Social Credit Nightmares
On June 14, 2014, China’s State Council released an outline that detailed the plan to construct the world’s first comprehensive “social credit system” by 2020. In function, this social credit system, or “social trust system,” as it has recently been relabeled, is meant to quantify each individual Chinese citizens’ or businesses’ trustworthiness by scoring them in “personal trustworthiness points.” This is outlined by four distinct categories: “honesty in government affairs” (،F+uج[+H), “commercial integrity” (٠س+uج[+H), “social integrity” (*❊)[ج[+H) and “judicial credibility” (٪q*k$=+H). Through a tabulation of these four categories, the Chinese Communist Party, which rules China’s government through an authoritarian regime, will set rules and regulations about public access to anything from travel, loan eligibility, or job prospects based on an individual's score, or that individual’s families’ scores. By creating metrics that prescribe ideal behaviors in its population, the Chinese Communist Party will–with or without intention–create a thoroughly modern social caste system. “Model citizens” will stand at odds with individuals who struggle to fit the numerous demands of the ideal mold, who will then thusly become less desirable to those across the sliding scale of individual credibility and conformity.
Since its announcement, Western governments and media have almost universally condemned Beijing’s “social trust system,” labelling it as Orwellian, or comparable to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” While these literary examples are achingly similar to what Beijing is proposing, this has not dissuaded the Chinese Communist Party, or President Xi Jinping, whose crusade to maintain idealistic control of China’s population long ago left behind concerns of Western opinion. Since his induction to the Presidency in 2013, President Xi has demonstrated an aptitude for social media and rigidly controlling the world's largest share of daily internet activity through strict censorship and regulation. In a leaked speech in August 2013, President Xi stated firmly, “the internet has become the main battlefield for the public opinion struggle.” It is clear that the social media savvy President Xi aims to use his government’s new found online prowess to implement, refine, and integrate the “social trust system” into everyday life.
As the 2020 deadline for implementation approaches, China has begun authorizing “pilot programs,” allowing private interests in-line with the state to develop their own “social trust systems,” following the four central guidelines originally illustrated by the State Council in 2014. These pilot programs are meant to test different implementations of the State Council’s four original guidelines, and refine the system for final implementation. China’s internet giants, which now rival Silicon Valley’s in size and capital, have leapt at the opportunity to implement “social trust systems” into their hugely popular digital platforms. Both Alibaba and Tencent, two of China’s most comprehensive and profitable internet c glomerates have been awarded pilot programs by the state. This intertwined relationship in implementation between the Chinese Communist Party and China’s rigidly controlled private interests will ensure that Beijing’s standards reach all of China’s 1.3 billion citizens, and possibly even carry international influence.
Beijing has cited a meteoric rise in financial fraud and technologically enabled economic crimes across domestic China. This is a mandate for a modern system through which to better evaluate and police the world’s largest population. It is true that China’s fraud woes are drastic; a Thomson Reuters poll released in May found that among Chinese businesses operating predominantly in the Asia-Pacific region, 49 percent of employees questioned admitted to having fallen victim themselves, or through their business, to a financial crime in the last twelve months. This staggering rate of financial crime is unsustainable for China’s booming middle-class driven economy, and the “social trust system” is meant to take a central role in restoring economic trust and confidence–or that is the stated intent. In a country so concerned with ridding itself of corruption, the government looks for its solution through commercial and financial interests, which are inversely more likely to perpetuate and stratify the corrupt status quo.
Although still in the early stages of implementation, the pilot programs for the “social trust system” are already making headlines around the globe. As of May, 2018, the “social trust system” has landed 11.14 million Chinese citizens on a list barring them from purchasing airline tickets, and another 4.25 million incapable of purchasing high speed rail tickets. President Xi has justified this action by saying that those barred from travel are individuals who owe unpaid debts to the state, or carry loans in bad standing, explaining: “everywhere is limited, and it is difficult to move, so that those who violate the law and lose the trust will pay a heavy price.” In other cities across China, individuals have found their job prospects tethered to their parents’ social scores, and students have found their education prospects at risk. In July, a story circulated about a Chinese university student who had lost his spot at his university because of his father’s poor social score. These severe and heavy-handed tactics cannot be merely rooted in a government’s desire for economic trust in the marketplace; such tactics are often historically to one end: total and complete ideological control.
There is no shortage of examples throughout history of authoritarian states attempting to engineer social control. China itself is no stranger to social engineering, and the Chinese government has shown throughout history that it is capable of not only implementing draconic social control programs, but rather that it excels in the practice of designing systems through which to control its people’s opinions and core beliefs. From the “One Child Policy,” to the modern implementation of forced “re-education” camps for members of the Islamic faith in China, it is clear that the Chinese government will not hesitate to implement and police a system worthy of the television series “Black Mirror.”