“ Keeping trust is glorious, and breaking trust is disgraceful..”

In a move straight out of George Orwell’s famous 1984, China is in the process of implementing a nationwide “Social Credit Check System.” It is a national reputation system aimed towards standardizing China’s citizens’ and businesses’ reputation or ‘Social Credit”. This system will be implemented by gathering information through mass surveillance using cameras, online activity, past paper records, etc. and using data analytics on this data to give a unified score to everybody.

According to the government, the system has been put in place to create a feeling of trust between people. Every citizen is assigned a score based on their conduct and actions. People with higher scores are trustworthy and receive rewards. People who have committed improper acts aren’t trustworthy and therefore receive penalties and punishments. For example, you can be put on a travel blacklist if you were caught carrying illegal substances during travel. By the end of 2018, 5.5 million high-speed rail trips and 17.5 million flight trips were denied to people on the travel blacklist.

Even though the above example might seem to be “just desserts,” the real horror of the system shows up when considering its other characteristics. This system not only affects the person in question but also the people around them. For example, children of parents with low credit scores can be denied entry into China’s top schools. A simple act of misfortune can blow up into some very dire consequences for entire families.

It’s quite clear that through this system, the government is trying to control the actions and thought processes of their citizens. For example, if someone is caught using too much social media or playing videogames for too long, their internet speeds get throttled. Anything the government feels is undesirable in the population is getting punished.

Public embarrassment also seems to be one of the weapons through which China is spreading discord among people. A list of people who are on the blacklist is being shared in public places such as town centers. This kind of shaming leads to people ostracizing the blacklisted people causing rifts in the community.

The government is also actively using the credit system to further their agenda. People are rewarded with good ratings for giving information about people who are not following government directives or acting against the government’s wishes. The system has a clear potential for causing a divide in the people. It is very simple to fall into a negative spiral and become separate from normal society. In the future, resentment between the “blacklisters” and the “trustworthy” might become a conscientious issue for society as a whole.

Despite the visible and potential horrors that this system creates, Chinese citizens have started implementing the use of these rating systems in their daily lives. People on “Baihe,” China’s biggest dating site, have begun using their good scores as a way of attracting potential partners. People with good ratings are also receiving better interest rates from banks, discounts on bills, etc. Though they might have been uncomfortable at first, Chinese people are quickly warming up to this system. Many have reported that people have started behaving better due to fear of the system.

Citizens of democracies such as ours might believe that this phenomenon will remain isolated to our “democratic” neighbour only. But one should realize that China isn’t where such as trust-based system was formulated or implemented first. Similar systems are already in place worldwide. The credit check that a bank does before approving loans is the same thing. In countries such as the UK and Germany, similar kinds of data are being collected to determine access to credit or health insurance. The trust-based systems can also be found in day to day apps that we use such as Uber where both the driver and passenger rate each other.

We are sleepwalking towards a kind of system which the Chinese government is actively pushing its citizens. Though people cry out “Big Brother” towards the Chinese government, we might not be too far away from a society similar to that. Through the use of technology, central authorities have unprecedented reach over its citizens. It’s up to the discretion of the government to decide what to do with this power, and up to the citizens to allow for such systems to take root. But if one thing is clear, it’s that once the system is in place, it will be very difficult to remove it.

 

References – China social credit system, punishments and rewards …. https://www.businessinsider.com/china-social-credit-system-punishments-and-rewards-explained-2018-4/

Saswat Mandal is a student of IIM, Ahmedabad


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