, who called on internet companies to “actively promote socialist core values.” Instant messaging apps might have seemed an alternative in the face of such censorship, but in September of last year, the government announced that it would hold all members of private WeChat groups (potentially up to 500) responsible for any conversations which did not fall within party-approved lines. A WeChat moderator was arrested in September of last year.
Cooperation is provided by large online companies (who often run their own social credit schemes), who already hold huge amounts of information. China is virtually a cashless society now; online payment Alipay is said to cooperate with the government on the social credit rating system.
The consequences of this plan go beyond the already serious prospect of enabling authoritarianism. There is the potential here for a sort of dystopian social grooming.
“China is an unabashedly authoritarian state equipped with everything it needs to cut dissent off at its source. It has the power to create a generation of compliant subjects both unaware of alternatives and utterly unable to formulate whatever grievances they might hold in a politically potent way,” Adam Greenfield wrote in The Atlantic.
And in the light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it is the kind of online meddling by power none of us can afford to be complacent about.