Drawing comparison to real life from George Orwell’s 1984 is undoubtedly a tired cliché. But when it comes to making that particular comparison, life has perhaps never imitated art quite so well as with the emergent Chinese social credit system. As the state develops a social management system designed to micro-manage the daily lives of its population, everyday decisions like what food to buy or which people you choose to associate with will soon affect Chinese citizens in matters ranging from whether they can book flights to their ability to rent apartments. With the heavy oppression of the Uyghur and Tibetan people, its one-party system, its strict censorship of the internet, the press, activists and artists, the Chinese state is notoriously authoritarian. Yet despite this totalitarian style of governance, China suffers from inefficient legal and regulatory implementation, something Chinese officials commonly call “Enforcement is difficult” or zhixing nan. In order to combat this, China has gone through with a series of administrative reforms which have proven quite effective.
However, in that same process of strengthening political and judicial efficiency, China has also been exploring new methods of maintaining control over its population and its internal political integrity, fueling a powerful security state.
Surveillance and monitoring has become widespread, especially in politically sensitive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. However, other less intense forms of surveillance are becoming increasingly common in China. One of these is the social credit system. The system is set to rank the behavior of its citizens with the goal of “establishing the idea of a sincerity culture, and promoting honesty and traditional virtues”.
Westerners are well accustomed to credit checks: data brokers trace the timely manner in which we pay our debts, giving us a score used by banks when determining our eligibility for loans or mortgages. When it comes to social scoring, just think of your Uber passenger rating; if your score falls too low, you’re out of luck.
But these systems have clearly delimited boundaries. Generally speaking, there is no score that represents the entirety of your person – your sins as an Uber passenger have no bearing on the rest of your life, not to mention your ability to take out a loan. China’s social credit system is set to expand the idea of behavioural rating to all aspects of life. Failing to pay a court-bill, getting caught jaywalking or playing music too loudly on the train could all cause the loss of certain rights. People can have their internet speeds reduced, get banned from renting apartments, lose access to good schools or become blocked from applying for certain jobs.
The social credit system is still in its infancy however, and far from a uniform apparatus. Pilots are being tested all around China, some private and some state-run. But if the plan as envisioned by the Chinese government comes to fruition, these systems could be integrated and hoovered up by the government to create a standardised nationwide social credit system.
Private projects, such as Sesame Credit, part of the larger Alibaba structure, collects data on how much time you spend playing video games and whether you are a parent. The former lowers your score and the latter increases it. Information like this can be shared with other companies. Sesame Credit has for example linked up with the Baihe dating site, enabling would-be partners to judge each other on their looks as well as their social credit score. Romantic.
The most recent extension of the government’s social credit policy is an app which encourages public shaming of indebted people. The app literally warns the user whenever they are within a 500 meter vicinity of a person holding a debt that they should be able to pay.
Chinese officials stipulate that, “the social consciousness of sincerity and credit levels tend to be low.” The problem is framed as a cultural one, and the social credit system stands as a tool of cultural reprogramming. This is how the social credit system differs from previous methods of Chinese societal control and censorship, by the grand goal which is to be achieved, and by the minuteness of the transgressions factored. If the Chinese social credit system proves to be a success by increasing productivity and societal trust, the rest of the world must ask whether it is a worthy trade-off to make. The question becomes whether the societal benefits of such a system outweigh the cost of giving up your personal integrity and privacy, as well as replacing your own personal account of what is virtuous with the assigned virtues of the state. By regulating everyday behavior, China claims to be molding a culture of sincerity and traditional virtue.
But what sincerity exists when one’s behavior is monitored and regulated? How can a decision be sincere when one is aware of the negative consequences that would follow by not taking that decision? That is the oxymoron of forced sincerity.