China’s social credit system has been compared to Black Mirror, Big Brother and every other dystopian future sci-fi writers can think up. The reality is more complicated — and in some ways, worse.
The idea for social credit came about back in 2007, with projects announced by the government as an opt-in system in 2014. But there’s a difference between the official government system and private, corporate versions, though the latter’s scoring system that includes shopping habits and friendships is often conflated with the former.
Most of us are well accustomed to credit checks: data brokers trace the timely manner in which we pay our debts, giving us a score that’s used by lenders and mortgage providers. We also have social-style scores, and anyone who has shopped online with eBay has a rating on shipping times and communication, while Uber and Grab drivers and passengers both rate each other; if your score falls too far, you’re out of luck.
China’s social credit system expands that idea to all aspects of life, judging citizens’ behaviour and trustworthiness. Caught jaywalking, don’t pay a court bill, play your music too loud on the train — you could lose certain rights, such as booking a flight or train ticket.
Unveiled in a 2014 plan, pieces of the system are already in place, and the Chinese government appears to be targeting a 2020 goal to get the rest in place, though that’s less a deadline and instead marks the end of a planning period, says Samantha Hoffman, non-resident fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
As yet, there’s no one social credit system. Instead, local governments have their own social record systems that work differently, while unofficial private versions are operated at companies such Ant Financial’s Zhima Credit, better known as Sesame Credit. Ant Financial is the payment firm spun out of Alibaba. The systems use shopping habits among other data to inform credit-style scores, on an opt-in basis. And the pilots that do exist don’t all work in the same way.
The private systems, including Ant Financial’s Sesame Credit, often get conflated with the government plans, though they aren’t part of the official system. To be a bit more confusing, the data collected by private companies is expected to be hoovered up by the government in the future, and some of the data is already used in government trials. Sesame Credit says this is only with user consent.
The target, eventually, is that the government system will be country wide, with businesses given a “unified social credit code” and citizens an identity number, all linked to permanent record. Some reports talk about a blacklist; that’s part of the official government social credit system, which means if you owe the government money, for example, you could lose certain rights. There’s a difference between getting a low social credit score and being blacklisted by the government, such as for refusing to pay a fine.
One city, Rongcheng, gives all residents 1,000 points to start. Authorities make deductions for bad behaviour like traffic violations, and add points for good behaviour such as donating to charity. One regulation specifically addresses stealing electricity. Of course, you’ll have to get caught first or be reported by someone else. While facial recognition is infamously used to spot jaywalkers, in some cities it’s not so automated.
Private projects, such as Sesame Credit, hoover up all sorts of data on its 400 million customers, from how much time they spend playing video games (that’s bad) to whether they’re a parent (that’s good). That can be shared with other companies. One infamous example is Sesame Credit linking up with the Baihe dating site, so would be partners can judge each other on their looks as well as their social credit score; that system is opt-in.
So far, taking part in both the private and government versions is technically voluntary; in the future, the official social credit system will be mandatory. That said, there’s plenty of pressure to take part now.
While it varies by programme, in some local pilots a positive rating means discounts and benefits, such as a simplified process with bureaucracies. If you have a low rating, you may have extra paperwork or fees. Such a system could further divide society, creating classes of people depending on their social credit — and this is where comparisons to Black Mirror pop up.
Of course, that’s not going to be the case for everyone. It’s difficult to imagine that there’s any good use for the Deadbeat Map, beyond public shaming and cruel entertainment. Likewise, if and when the Chinese government manages to consolidate its various systems into an overarching technology that rates individuals against a host of criteria — including, perhaps dissident political opinions — and punishes them for malfeasance, China’s citizens might very well turn on the idea. Nobody wants their life dictated by a score or rating.
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