A crowd of people in the Forbidden City, China.

China’s social credit system looks distinctly dystopian

China is currently trialling its social credit system, where citizens’ trustworthiness is measured using points.

The slippery slope to social exile

China’s social credit system appears to be an Orwellian nightmare; an individual begins with a baseline of 100 points, which can be increased or deducted based on their behaviour.

With each deduction, the person becomes less trustworthy, according to the figures.

One would expect that points would be deducted for criminal offences only. As they are the worst type of offences, these are the kind of acts that would be expected to be policed.

However, individuals can be caught in the act of public offences, such as jaywalking, thanks to facial-recognition technology. Otherwise, they could be dobbed in by Information Collectors, citizens who are paid to watch and record the actions of members of their community.

It all feels a bit like the Black Mirror episode, ‘Nosedive’. After each social encounter, individuals vote each other out of five stars based on the quality of their interaction.

If an individual is voted two stars or less, their social score diminishes.

This ultimately ends in social exile.

A young woman sitting on top of a building in Beijing.

But the system is currently not as widespread as it seems. Dr Jian Xu from Deakin University says that only certain Chinese regions are trialling the system.

“China’s social credit system has not been nationally applied,” he says.

“The pilot cities are experimenting with their own ways to measure social credit points without being guided by any explicit policies from the central government.”

It seems that the rules about what actions can earn or deduct points vary from place to place.

Dr Xu says that some Chinese commentaries have critiqued the government’s method of policing minor delinquencies, requesting that points deducted be reduced for smaller infringements such as jaywalking or spitting in public.

He says that the balance between law enforcement and moral enforcement is difficult to find.

“It will take time to test the boundaries of what should be included and excluded from this system, as well as to manage the relations between morality, law and credit involved in social credit measurement,” he says.

When an individual’s social score is reduced too far, it can have severe consequences for the individual.

They may be unable to purchase train tickets, preventing their ability to commute easily from home to work and back. Or else their access to healthcare may be restricted in favour of those with higher social scores.

The transit lounge of Cheng Du Dong railway station.

In some cases, the system has been used to crack down on political dissent, as was the case for Liu Hu, a journalist who spoke out against the Chinese government.

After criticising officials on social media, he was accused of spreading rumours and defamation, and blacklisted from purchasing plane tickets as a consequence.

But according to Dr Xu, this is not the case for every Chinese city making use of the social credit system.

“This is only experimental in a few cities and is not applied country-wide,” he says.

“It is also very controversial. I assume the central government is watching to see what is acceptable by the public and what is not.”

Gamifying good deeds

The possibility of having one’s access to transport and other services suddenly taken away is frightening. In order to redeem oneself, one is required to earn back the points that they have lost.

This is achieved through completing ‘good deeds’, such as charity work or donating blood.

Implicit in China’s social credit system is the gamification of human behaviour, with an emphasis on rewarding the ‘good’.

A man in Beijing carrying a bag of rubbish.

It serves as an interesting incentive to become involved with one’s community and enact positive change.

But if you’re forced to complete good deeds just to keep on top of your social credit score, does that make them any less good?

Dr Xu says that the system aims to harness the pre-existing good will of the people rather than force them to complete charitable deeds against their own means and capabilities.

“Selflessness and dedication are the core ideals of socialist morality,” he says.

“I think linking social credit with good deeds aims to mobilize the enthusiasm of the public to contribute to their society and to promote socialist morality.”

In one case, a number of Chinese citizens completed charitable deeds in order to be eligible to live as permanent residents within a city area.

While this could be seen as originally selfless acts completed solely for one’s gain, Dr Xu says this is no different than the western practice of providing tax-deductible donations.

The binary between reward and punishment

In certain regions, those with higher social scores can enjoy cheaper public transport fares and shorter wait times when seeking medical help. They may even be given a green ‘trustworthy card’ to prove their moral high ground.

A crowd of people waiting in Guangzhou train station, China.

Conversely, those with lower scores may have their faces broadcast in the middle of a metropolitan shopping centre as a means to name and shame them.

If they are a blacklisted debtor, they may have a personalised dial tone added remotely to their phones that informs potential callers that they are untrustworthy.

Dr Xu says that the dramatic binaries between prize and punishment have been used previously within Chinese governance.

“Reward and penalty have long been used by the Communist Party of China,” he says. “This strategy is also used in enterprises worldwide to discipline employees.”

While there are concerns that the social credit system in China could be used for less noble purposes, such as to keep political dissenters in line, there is also a possibility that it could be used for good.

According to the State Council’s notice on the system, credit scores are also applied to businesses, social organisations and government services.

A man walking down a street in Beijing, China, with vegetables in baskets over his shoulder.

Organisations who routinely endanger the environment as part of their business cycle, or government officials who engage in corrupt behaviour, could be exposed to the general public.

Dr Xu says that this could be a positive way to use this system in order to affect positive change.

“I think it would be good if it could be well-executed in businesses and government services,” he says.

“The government definitely has an interest to use the system for this purpose, as it needs to monitor the market and local governments for the purpose of sustainable economic growth and political stability.”

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