Imagine the sum of your existence shrunk to a score that is constantly being updated and affects every area of your life –your social and economic status, access to better schools and employment, a nicer apartment, access to newer rental cars, and even friendships. You might laugh it off and point out you have seen this one in that “Black Mirror” episode.
An episode in the third season of the British sci-fi series titled “Nosedive” is indeed about a world where people can rate each other in real time based on every interaction they have, and the score each one gets determine his quality of life. Relax, you may say, it’s totally fictional. But what if I tell you such a world not only really exists, but is also much worse than the fictional one?
Freelance journalist James O’Malley recently posted a creepy video from a bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai. A voice can be heard over the train’s PA system cautioning everyone aboard:
Dear passengers: people who travel without a ticket, or behave disorderly or smoke in public area will be punished according to regulations. And their behavior will be recorded in individual credit information system. To avoid negative record of personal credit, please follow the relevant regulations.
If you never heard of the social credit system referenced in the video, welcome to China, where the government seems to have found the perfect tool to keep 1.4 billion people behaving as it wishes. It watches them 24/7 through a data-driven social credit system, something straight out of George Orwell’s fictional “1984” and much more intrusive and destructive than what was depicted in the “Black Mirror” episode.
Many in the west are familiar with credit bureaus such as Equifax and Experian, private companies that collect and maintain identification and credit information of individuals and sell the information to lenders such as banks, or employers and consumers, in the form of credit scores and credit reports. The purpose of a credit score and credit report is to measure your credit worthiness — capacity and willingness to pay back loans.
So the majority of the information these credit bureaus collect are financial — your repayment history, available credit lines, public records of bankruptcy, tax liens, etc. If you have a good credit score, you can get a mortgage or credit card with a better rate than those who have poor credit scores.
The credit bureaus also collect certain non-financial information, such as your Social Security number, date of birth, previous and current addresses, etc. Therefore, employers, lenders, and government agencies sometimes rely on your credit report to verify your identity.
Like so many things in China, the Chinese government took a perfectly innocent western idea, modified it to fit China’s needs with Chinese characteristics, and turned it into an Orwellian surveillance tool. Sebastian Heilmann, who coined the term “digital Leninism,” describes China’s social credit system as “a completely new perspective on regulating not just the economy and market, but also society. It’s really comprehensive, big data enabled, for both regulations and surveillance.”
The idea of China’s social credit system was first announced in 2014. Various Chinese cities and provinces have already rolled out their own pilot programs. Every Chinese citizen will be subjected to the mandatory social credit system in 2020, when a nationwide system is operational.
The Chinese government stated that the social credit system “uses encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust as incentive mechanisms, and its objective is raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society … commend sincerity and punish insincerity.” Based on this, we know that unlike western credit bureaus, which mainly collect financial information, China’s social credit system is intended to mold Chinese citizens collectively into “good” people who follow a “moral” code of conducts sanctioned by China’s communist government.
The social credit system is very comprehensive. It collects more than 800 data points on each individual. Many data points are not financial, but behavioral, such as an individual’s online shopping behavior, education history, and everyday behaviors such as whether you run a red light, smoke in marked nonsmoking area, or put the garbage out incorrectly.
Every behavior you can think of is currently being tracked by more than 200 million surveillance cameras that use facial recognition technology. By 2020, when China rolls out the social credit system nationwide, China is expected to have 626 million surveillance cameras installed. According to South China Morning News, “China is developing a facial recognition system that can match faces to a database of 1.3 billion ID photos in seconds, with a target of achieving 90 per cent accuracy.”
The Chinese government also relies on other high-tech tools to keep an eye on its vast population. For example, did you know that “over 30 Chinese military and government agencies have used birdlike drones and similar machines to spy on people in at least five provinces in China?”
Everyone in China is being tracked one way or another, whether they are criminals or not. The massive amount of data the government is collecting feeds into the social credit system, so everyone’s “trust worthy” score is going up and down in real time.
Even though the original government statement said it intended to use these scores to “encourage” good behavior, in reality the government-sanctioned code of conduct has been strictly enforced. Those who are “well” behaved will be rewarded with nice perks, such as finding better mates on dating websites, their children will have access to good schools, and they may be allowed to keep pets. In the meantime, there are real-life consequences for those who “misbehave.”
In June of this year, the Chinese government outed 169 people’s identity on Credit China’s website, announcing that all were subject to a one-year ban on buying flight or train tickets due to their “bad” behavior, such as “provocation on a flight, trying to take a lighter through airport security, smoking on a high-speed train, tax evasion and not paying fines.”
These 169 people are not the only ones punished by the Chinese government based on their social credit rankings. They only had the misfortune to be shamed on a nationwide platform. Previously, Beijing reportedly had “blocked millions of people from taking more than 11 million flights and some 4 million train trips in early trials of the system” and “some 10.5 million people had been named and shamed by the courts by the end of April, 2018.”
A travel ban is not the only form of punishment those who commit “misdeeds” have to face. Other forms of penalty include becoming ineligible for better employment, banning your kids from better schools, preventing you from staying in better hotels, or having your pets taken away from you. One Chinese official summarized it this way: “If people keep their promises they can go anywhere in the world. If people break their promises they won’t be able to move an inch.”
The level of control Chinese people have to endure under Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom Chinese media nicked name, “Xi Dada,” meaning “Papa Xi,” is unprecedented. Chinese people understand that with every step they take and every move they make, Papa Xi is watching them.
Has the Chinese government’s paternalistic approach yielded the desired result? At least one study of truthfulness shows “Chinese people are the most dishonest and British and Japanese people the most honest.” It seems China’s heavy-handed approach failed to whip people into morally superior beings. One line from the “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror summarized it this way: Constant ranking and scoring only make people better “smiling liars.”
Why should Chinese people strive to become more “trustworthy” citizens when the Chinese government exempts itself from the same moral standard? For example, after denying for months a massive detention of Uyghurs — an ethnic Muslim minority group — in re-education camps in Xinjiang, the Chinese government admitted recently the camps do exist, and even backdated Chinese law to make such re-education camps legal, while still calling these camps “vacation education centers.”
As George Orwell put it, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Why should we care about what’s going on in China? China wouldn’t be able to control its population this way without cooperation from short-sighted western technology companies, who are quick to take a pain-free moral stand in Western democracies, but usually bend over quickly when lured by market access to an authoritarian state. With these Western tech firms’ assistance (capitulation), China continues to use new technology and tools to enhance its vast surveillance network. As China perfects its digital control of its people, it will spread these surveillance technologies beyond its borders.
Be ready, because digital Leninism may be coming to a neighborhood near you sooner than you think.