China’s Social Credit System: Moving into an Orwellian Future

George Orwell captivated the world when he described a society where the government, as “Big Brother,” monitored your entire life and effectively controlled everything you did. This story still seems far from reality, unless you take a closer look at China. Beginning in 2014, the Chinese government began planning and slowly implementing their social credit, or Social I.D., program. 2020 is the final year of planning before the program is fully launched [1].

So, what is social credit? China has approximately 415 million surveillance cameras in the country—roughly one camera per four people [2]. These cameras are being equipped with facial recognition software so that whenever you go in public, your actions are recorded and associated with you. Those actions are added to a social credit score (think financial credit score but for your reputation) in real time. The facial recognition links your actions to your specific “social I.D.” The data is currently owned mostly by large Chinese firms, such as Alibaba and Ant Financial, who have voluntary social credit systems that the Chinese government can access [3]. This data will be integrated into the non-voluntary, government Social I.D. system when it is fully implemented. As of 2019, 43 Chinese cities have already implemented pilot Social I.D. systems [4].

Points are added to your score for positive actions like picking up trash, paying rent on time, and donating to charity. However, points are subtracted if you skip or are late to an appointment, buy too much alcohol, do not repay debts, or even jaywalk. Trustworthy citizens with high scores earn benefits like discounts on items or deposit exemptions. But having a low score will get you blacklisted. The consequences of being blacklisted include the inability to buy flights or transit—essentially putting individuals in a form of house arrest—and denied access to social media platforms. If a parent is blacklisted, even their children can face consequences like being prevented from attending their school of choice. People who are blacklisted have a very difficult time getting off of the list, unless they are wealthy. 

While America has credit scores and the National Security Agency, we would be horrified if such an intimate system was even considered here. So, are the Chinese horrified by Social I.D.? No. In fact, many are in favor of it. A recent survey]found that 80% of Chinese respondents approve of social credit systems in China [5]. They see these systems as a way to build trust in the community; if you  see that someone has a high score, you know they behave well and are trustworthy to be around and conduct business with. Further, people who break the law will be easily identified and prevented from doing so in the future. Essentially, if the government sees all, then bad behavior can be monitored and stopped. People who are not in favor of Social I.D. are those on the blacklist. Five million people have been banned from high-speed trains and 17 million from flights [6].

            The clear and disconcerting problem of the system is when the score goes from preventing bad behavior to restricting freedoms, especially freedom of speech. Because of China’s firewall, you need a virtual private network (VPN) to openly access the internet. If you are caught with a VPN, however, your score is significantly impacted. This system effectively hinders access to any thought or idea that the Chinese government opposes. By preventing outside information and thoughts, China’s populace will become further polarized in ideology. Limiting specific people from social media will also prevent movements that support human rights because individuals cannot coordinate with others in protests and movements. Once the government establishes a precedent of doling out punishment based on social credit scores, there are minimal safeguards in the Chinese governmental system to prevent access to all private information and increasing punishments. Restricting freedom of speech and action based on government preference and political affiliation is wrong. Foreign people conducting business inside China should also be concerned, as a more monitored system can lead to further infringement on intellectual property rights. 

Perhaps a social credit system will unify and restore trust among the Chinese people, but dangerous implications of such a system may have a more negative effect before individuals can experience any benefit at all. 

Sources:

[1]https://www.businessinsider.com/china-social-credit-system-punishments-and-rewards-explained-2018-4

[2]https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/06/one-billion-surveillance-cameras-will-be-watching-globally-in-2021.html

[3]https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/04/china-plans-for-corporate-social-credit-system-eu-sinolytics-report.html

[4]https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3215138

[5]https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/03/21/what-do-people-china-think-about-social-credit-monitoring/

[6]https://time.com/collection/davos-2019/5502592/china-social-credit-score/

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lillie.haggard

LILLIE HAGGARD is a senior who grew up in Oregon, Chicago, and North Dakota. They say there is a pretty girl behind every tree in North Dakota and there are not many trees. She is studying Political Science with a minor in international diplomacy and strategy. Lillie has interned at the State Department and World Trade Center Utah. She was born on Easter, was a whale watching tour guide in Alaska for two summers, and loves her dog Sasha the samoyed.

lillie.haggard

LILLIE HAGGARD is a senior who grew up in Oregon, Chicago, and North Dakota. They say there is a pretty girl behind every tree in North Dakota and there are not many trees. She is studying Political Science with a minor in international diplomacy and strategy. Lillie has interned at the State Department and World Trade Center Utah. She was born on Easter, was a whale watching tour guide in Alaska for two summers, and loves her dog Sasha the samoyed.

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