by Kevin Hong

China’s Social Credit System

Life in modern times is becoming an Orwellian dystopian scenario. Mass surveillance is already a thing. As technology and data science develop, it’s very likely that surveillance will get on the next level soon. New technological breakthroughs are making or lives easier, but they are also putting question mark behind our freedom.

Chinese government issued an outline for its national credit system in 2014. The outline plans the basic structures of this system to be fully operational by 2020. The system is presented as a means to make the “socialist market economy” better and more efficient. But what this system does now is monitoring every aspect of Chinese citizens’ lives.
China’s Communist Party said that the system would “allow trustworthy to roam freely under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”. This sound like a good idea, society being based on meritocracy. The problem is who is defining what trustworthy means and how.

Social Credit System currently tracks: credit history, contract obligation fulfillment, personal characteristics, behavior, preferences and interpersonal relationships of an individual. Based on that algorithm fabricates a score. People with low scores could be punished with slower internet speed, restricted travelling, denied access to certain restaurants and clubs. Score also affects securing insurance, rental applications, loans and social security benefits. For example, already more than 11 million citizens of China can’t travel by an airplane. More than 4 million are banned from trains.

Journalist Liu Hu has exposed high level corruption and solved murder cases abandoned by the Chinese police. In 2015 he accused an official of extortion and after he lost a defamation case the government put him on the “black list” and marked him “dishonest”. Now he deals with all the problems blacklisted citizens face in China. He cannot book a flight or take a high-speed train, his child can’t apply for a private school, etc. Liu stated that he believes his blacklisting was of political origin and said that there are numerous people who are wrongly put on the list, especially journalists doing investigative reports. To make things worse, government doesn’t reward good deeds of these people, keeping them on the blacklist as long as possible (namely, forever).

Liu Hu

More than just restricting individual freedom of Chinese citizens, Social Credit Score is also used for monitoring and controlling minorities, especially in the Xinjiang region. This region is mostly populated by Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group of Islamic beliefs. The region had problems in 2009 when Uyghurs took the streets of the regional capital, Urumqi, to protest the murders of Uyghurs who worked in the city of Shaoguan. Protest spiraled into a riot and Chinese government shut down the internet in Xinjiang for almost a year.

Previous year, online links between Xinjiang and the rest of the world began disappearing again. After that, large construction projects have been initiated – large buildings surrounded by fences and guard towers. More than million Uyghurs were and are being put in these “Massive Internment Camps”, 5 to 10% of them being interned without criminal charge. Chinese officials stated that these are “vocational education and employment training centers”, but others suggest that this is just one of the ways Chinese government is controlling this region and Islamic minorities.

While meritocracy is a great idea, we need to be careful who will define it and how. A lot of Chinese citizens are happy with Social Credit System, at least until they get blacklisted. Punishing bad behavior and rewarding good is a cornerstone of a good society. But it’s important to see that there is a difference between what government and the people consider to be bad or good. Some governments work more on protecting themselves, rather than their citizens and that’s where problems emerge.
To get the full benefits of current technology and a system like this, requires a discussion on a big scale (between government and its people and internationally – between countries). If people are to be rated and scored, they ought to have a word in the rule-making.