You wait excitedly in your new boss’s office, ready to sign the papers that will make your dream job—at long last—a reality. Across the desk, she scans the pile of forms that remain between you and your new position. “It looks like everything is in order,” she muses. “Except… ah, one moment.” Your heart sinks a little. She frowns and points to a three-digit number on one of your background checks. “Something’s not right. I see here you don’t have the social credit score to qualify for this position.” She lowers her voice and looks at you with a mix of curiosity and horror. “What kind of subversives have you been hanging around with?”
Although this scene may sound like it was ripped straight from a dystopian novel, it could soon be common practice in China as part of the new “Social Credit” system being constructed by the communist regime. The Mercator Institute for China Studies describes the system as one in which “the state seeks to create a central repository of data on natural and legal persons that can be used to monitor, assess, and change their actions through incentives of punishment and reward.” Citizens are scored on variables such as their work performance, the degrees they hold, the timeliness with which they pay their bills, their behavior in public spaces, their online behavior, and even the social standing of their friends. A good score might earn you a travel visa; a bad score might put your job, or your children’s education, at risk.
The Chinese government advertises the program as an innovative incentives-based system to help encourage good behavior, but it doesn’t take an avid sci-fi fan to see that it’s a near-perfect tool for the pervasive surveillance and control of every aspect of social life. Chinese citizens are already extremely connected with apps like Alipay, which allows users to make payments, access social media, use ride sharing services, and store personal information all from one space. These apps track where an individual has gone, what they buy, and with whom they interact, amassing a treasure trove of data. As “Internet of Things”-enabled devices enter the homes of Chinese citizens, data collection will only increase. We already know that the Chinese regime employs well over two million internet censors and can intercept and erase online messages mid-transmission—so tracking, monitoring, and rating every citizen in real time using their online footprint is no impossibility.
As well as being technically feasible, the social credit system is dangerously seductive to the human psyche. Its almost game-like format lends itself to an interactive relationship between users and their scores. the tendency is to obsessively check one’s score in the hopes of increasing it by a single point. In short, it’s almost fun. Citizens begin to internalize their scores: feeling guilt for spending time on a disapproved pursuit or suspicion in interacting with a low-scoring friend. The program is designed to influence individuals at every level—from the workplace to family life and even to one’s private, individual endeavors. As individuals become more compliant, the system grows, thus creating an intentional feedback loop.
China is already implementing a blacklisting process for those with bad credit—which includes publishing the names and addresses of people with poor scores. One example, created by the Chinese government itself, portrays a man not being able to get a date because his name has been posted publicly as someone to be avoided.
In cities like Shanghai and Chongqing, the focus has been on utilizing facial recognition software to better target low scorers. Given the increasing usage of facial recognition in security, social media, and now even unlocking one’s phone or making payments, low scorers will be at risk for refusal of services at every turn. Moreover, none of this is hidden information: MERICS reports that “several cartoons published on the central government’s Credit China platform explain that having one’s face and ID number revealed will create social pressure and shame both individuals and companies into adopting more compliant behavior.”
Perhaps the darkest aspect of the social credit system is that the standard for good and bad behavior is being formulated by the Chinese Communist Party and implemented in a top-down manner with little room to escape. The CCP now has the power to define moral and immoral behavior, complete with the ability to distribute immediate, visible rewards and punishments to support its claims.
Yet none of this should come as a shock; it’s the natural extension of a regime that values conformity to itself over all else. Like all communist regimes, it can only be successful if everyone cooperates with the Party. With this frame of reference, punishing dissenters and suppressing individual liberties is logical. Before long, it’s expected.
Both explicitly and in a subliminal, Pavlovian manner, the system instills the belief that following the rules isn’t just a legal requirement, but a matter of submission to an authoritative moral rule-giver. By building a system so pervasive that it shapes behavior both in public and in private, the Party enthrones itself as the arbiter of morality. Alignment with the government takes on religious overtones.
We can only begin to imagine how China’s social credit program will affect the nation’s societal fabric. But for anyone who values personal autonomy, freedom of conscience, and the room to make mistakes in order to grow, it is clear that this system must be resisted.