In what almost seems like an episode right out of the British Science-Fiction Television Series Black Mirror or perhaps an initiative of the inner-party in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four novel, the Chinese government is building and deploying its national reputation system aptly named the ‘Social Credit System’ 社会信用体系 (shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì). The Social Credit System is a system that scores the reputation of Chinese citizens and businesses operating within China’s sovereign border, based on data collected from social media, financial institutions and government records.
The Chinese Government believes that it is necessary to implement what many see as an omnipresent surveillance system to address the lack of trust many have in the Chinese market. Government officials cite China’s reputation as a significant source of counterfeit products,1 fraud, malpractice and unscrupulous business dealings2 as clear justification to implement measures to achieve trust and confidence in the market and economy. Furthermore, the government has recognised that corruption and the erosion of trust have created much discontent amongst the populace3 and thus the need for the Social Credit System to provide assurances and trustworthiness of the individuals and businesses in their digital dealings and provide deeper transparency in the “system.”4
The Social Credit System seeks to examine and score both business and individuals in their “honesty in government affairs, commercial integrity, societal integrity, and judicial credibility”. Initial scenarios and technology integration suggests that focus is on managing citizen’s access to various financial services by assessing their ability to handle the debt. However, planners are already pursuing more ‘complete’ perhaps some would say invasive ways in how the Social Credit System can ‘shape and mould’ behaviours of individuals and business5 through self-censorship and social governance.
On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, except in China
For the Social Credit System to become a reality, the identity of the individual and associated transactions and online interactions need to be known with a high degree of confidence. Therefore in a bid to peel back the layers of a citizens anonymity, the government has implemented a series of initiatives to gain more visibility and control which will thwart attempts to bypass its controls.
Since September 2009, the Chinese authorities have been pursuing a course of real-name registration for Internet services in China. Then in 2014 only news organisations and other authorised websites were permitted to post and share political news through their public accounts and all social media platforms such as QQ, WeChat and Sina Weibo require users to register with their real identities.
Then Cyber Administration of China (CAC) on the 1st October 2017 brought into force that users are no longer allowed to anonymously post on websites which makes for a naturally self-censoring environment with individuals very unlikely to publish controversial or anti-government statements.
The authorities cite the twin principles of “harmonious society” and “social responsibility” as justification for this initiative. Chinese officials are concerned about how this free flow of information enabled by digital technologies may upset social stability6 and also facilitate criminal acts.
The preferred method for circumventing online censorship has been the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and browser projects such as Free browser from GreatFire. Increasingly, though, Chinese Netizens are experiencing more and more stability issues, and aggressive blocking by the Great Firewall (censorship and monitoring platform) and as of February 2018 individuals and businesses that wish to operate VPN will need to obtain a license.7 Companies that want to access cross-border services will need to ‘rent’ VPN services from authorised telecommunication providers8 with many foreign businesses already reporting disruption to their business services because of the law.9
It’s a utopian all-inclusive future – Everyone’s at the party
By every measure, China has a fascinating and mature digital ecosystem. Tencent’s WeChat has created an extensive digital ecosystem where users, businesses, media and entertainment can all interact without ever leaving the world of WeChat. Its pseudo twin the tech giant Alibaba, with its e-commerce platform, cyber-physical shops, payment platforms further enhances this totally immersive online experience that is unique to China.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that China’s top domestic technology and finance firms have either developed social credit applications or provide data feeds to the Social Credit System platform for real-time correlation and analysis of users financial and online interactions and transactions. This online telemetry that coupled with the use of real names, real-time monitoring and increased use of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), ensures that the Social Credit System can correlate an individual’s comments, purchases, and associated interactions in near real time. This, in turn, increases the accuracy of the citizen’s social credit score, further shaping the citizen’s behaviour through self-censorship.
Social Credit System – Future outlook
The Social Credit System is a thought-provoking solution to implement a degree of self-censorship and address the issues of market trust and confidence and offers greater control over public opinion by linking social media to economic privileges. Though some commentators claim that despite Chinese Government advertising the Social Credit System as a national credit monitoring system, there is evidence of an overlap between Social Credit System development and China’s domestic security program.10 It is here that critics are increasingly concerned that the Social Credit System will be a focus on maintaining the power of the Chinese Communist Party and be a powerful tool in the persecution of individuals and groups who speak out against the government.
Judging one’s ability to manage debt is one thing, however using the Social Credit System to judge you as a human based on your social behaviours, is from a liberal perspective an invasion of your privacy and clear overreach by the government with the potential for unintended consequences.
In all probability, the Social Credit System will result in greater trust, transparency and confidence in China’s domestic marketplace but at what cost? Will the cost of the erosion in privacy even be counted amongst the Chinese netizens? China’s cultural and socio-economic realities will mostly result in its citizens putting convenience and the pursuit of economic advantage over the protection of their privacy.
Thus China will ultimately create its own version of a Black Mirror’s dystopian Orwellian future. Where government-sanctioned behaviour, interactions and thoughts are rewarded with economic and social benefits.