Cartoon | Raven Hong ’22
During the 20th and 21st century, China has experienced rapid economic development and growth, transforming from a third-world country into an international superpower. Now, China is the world’s largest economy, with a burgeoning middle class. It is home to the world’s fastest-growing economic and artificial intelligence sectors.
The cost, however, of this rapid acceleration has come in the form of what can be described, at best, as a restrictive, single-party, authoritarian government – an Orwellian one, at worst. The Communist Party’s recently implemented policy of a national “social credit system,” in which citizens are rewarded for “good” actions and penalized for “negative” ones threatens the rights of billions of Chinese citizens.
Under this system, what many of us consider rights will become privileges, contingent upon one’s behavior. If a citizen dips below a certain score, they will be “blacklisted” and penalized. Penalties will be assessed not only for major legal offenses such as theft but also minor, harmless infractions such as “excessive” video game purchases. Citizens can increase their score by performing “positive” deeds such as donating blood, engaging in community beautification, or by enlisting in the military.
Citizens’ behavior will be monitored by an extensive network of security cameras, each equipped with sophisticated artificial intelligence and facial recognition software. Similar to how a low credit score can prevent people from getting mortgages, a low social credit score can prevent people from purchasing transportation tickets or high-speed internet. Already, preliminary tests carried out in smaller provincial communities have prevented 17.5 million airplane ticket transactions and 5.5 million train ticket purchases, as of 2018. The Chinese government wants to fully implement the surveillance and social credit system in all major cities by 2020 – less than a year away.
The government introduced the program in 2014, and after implementation in select locales, it has claimed an increase in charitable actions and orderly behavior. Jiakuang Majia, a community in the province of Shandong, has been touted as one of many “model” communities affected positively by the credit system. However, despite the praise of the Chinese government, a brief analysis of the experiment points out several glaring flaws.
First, the village of Jiakuang only has around 700 residents, in comparison with the entire Chinese population of over 1.3 billion people. That size disparity makes it difficult to generalize results to a national scale. Second, the experiment was conducted without the technology necessary to establish a nationwide credit system. The entire experiment was conducted without facial recognition or artificial intelligence; in fact, the credit scores of the village were tracked by a single woman with a pencil and paper. The real system would be far more invasive and prone to exploitation, with the ability for the government to look into people’s search histories, purchases, and off-hand remarks on messaging apps.
Already, the government is allowing private companies access to citizens’ data in the form of Sesame Credit, a mobile application which allows citizens to check their credit scores. The application was initially created by Ant Financial Services Group, a subsidiary of one of the world’s largest companies: Alibaba. Sesame Credit creates scores for users of Alibaba’s extensive suite of services, including the country’s largest e-commerce platform and the world’s largest digital wallet. So not only does the Chinese government have the power to surveil your entire life, but large Chinese multinationals and tech giants do as well.
Things such as the rapidity with which a citizen pays their bills, medical expenditures, supermarket purchases, taxi rides, credit-card payments, and information about individual assets will contribute to the social credit score. Citizens also have the option to report debtors for irresponsible economic expenditures if they’re seen wearing expensive brands, resulting in a reduction of the debtor’s social credit score and an increase to the whistleblower’s score. Furthermore, Sesame Credit has begun partnerships with other applications, most notably a dating platform in which credit score is featured prominently in profiles.
Many Western business leaders and politicians, including financial mogul George Soros, have denounced China’s invasive measures. During the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Soros said the social credit system “will subordinate the fate of the individual to the interests of the one-party state in ways unprecedented in history.” Soros called China’s authoritarian government the “most dangerous” opponent to an open society.
Not only does the Chinese government have the power to surveil your entire life, but large Chinese
multinationals and tech giants do as well.
He’s right. This system is prone to abuse, and if the government does not like what you say, it will make your life more difficult. It is not a system for benevolent governance. It is about striking fear into the hearts of the public, discouraging them from speaking out or protesting the government’s policies and actions.
Already, China has a questionable history regarding freedom of speech, human rights, and individual liberties – just look at its forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims to internment camps in the province of Xinjiang. An entire ethnic group is being deprived of their cultural heritage and religious freedoms. The government’s continued lack of respect for basic rights and freedoms bodes poorly for the future of the social credit system.
A social credit system will only enhance the government’s ability to crack down on the civil liberties of those who do not align with the government’s ideology. This will prove to be disastrous for the country, for no government should have this much power over its people.