Chinese woman

She’s a model citizen, but she can’t hide in China’s ‘social credit’ system

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 27, 2020.

Imagine living in a society where your every move – both on and offline – is able to be monitored by the government. They can see everywhere you go, hear everything you say, and know everything about you, from who you hang out with to what you purchase at the store.

Now imagine that they take all of that information and add it up to give a score that can control your freedoms and opportunities throughout the country.

If you’re thinking that this is some made-up dystopian world in a Black Mirror episode, you’re wrong.

This is soon to be modern-day China.

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China’s Social Credit Score

Set to be operating fully across the country by the end of 2020, China’s social credit system is one that tracks everything you do and say both on the internet and real-life and assigns you a reputation score, of sorts. Essentially, when you do good things, you are rewarded points, and when you do things the government deems less admirable, you have points taken away. Those with high scores will receive perks, such as:

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  • VIP treatment at hotels and airports
  • Cheap loan options
  • First-rate access to the country’s top universities
  • Better opportunities for the best jobs

Those with low scores, however, will have difficulty doing anything. Travel, internet use, government jobs, and access to credit will be increasingly restricted. The person may even be subject to public shaming.

The use of this system is achieved by advanced surveillance cameras that use facial recognition, body scanning, and geo-tracking to follow each of their 1.4 billion citizens’ every move. Information will be collected using a smartphone app that monitors online activity, and government records like medical, educational, financial, and criminal records will also be factored in.

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What makes a good or bad score?

It’s more complex than just doing right and wrong. There are several factors that influence a person’s score:

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  • What you buy: For example, too much alcohol will lower your score, items that suggest responsibility will raise it.
  • Financial status and financial responsibility
  • Who your friends and family are and what they do and say. For example, if your brother does something to lower his score, such as say something anti-government online, your score will also go down.
  • Who you date and marry
  • Donations and volunteering
  • How often you visit aging parents
  • What you say about the government online
  • Perceived sincerity for crimes committed
  • Cheating in online games
  • School reports

These are just a few examples of what can affect someone’s score. More importantly, a child’s score is heavily impacted by their parent’s scores. A good score will get them a head start towards a stable future. A bad score… well, you get the idea.

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What happens to citizens with bad scores?

Having been in the works since 2009, some 10 million Chinese people who live in trial areas have already experienced the crippling impact that having a low score can have on their lives. 

A citizen with a bad score will be blocked from buying airline or train tickets, will have trouble being promoted, or even lose their jobs entirely. If you are a dog owner and you do something like let your dog off-leash in a leash zone or don’t stoop and scoop, you can have your dog taken away.

For many Chinese citizens, this is viewed as a good thing. They feel they will be safer, and that their trustworthiness – a virtue of utmost importance in Chinese culture – will be rewarded.

The problem? Those with high scores won’t speak out because they benefit from the system and fear for their children’s future otherwise. Those with lower scores have less opportunity and are more likely to stay there, making it difficult for children of lower status to break out of that cycle. The government has complete control, and anyone who attempts to speak out will effectively be silenced.

Read: China promotes education drive to make boys more ‘manly’

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How the Chinese People Feel About The Credit System

For many Chinese people, they are completely fine with it. They are no strangers to government surveillance, and many feel this system will keep them safer. Several even believe that this system was imported from the Western world, with one citizen telling The Conversation:

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“Things in the west are better because they have a mature credit system, right?” (2)

There are many Chinese who believe that it will improve the ongoing issue of fraud in the country.

Not every citizen agrees, however. Liu Hu, an investigative journalist who has solved serial murder cases and discovered corruption at the highest levels of government, has been effectively locked out of society because of his score. The government views him as an enemy and he has received his low score due to “speech crimes”. (1)

His score has ruined his career, essentially put him under house arrest, and has become a threat to his family’s future.

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An Uncertain Future

All things considered, it looks like the Chinese government is well on their way to implementing this system nation-wide, and most of its citizens don’t seem to be too bothered by it. That being said, after mass attention this system has received in the western world, professor and associate dean at Ocean University Law School Xin Dai says academics are discussing some of the privacy issues and risks that it imposes. He reminds us, however, that the information we receive in North America doesn’t necessarily give the full scope of the system. (4)

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“This entire thing is just so massive, and it varies across place to place. It is easy to sort of misinterpret or only catch part of it, without seeing the entire picture.” (4)

Time will tell what effect this system has on China, and the implications it may have for all countries that do business there.

Keep Reading: AI “Nanny” Being Created by Chinese Scientists to Grow Babies in Artificial Wombs

Sources

  1. Leave no dark corner.” ABC. Matthew Carney. September 17, 2018.
  2. Hundreds of Chinese citizens told me what they thought about the controversial social credit system.” The Conversation. December 17, 2019.
  3. How the West Got China’s Social Credit System Wrong.” Wired. July 29, 2019.
  4. The Game of Life: Visualizing China’s Social Credit System.” Visual Capitalist. Katie Jones. September 18, 2019.

This article originally appeared on The Hearty Soul in April 2020 and has been published here with permission.

Julie Hambleton
Freelance Writer
Julie Hambleton has a BSc in Food and Nutrition from the Western University, Canada, is a former certified personal trainer and a competitive runner. Julie loves food, culture, and health, and enjoys sharing her knowledge to help others make positive changes and live healthier lives.
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