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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 incredibly vocal about their support. According to the Mercator Institute, 80% of surveyed Chinese people responded that they somewhat or strongly supported the social credit system. And, as one might predict, the more that one benefited from the system, the more they were in support of it, according to Forbes.

And what are the consequences of such a system? According to Chinese journalist Liu Hu, the effects are dramatic and horrifying. Hiu states that when he was blacklisted, “there was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to.” Hiu is one of many people who have been placed upon a list of “Dishonest Persons” for his actions against the Chinese government. Hiu and thousands of Chinese citizens are losing what many consider basic rights, such as the ability to buy a plane ticket and leave the country. There is no appeal for an event like this. People go to bed normal citizens, and wake up blacklisted, with so activities stolen from them by their government.

China is the first country to implement a system like this, and it is unclear which country and its citizens are next. Many compare the U.S.’ FICO system as a social credit system in itself, where citizens are equally trapped by the consequences of being “blacklisted” by the system. Germany uses a similar system in terms of health, known as Schufa, where citizens can pay lower healthcare premiums based upon higher levels of physical activity.

Asian Pacific commentator Tom McGregor speaks in favor of the Social Credit system, reminding people sensationalizing the impact of the system that the Chinese government wants “does not wish for its citizens to engage in out-of-control shopping patterns” and to remain true to Chinese culture, despite the rapid globalization in the country. McGregor points to the aforementioned cases of Germany and the United States as examples of countries using, admittedly lower extent, forms of social credit that are succeeding and have seen great impacts from their systems.

So what comes next? Do we lie in wait for our governments to impose systems like these in our countries, if they haven’t already?

Not exactly. The social credit system in China may have been the most extreme of cases seen so far in the world, but its impact on the populace is yet to truly be seen. Maybe the country will be able to combat some of the issues that plague First World countries, such as littering, that actively bring down the standard of living for all other citizens.

FICO was the first step for the American government. Credit scores were invented in 1956, but since then, they have become ingrained into society. Every time Americans rely on their credit score, the system gets closer and closer to second nature. This system that is rearing its ugly head in China may be the start of a similar system in the States. There may be a point in our futures when we too are controlled by scores that rank every single one of our actions, and we see nothing wrong with that.

These systems are the first of many, of governments recognizing the extent that technology can and does control our lives. Many Chinese people support these systems and consider them the only way to progress in the world. As we progress, it becomes more and more likely that other nations might be the next victims to these systems. As Social Credit rises, we must consider what it takes for people to respect each other in any nation: will basic human decency win out, or do we need a system that will systematically punish you for every “wrong” action?


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