Black Mirror, the immensely popular Netflix show, is science fiction to most of us, but is very quickly becoming a reality in China.
The country plans for its social credits system to be fully operational by 2020. How it works is that for every good deed that you do, you earn extra points. For every bad deed you are caught doing, your points are deducted. It’s simple, but also potentially foreboding.
One of the pilot systems uses a neighbour-monitoring system that’s being piloted across the country. Paid ‘watchers’ keep track of citizens’ good and bad deeds, and report them accordingly.
Zhou Aini is one of six ‘information collectors’ in Rongcheng, where they are paid to record the actions of their 3000 fellow city-dwellers. Whether by word or mouth or by witnessing these acts directly, they try their best to make sure it is recognised. For instance, when a cleaner returned a wallet he had found on the ground, the act was commemorated by the government, who awarded him a trophy for not pocketing the money.
In other cities, high-tech surveillance systems are used. Social credit score apps are linked to your Alipay accounts, so the data about where you go and what you buy feeds back into your social credit.
With a higher social credit score, you get perks such as lower rent, discounted loans, fast-track applications to prestigious schools.
“China likes to experiment in this creative way…I think people in every country want a stable and safe society. If, as our government says, every corner of public space is installed with cameras, I’ll feel safe.”
“We need a social credit system. We hope we can help each other, love each other and help everyone to become prosperous.”Dandan, a mother and marketing professional, in an interview with ABC News.
However, if you jaywalk, buy too much alcohol, and- most insidiously- speak out against the government, your credit score drops. As punishment, many restrictions will be imposed on you, such as not being able to take the train or plane, having your social media accounts suspended, or being denied government jobs.
On the surface, the social credit system seems to be a great way to regulate behaviour and ensure a more harmonious society. However, on the flipside, the government assumes sole responsibility of morality. They will be in control of what is determined ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour. According to ABC News, this will make China “the world’s first digital dictatorship”.
Investigative journalist Liu Hu is on the receiving end of that misfortune. He has uncovered high-profile government corruption and solved serial murders. However, in China, he is consigned to be part of the digital underclass, a move that he believes is political.
His credit score was decreased when he was charged with a speech crime, and is now unable to travel and stays mostly within Chongqing. His social media accounts have been shut down and he is ineligible, under the law, to book high-speed rail tickets.
He tells ABC News that most Chinese are unaware of the consequences of the social credit system, and the freedom that they give up.
“Their eyes are blinded and their ears are blocked. They know little about the world and live in an illusion.” he says.