Television Becomes Reality: The Social Credit System in China
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
In 2016, the popular British television show Black Mirror debuted Nosedive: yet another of its episodes destined to leave the audience pondering the reality of their reliance on technology. Nosedive’s premise was fairly simple: a society run by a social credit system, where people rated others out of five stars. Ratings controlled society, influenced whether people could buy certain houses or attend certain events. The episode came to harrowing conclusions, including a confession by a social outcast of how her husband died because of these “harmless ratings” and the protagonist abandoning the rating system that had previously run her entire life.
Unlike most Black Mirror episodes, the horrors of Nosedive do not end when you step away from the screen. The Chinese government has implemented a similar system to the one in the show, known as a social credit system.
The Social Credit System unites all of a citizen’s actions to give them an overall “score.” According to the Chinese Government, the system intends to “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.
To keep scores, the government assigns a specific number to each person. This number then becomes part of their identity. Part of the system is identification by others: citizens can report others for crimes such as jaywalking and littering. These crimes, as well as traffic violations and other recorded behaviors can then be attributed points to be gained or lost by the government. The mandatory parts of the system are currently in progress, as the government uses internet and monitoring via city cameras to watch citizen’s bad and good behavior, from standing up a taxi to donating to charity. In the future, the system plans to be fully mandatory, such as monitoring internet usage to determine appropriate uses of one's time and assigning a score based on your internet actions.
Scores shift based on human actions. Playing video games for more than 11 hours, for example, can bump a person’s score down, while buying groceries as a responsible parent for your children can raise the score. Even social interactions going wrong, such as disrupting and causing others to be late in airports can lower your score, while citizens of other countries guilty of the same actions may instead face glares and angry curses.
Citizens with higher scores face better lives as a whole. They can pay less for energy bills, get better access for dating websites, not pay deposits on homes, and even get cheaper tickets for traveling. They can even see doctors for free if their score is high enough. For those who aren’t so lucky and have lower scores? They will find difficulty buying tickets, for both trains and airplanes, renting homes, enrolling their children in better schools, and will not be allowed to buy as high-quality items at a store.
Right now, the system varies region by region in China. However, the government has been vocal about bringing a nationwide system together by the year 2020.
While this might sound incredibly foreign, even Americans are not unused to a system like this. The FICO credit score system in the United States is fairly similar, with levels of credit preventing access to loans or renting apartments. This system, however, only factors in credit-based decisions, such as paying back credit cards late or going into bankruptcy. China’s social system is based on a variety of variables, including social actions that would warrant social ostracization in the U.S., such as littering or spending too much time on social media.
The Social Credit System’s application in China, created by the Mercator Institute
Even the creator of Nosedive is horrified by the ramifications of a system like this. Black Mirror showrunner Charlie Brooker told The Shortlist in 2017 that the fact that the Chinese system was “state-controlled, it feels even more sinister”. Rather than popularity ratings by friends, like in Nosedive, the Chinese government is taking an active role in promoting this system as the new way of life for its citizens.
Chinese people, however, are supporting the system and being incredib