The UK Guardian reported on Friday that China’s “social credit system,” a vast surveillance network and database system designed to punish Chinese for poor citizenship, has blocked travelers from buying 17.5 million airplane tickets and 5.5 million train tickets.
The social credit system was planned over a decade ago, formally announced in 2015, and brought online last year, creating a system where virtually everything Chinese citizens do is monitored and fed into a vast data-processing system that computes citizenship scores for them.
The system covers everything from crimes and misdemeanors to sitting in a reserved seat on a train or writing “inappropriate” posts on social media. Penalties are assessed for infractions as minor as walking a dog without a leash and jaywalking. A generous amount of highly subjective bureaucratic tweaking was provided for, giving the authoritarian government tools to ensure troublesome citizens receive low social credit ratings.
Travel privileges were always mentioned as one of the first things Chinese would lose if their social credit rating dropped too much. The Guardian noted one of the early design documents for the system said its objective would be to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
China already maintained an extensive blacklist of citizens who were not allowed to fly, but the social credit system appears to have tripled the number of banned flyers and added a hefty number of people who are not even permitted to ride on trains. Low social credit scores can also prevent Chinese citizens from making investments or buying real estate.
Corporate entities are also issued social credit ratings and could be effectively driven out of business if their rating is low, a possibility foreign officials and business leaders should keep in mind when they debate whether any Chinese business is truly “independent” of the government and Communist Party.
The tech community responded to the Guardian report with some astonishment that China’s social credit system is already dishing out penalties on such a vast scale since Chinese officials previously spoke of beginning with limited test runs and pilot programs. There is also a deeply disturbing sense that China’s dystopian surveillance nightmare is merely a focused and amplified version of the privatized social credit system taking shape in the Western world.
Wired explicitly made that comparison in January:
Brits are well accustomed to credit checks: data brokers such as Experian trace the timely manner in which we pay our debts, giving us a score that’s used by lenders and mortgage providers. We also have social-style scores, and anyone who has shopped online with eBay has a rating on shipping times and communication, while Uber drivers and passengers both rate each other; if your score falls too far, you’re out of luck.
China’s social credit system expands that idea to all aspects of life, judging citizens’ behaviour and trustworthiness. Caught jaywalking, don’t pay a court bill, play your music too loud on the train – you could lose certain rights, such as booking a flight or train ticket.
“The idea itself is not a Chinese phenomenon,” says Mareike Ohlberg, research associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies. Nor is the use, and abuse, of aggregated data for analysis of behaviour. “But if [the Chinese system] does come together as envisioned, it would still be something very unique,” she says. “It’s both unique and part of a global trend.”
“Both unique and part of a global trend” is not a comforting analysis when discussing a system that prevents people from boarding trains if they write blog posts which anger the Powers That Be. The slapdash Western system is driven by vigilante mob action, political activists infiltrating large corporations, and craven CEOs folding under public pressure.
The result increasingly resembles a softball version of China’s major-league surveillance state, as political considerations are invoked to ban people and business entities from accessing financial services. In China, you can’t fly if your social credit score is low; in America, statists have suggested using a no-fly list to rescind Second Amendment rights.
The Chinese might say it is better to design and create a social credit system from the ground up than allow one to congeal haphazardly on its own. In fact, the Chinese system includes some regional variations that Beijing wishes to iron out, creating a truly national unified system by 2020.
China defends the social credit system by insisting it is necessary to root out the pervasive problem of “corruption,” which they contextualize as bad citizenship. Officials are quick to note high social credit scores confer benefits, such as better interest on loans, so they can present social credit as a system for incentivizing good citizenship to reduce crime and antisocial behavior.
Chinese officials further praise social credit as a diagnostic tool for alleviating social problems by efficiently distributing public resources, which is exactly how Canada describes the “risk tracking system” that caught some headlines in February.
The Guardian cited claims from Chinese officials that the social credit system is “helping” millions of people pay back taxes and clear up bad debt. They have long insisted pervasive surveillance and advanced data mining tools are necessary to reduce crime and defend national security, as in the case of the very carefully monitored Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province.
A piece by Tom McGregor at Channel News Asia on Saturday argued that China merely took social credit ideas pioneered in the Western world, including the United States, and refined them with next-generation data processing technology:
Similar social credit systems have already been enforced in many other countries around the world. Examples include the US-based FICO credit system.
Japan enforces strict health requirements for its national health insurance, such as requiring people to see a dietitian and counsellor if their waistline exceeds certain limits. French President Emanuel Macron has also called for a new law to ban so-called political extremists for life on social media accounts.
Sweden has taken it to new levels with a rice grain-sized microchip that can be implanted under the skin of one’s hand to replace the need for keys, credit cards and train tickets. It might sound shocking but over 4,000 Swedes have adopted the technology.
McGregor faulted the Chinese for veering into “Orwellian methods” but defended the social credit system as a means of training the Chinese population to avoid bad habits, such as irresponsible debt accumulation, as the economy changes over the coming decades and credit becomes easier for the average Chinese consumer to obtain.
“China’s social credit system is here to stay and there’s no turning back the clock. It’s not the first and as the model proves over time its effectiveness, we can expect even more countries to adopt similarly designed systems based on behavioral economics to nudge behavior,” he predicted.