I’m not sure how this story slipped by the last year but it popped up as a headline in this week’s Economist.
This system is only being experimented with in a few regions and the results have been buggy and for the moment prevent a full roll out over the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, but we should raise concern now as what we’re facing is digital totalitarianism. The proposed Chinese system is a great example for the kind of sweeping information gathering that can be used to punish dissidents and extend state control of the private lives of citizens. Planning documents state that it will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
The stated intent of the system is to build a “culture of sincerity” and has virtuous goals to target manufacturers of fraudulent or dangerous products as in the case of the 2008 melamine tainted baby milk scandal. The social credit score could be used to target those corrupt officials and companies. Though the idea of what China intends should raise concerns even in a free country in China the project raises special concerns.
China has authoritarian tendencies such as pre-approving candidates in local elections, limiting access to the internet and its control over family planning. Citizens should be cautious about the collection of data such as: income tax payments, utility bills, loan repayment, filial piety (how often one visits their parents), criminal record, academic honesty, volunteer activity, interactions with other internet users, shopping habits and CCTV footage. While some of those activities may warrant limitations on freedom of movement an access to loans others, such as interactions with other internet users and consumer habits, are unrelated. But one sees how quickly contact with an unsavory blog could be used later to limit the individual’s access to travel, or school admissions.
We have similar systems such as the credit score in the U.S. The difference is that this is a very limited system which only monitors financial records and only affects an individual’s financial access. If a person struggles to pay their bills on time then yes we should be reluctant to extend greater lines of credit to them. Having all of one’s life rolled into a single score places too much emphasis on arbitrary means of evaluation.
Given the struggles with the hukou (household registration) system China seems sufficiently bureaucratic. What if there are mistakes attached to the individual’s social credit score and one needs to address the local authorities for corrections. Those individuals may struggle to seek an audience especially as those with a flawless score will jump to the front of the line.
As discussed elsewhere, the concern of ubiquitous monitoring of citizens (especially in a nation with tight control over the media, police and the judiciary) is that it allows the decisions for who does and does not qualify as dissident to be made without democratic input. The potential for abuse in the absence of transparency is too great and that should make us concerned, especially for those in “sensitive” jobs such as lawyers, accountants, teachers and journalists.
Having lived in Qingdao for a year I have a great respect for the country and its people, but the fact of its totalitarian activities are not something the free world can just laugh off, even if shows like Black Mirror make personal rating systems in the safe space of satire.