Another reminder, if one is needed (the voice-over: one is, sadly, always needed) of the difference between the democratic and autocratic societies, the open and the closed ones, the individualistic and the collectivist ones, the liberal and the statist:
On June 14, 2014, the State Council of China published an ominous-sounding document called “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System”. In the way of Chinese policy documents, it was a lengthy and rather dry affair, but it contained a radical idea. What if there was a national trust score that rated the kind of citizen you were?
Imagine a world where many of your daily activities were constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online; where you are at any given time; who your friends are and how you interact with them; how many hours you spend watching content or playing video games; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not). It’s not hard to picture, because most of that already happens, thanks to all those data-collecting behemoths like Google, Facebook and Instagram or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit. But now imagine a system where all these behaviours are rated as either positive or negative and distilled into a single number, according to rules set by the government. That would create your Citizen Score and it would tell everyone whether or not you were trustworthy. Plus, your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school – or even just your chances of getting a date.
A futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control? No, it’s already getting underway in China, where the government is developing the Social Credit System (SCS) to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens. The Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity”. As the policy states, “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”
This is the very unfunny irony of the situation: the people have no way to assess the performance of the government (much less decide who governs them and how) but the government always has the ways to assess the performance of the people. Say what you will about the democracies and their numerous failings and frustrations, but it continues to be hard to disagree with Winston Churchill’s old dictum that it’s the worst system of government except for all the others. Would you rather live in Australia or the United States or elsewhere throughout the developed world of more-or-less liberal democracies (increasingly less but that’s another story) or in a society where the government assess you against a number of criteria of their own choosing, ranks you against all your fellow citizens, and determines your access to goods and services, both private and public, based on your score? What science fiction writers have dreamed up for their dystopias is being implemented in a country, which fancies itself the rising superpower of the 21st century, and whose political, economic and social system might not inspire too many Westerners, but certainly entices many throughout the developing world who have a natural preference for collectivism, control and strong state.
Let’s not kid ourselves, however, that China’s appeal is restricted only to parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, accustomed as they are to autocracy but unaccustomed to an efficient and prosperous one. Technocrats of Beijing have many admirers amongst the Western elites, who envy the power and unaccountability of China’s Comm-fucian masters. What could we do with such seemingly limitless resources and no pesky voters, independent media and organised pressure groups to block, slow down and distract us?
The Chinese-style social credit system, which marries the 20th century busybodiness with the 21st century technology, is a Western progressive’s wet dream to end all wet dreams. The soft totalitarian appeal of ordering the masses, the institutionalisation of the elites’ moral and intellectual superiority, all the possibilities for plan, micromanage, nudge, and socially engineer – what’s there not to love?
Imagine a committee composed of Richard Di Natale, Gillian Triggs, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Tim Flannagan and Peter Singer (the American readers can make their own SJW “fantasy league” draft, including perhaps Bernie Sanders, Michael Moore, Linda Sarsour, Ralph Nader and Elizabeth Warren) who come together to find ways of making the society “more tolerant, caring and inclusive”.
For starters, you get bonus points for the membership of a minority or an otherwise oppressed group (or demerit points if you are not); let’s call it a “privilege equalisation” adjustment.
Rightthink will be rewarded and wrongthink will have consequences. Are you racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, bigoted, and otherwise prejudiced? Hold old-fashioned social views, don’t appreciate multiculturalism, cling to tradition? Your entire history online and on social media will be trawled and analysed not just for your personal views but also for your behaviour – have you ever trolled or bullied, made hurtful and hateful statements, told off-colour jokes (including about colour), laughed at inappropriate things? Oh my.
What’s your attitude towards the environment? If you’re a committed believer in the catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, if you switch your lights off during the Earth Hour, if you recycle, if you sign petitions to protect the reef or stop plastic bags, if you “buy responsibly” and buy fair trade, if you conserve water and energy, the Earth will thank you with extra points to elevate you above the ranks of the wasteful and the uncaring.
You are what you eat. The closer to a vegetarian, organic, sustainable, and responsibly sourced diet you have the better. Alcohol, cigarettes, meat, fat, sugar, junk food – watch your social credit score drop faster than your weight would at a North Korean gulag. But food obviously is not the only thing you buy, so we’ll judge you by your penchant for useless trivia, luxury goods, wasteful spending, and products that are carbon intensive.
Public broadcasters and quality newspapers are in; tabloids, blockbusters, trashy reality TV are out. So are computer games, particularly the violent ones. Idleness, passivity, sedentary life are discouraged; gym, yoga, tai-chi get you bonus points. Sports yes, but not too violent or competitive.
Who do you associate with? Make sure that you friend and interact with others who have high social credit score. Having friends who can be a bad influence on you will literally cost you. Social deviants need to be separated and isolated. Ostracism works.
Vote always. Drive safe. Pay your bills on time. Stay away from legal trouble. Support public education. Join unions. Obey all the rules and regulations. Allow yourself to be nannied – the state, after all, knows best.
The possibilities are endless – and scary.
Such social credit system would have to heavily privilege thoughts and words over actions and behaviours lest it quickly expose – and actually punish – the hypocrisy and double standards rife throughout the progressive milieu: global warmists who live in mansions and fly in private jets, lovers of diversity who live in some of the least diverse suburbs, the sleazy male feminists, the woke rich who ruthlessly minimise their tax. But after all it’s the thought that counts.
So far in China, it’s all fun and games at the trial stage:
So why have millions of people already signed up to what amounts to a trial run for a publicly endorsed government surveillance system? There may be darker, unstated reasons – fear of reprisals, for instance, for those who don’t put their hand up – but there is also a lure, in the form of rewards and “special privileges” for those citizens who prove themselves to be “trustworthy” on Sesame Credit.
If their score reaches 600, they can take out a Just Spend loan of up to 5,000 yuan (around £565) to use to shop online, as long as it’s on an Alibaba site. Reach 650 points, they may rent a car without leaving a deposit. They are also entitled to faster check-in at hotels and use of the VIP check-in at Beijing Capital International Airport. Those with more than 666 points can get a cash loan of up to 50,000 yuan (£5,700), obviously from Ant Financial Services. Get above 700 and they can apply for Singapore travel without supporting documents such as an employee letter. And at 750, they get fast-tracked application to a coveted pan-European Schengen visa. “I think the best way to understand the system is as a sort of bastard love child of a loyalty scheme,” says Creemers.
Higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch. A citizen’s score can even affect their odds of getting a date, or a marriage partner, because the higher their Sesame rating, the more prominent their dating profile is on Baihe.
But in a few years’ down the track, both carrots and sticks will kick in:
People with low ratings will have slower internet speeds; restricted access to restaurants, nightclubs or golf courses; and the removal of the right to travel freely abroad with, I quote, “restrictive control on consumption within holiday areas or travel businesses”. Scores will influence a person’s rental applications, their ability to get insurance or a loan and even social-security benefits. Citizens with low scores will not be hired by certain employers and will be forbidden from obtaining some jobs, including in the civil service, journalism and legal fields, where of course you must be deemed trustworthy. Low-rating citizens will also be restricted when it comes to enrolling themselves or their children in high-paying private schools. I am not fabricating this list of punishments. It’s the reality Chinese citizens will face. As the government document states, the social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.
This social control by algorithm – part Big Brother who’s always watching you, part Santa Claus who knows who’s naughty and who’s nice – is what makes the new “enlightened” autocracy so particularly grotesque.
One of the most recurring dreams I have is of being back at school as an adult. This is the world that awaits the people of China, and all of us if the social engineers would have their way – life as a never-ending school because to them we are always children.