WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
- The technologies to create an Orwellian state surveillance and ratings system already exists, but without the will and resources to pull one together they remained relegated to the pages of fiction, until now
Swiping her son’s half fare student card through the turnstile one Monday afternoon, Chen Li earned herself a $6 fine and a reprimand from a subway station inspector for not paying the adult fare.
A notice on a post nearby suggested more dire consequences. It warned that infractors could be docked points in the city’s “personal credit information system.” A decline in Ms. Chen’s credit score, according to official pronouncements, could affect her daily life, including securing loans, jobs and her son’s school admission.
“I’m sure if it comes up, I can explain,“ Ms. Chen said, saying she picked up the card accidentally, “it was unintentional.”
Although, as many of us know all too well in todays society, you don’t always get a chance to explain and set the record straight.
Hangzhou’s local government is piloting what they call a “Social Credit System” (SCS) and the Communist Party has said it wants to roll out nationwide by 2020 – a digital reboot of what was once done using paper and ancient social networks.
More than three dozen local governments across China are beginning to compile digital records of social and financial behaviour to rate creditworthiness. A person can incur black marks for infractions such as fare cheating, jaywalking and violating family-planning rules. The effort echoes the dang’an, a system of dossiers the Communist party keeps on urban workers’ behaviour but now it’s on a national scale, and as more of our lives are lived online, in the digital realm, it will only become harder to escape the net.
According to interviews with some architects of the system and a review of government documents, in time, Beijing expects to draw on bigger, combined data pools, including a person’s internet activity and much much more. Algorithms would use a range of data to calculate a citizen’s rating, which would then be used to determine all manner of activities, such as who gets loans, or faster treatment at government offices or access to luxury hotels.
The national social-credit system’s aim, according to a slogan repeated in planning documents, is to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
At the moment the pilot data-collecting systems aren’t yet tied together into what Beijing envisions as a sweeping system, which would assign each citizen a rating but they will come, given time.
Zan Aizong, a Hangzhou human-rights activist, sees the system, once it’s fully operational, as an Orwellian exercise to keep closer tabs on a populace already lacking basic liberties such as freedom of speech.
“Tracking everyone that way,” Mr. Zan said, “it’s just like ‘1984.’ ”
And China’s judiciary has already created a blacklisting system that will one day tie into SCS. Zhuang Daohe, a Hangzhou legal scholar, cites the example of a client, part-owner of a travel company, who now can’t buy tickets for planes or high-speed trains because a Hangzhou court put him on a blacklist after he lost a dispute with a landlord.
“This has had a huge impact on the business,” said the client’s wife. “He can’t travel with clients anymore.” Added Mr. Zhuang: “What happens when it punishes the wrong person?”
Another government system blacklists badly behaved tourists.
Research by Yang Wang though, a Syracuse University expert on internet behaviour, has shown Chinese internet users, accustomed to the idea of government snooping, are less concerned with online privacy than their western cousins – the most common word for privacy, yinsi, for example, didn’t appear in popular Chinese dictionaries until the mid-1990s.
In the tree-lined Yangjing neighborhood, subdistrict authorities maintain a database that gives a hint as to what elements of a broader social-credit system might look like. The database collects reports on locals’ behavior from residential committees, said Yuan Jianming, the head of the Yangjing Sincerity Construction Office.
Since mid-2015, the office has published a monthly “red list” of exemplary residents. Zhu Shengjun, 28, a high-school teacher, was named on a September red list. He said he didn’t know why. While he supported efforts to encourage better behavior, he hesitated at the idea of linking that with financial consequences, saying “it seems like too much of a stretch.”
The office also maintains a “gray list” of people behaving badly—throwing garbage out of windows, say—but the office hasn’t decided whether to publicize it, Jianming said.