You’re a high school senior. It’s May. You’re done! You’re excited to go to university – a real nice one in Beijing.
Until, you receive a phone call from your university. They have rescinded your offer. Why? You ask them, completely bewildered.
Your father is untrustworthy, they say.
This is exactly what happened to a Chinese student in 2018. The student in question – identified by the surname Rao – was notified by his future university that on account of his father’s unpaid bills, which led him to bear a poor social credit score, his spot at the university had been placed on hold. Welcome to the Chinese Social Credit system!
Play too many video games? Watch too much porn? Jaywalk too often? Have fun being limited to economy class air tickets for the rest of your life, peasant.
Social credit systems were developed by the Chinese Communist Party and began regional trials in 2009. They seek to create a nationwide database of citizens and businesses and standardize their trustworthiness. Credit check systems already exist in many forms – UK citizens will be familiar with websites – like Experian or MoneySupermarket – that track your debt payments and your credit score, which in turn affect things like your eligibility for a credit card or mortgage. A social credit system takes that concept and expands it into every arena of an individual’s life, resulting in a score that is meant to definitely stipulate whether or not that person is a good citizen or not. China currently has four main types of social credit systems, rather than one fully integrated, overarching system. They rank various areas of one’s personal life. The four types include:
- The municipal social-credit system
- The People’s Bank of China financial credit system
- A commercial credit-rating system
- The judicial system
The judicial system is the one that would appear most frightening. It attempts to keep a record of any individual’s trustworthiness by evaluating their adherence to certain protocols and norms, to which various levels of morality are ascribed. For example, jaywalking, not showing up to your dinner reservation, or running a red light are all examples of instances that – if caught – could negatively affect your social credit. These measures have already been implemented in some Chinese cities. But there also exist ways to boost your social credit, such as donating blood or giving to charity.
This system is effectively a conditioning process explained by the political theory of Nudge, which proposes positive reinforcement as a way to influence the decisions and actions of individuals. A ‘nudge’ is supposed to make it more likely that an individual makes a certain choice. The goal of such a framework is to eventually produce a society wherein citizens do exactly as their government wants without needing to be told. They are eventually conditioned into being ‘trustworthy’ citizens by themselves.
Since its conception, attempts have been made to standardize and unify the various social credit systems across China. The goal is for the system to work as a permanent record for each individual, theoretically making it easier for businesses to hire, or even to help the dating process – one Chinese dating app allows you to publish your social credit score as a way to boost your likeability.
People hasten to criticize the Social Credit System, likening it to that episode of Black Mirror, while failing to recognise that they already happily subscribe to a social credit system themselves, albeit just informally. You rate your Uber drivers, and they in turn rate you. If you happen to throw up in an Uber once, that doesn’t bode well for you the next time you need a ride. Anyone who went to university in North America will gleefully recall searching their professors on ratemyprofessors.com; some of us even recall leaving a scathing – but well-deserved – review for some. And this can have a tangible impact; I bet I’m not the only one that second-guessed my decision to take a certain class once I saw the professor’s dismal score on RateMyProfessor. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Deliveroo… the list of institutions that already use rating systems that we don’t think twice about is endless. Of course, there is a marginal difference. China’s systems have already crossed a line that hasn’t yet been implemented in Western countries. For example, in June of 2019, almost 27 million air tickets and 6 million high-speed rail tickets were denied to Chinese citizens who were deemed ‘untrustworthy’ by a social credit system. Their poor rating placed them on a blacklist that then precluded them from buying travel tickets. We have not yet seen measures this extreme come to fruition elsewhere. But perhaps unsurprisingly, there have already been movements to do so. Russia has reportedly begun the process of developing software for its own social credit system. The City of Darwin in Australia has also employed elements of the Chinese system, marketing it as a pathway to a ‘digitally integrated future’ rather than something straight out of 1984. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that eventually, even more countries will slowly follow suit. This prospect is mildly frightening and entirely too Orwellian for anyone to be enthusiastic about, but it does appear to generate results. Rao, whose bad social credit precluded his son from attending university, paid off his debts and is on his way to being removed from the blacklist. Other news sources have seen an uptick in blood donations and a downtick in traffic violations. Therefore, while we can argue all day about the ethics of a social credit system, there is no doubt about its efficacy. Only time will tell if social credit comes to be the insidious control system portrayed in Black Mirror or merely another mildly inconvenient, but accepted institution that we, the public, don’t even bat an eyelid to anymore.