In June of 2014 the Chinese government announced plans to build a “social credit” system similar to the credit score systems that exist today in the United States, except on an entirely different scale. The goal is to incentivize good behavior among citizens and build more trust among society. China is already well known for tracking its citizens, and the concept should be familiar to anyone that has a Google account. The difference is that China wants to use this data to judge individuals on their actions not just sell the data to advertisers for targeted ads. To name a few examples, the system would see what books a citizen reads, what his shopping carts are stocked with, what friends he hangs out with and how he spends his time as well as financial data and past contracts he has had and judge whether this person is trustworthy. A person’s score would affect his ability to get loans, his social status and even his ability to travel. This May the country will ban people with low scores from buying plane or train tickets.
This sounds absolutely crazy. The government would have full control of its citizens creditworthiness and judge them based on things that are unrelated to the activities that they may be barred from. An avid video gamer may look like a lazy person to the government, but would suspending her ability to travel long distance make her more trustworthy? By banning her, it’s less a reward system and more a violation of basic rights and punishment for not following strict guidelines set by the government. China’s plan is likely not to ban people for only a couple small infractions, but the fact that they hold so much power to judge people on almost all of their actions seems troubling to your average liberal Western denizen. China’s idea is to nudge people into making the right decisions, but a system that ignores context of actions and potentially restricts all aspects of a person’s life is worrying.
While in China it’s hard to forget the fact that you are constantly being watched. There are video cameras everywhere. In the park that Christina and I frequent there are at least a dozen and there are very few spots that aren’t being surveilled 24/7. There is even a display showing how loud it is in the park, leading me to believe the police are listening to park-goers as much as watching them. Chinese people know they are being tracked online as well and they are used to holding restraint when it comes to talking about their government. Americans tend to have much more distrust of the government and instead place their trust in tech companies to which we give permission to sift through our data. In fact, many Americans aren’t even aware of how much information they are sharing with Google and Facebook and many other tech companies. Most of the time privacy concerns don’t come up until a scandal like the one with Cambridge Analytica is revealed. Since living abroad I have noticed the Chinese care more for their family’s image than individual success while Americans are more concerned with personal prosperity.
Christina and I have noticed a lot more openness in Shenzhen than we see in the US. People share tables when restaurants are crowded where the norm at home is to wait for an open table or try another restaurant. Groups of women can often be found dancing in groups for exercise in public parks welcoming others to join while in the US Zumba classes are usually behind closed doors in a gym. Next to the exercising ladies, older men are playing various instruments in a small concert entirely for the community, a scene that is rarely witnessed in America – street performers are expecting money, groups of friends might play guitar in a park but aren’t expecting others to join, and even performances at churches and other community settings are often ticketed events. All of these instances show Chinese communal values that I suspect are related to their willingness to have their government use their “private” data for a social credit system that has the potential to make society more trusting. The Chinese nation (国家 – guójiā) is one big family (家 – jiā) and the government is the father figure of this gigantic family.
Hundreds of millions in China do not have a credit history of any kind and that makes it difficult to justify letting them borrow. Though I think consumer credit gets out of hand in the US, I know that having the capital to start a business helps improve people’s lives. Having a system in place that shows that even those without credit histories are trustworthy can give a boost to China’s economy. This is likely one of the biggest impetuses behind the government’s decision to build a system of this scale. However, even though I can see reasons why this sort of system is more likely to succeed in China I’m still very troubled by the power the government here has. I will never condone a government that restricts free speech as much as China does, or that punishes people unilaterally for actions that are hurting no one but they deem inappropriate for the model citizen, but Westerners should not be quick to judge. For instance, in the US you’ll notice many video cameras put up by both police and businesses, many online businesses track customers, sometimes collecting personal data is the business, government agencies have been caught spying on citizens. The surveillance state that can be so frightening is much closer to us all then we think. We give our data away in exchange for “free” content all the time, perhaps the Chinese are willing to take it a step further for a loan.