The story of the social credit system began in 2014 when it was proposed by the Chinese government.
by Eugene Michaels
One year late, eight companies were legally allowed to create and implement pilot credit system. The best-known companies among the chosen are Alibaba Group’s Ant Financial (Zhima) and Tencent, which released a social credit system on WeChat. Unsurprisingly, the selected companies are also e-commerce giants, which have their payment systems in place (i.e., Alipay and WeChat Pay). They have a whole lot of data about the hundreds of millions of users and also receive a considerable amount of financing from the government, which eases the legality of such surveillance.
The final social credit system will be released in 2020 when it is no longer a voluntary score (even if it is hard to believe it is optional at this point) and all 1.3 billion of Chinese citizens will be ranked in this national reputation system. By that year, the system should have not only the scores of the individuals but also different businesses and institutions.
The general idea of the social credit system is straightforward to understand, although chilling nonetheless. Every single Chinese citizen is assigned a score, which can be seen by everyone. These scores can be easily accessed on one of the payment applications and also shared with friends.
The score can be in a way compared to the American credit score system in the sense that it can be used to assess whether a person is trustworthy enough for a mortgage or a loan. However, in the US, the number is very private and also counted in accordance with financial information – debt pay-off, credit card spending limit, and similar.
On the other hand, in China, this score can come from a wide array of behaviors – from spending habits to the daily activities, and even the actions of one’s social connections. All these activities are added up to one three-digit number (Ant Financial scores people on the scale of 350 to 950 points), which is the basis of one’s financial trustworthiness and even social status.
Let’s go through some examples of how this social credit is counted. For example, someone who often plays videos games is considered to be lazy and less trustworthy than someone, who purchases diapers. The former, according to the Chinese government, is a gamer, who does not contribute to the society, instead of, maybe, a game developer, whose job is to check these games. Whereas, the latter is seen as a responsible parent with young children. However, the morality of each action is now judged and rated by the government, thus lose any subjective or contextual value. Just becomes mere surveillance of people’s online activities. Also, genuinely harming actions to one’s score can be anything from defaming a politician on the social media to merely leaving a rental bike in a wrong place. The line is blurry.
Furthermore, this social credit system is not merely used for monitoring the citizens, but also for rewarding or punishing them for the score level. People with high scores can get discounts for online shopping, better travel class, or faster track for visa application. Whereas, citizens with low scores are banned from intercity transport, higher status jobs, and their children cannot get into good schools.
It is indeed a 1984 Orwellian universe, just on a more sci-fi level. Many people compare it to the world in the popular TV series “Black Mirror.” One Japanese anime also comes to mind – “Psycho-Pass,” where each person’s activities and even mental state allow the government to recognize potential criminals. Although, China already has a similar system being created.
Just a side note, Yours truly has the credit score of 653, all it took was Alipay and a Chinese bank card. After living in Beijing for two years and having studied at a high-ranking university, my score has risen. However, I would not be surprised if the bad habit of night-time shopping online might have decreased my trustworthiness with money. Regardless, the score is within the “excellent” scale, thus, no perceivable travel restrictions during the next trip to China. If foreign ex-residents fall under the same ranking rules, that is.
Just to end on a positive note, our team here at NordVPN shall never discriminate anyone the basis of video game playing time. And we will never know if you do, because of our log-free policy. Thus, if you are in China and love online games, just turn-on NordVPN and hide your activities from the government, don’t let those hours destroy the decades of traveling around the country! Same with shopping, the credit companies have no right to know how you spend your money online if you do not wish to share this information.
Also published on Medium.