The Great (Fire)wall of China
China’s “Big Brother” social rating system is still striving for Utopia despite comparisons to an Orwellian nightmare
China, with currently a population of 1.4 billion people, has recently emerged as a technological superpower with experts reporting that its innovation is 10 years ahead of the West with multi-purpose platforms such as WeChat that has amassed more than 850 million active users.
Now, with the nation steadily positioning itself to be the world’s largest 5G market in 2025 (China already has 350,000 5G cell sites, more than 10 times the U.S. total), China is making headlines for its new and yet controversial big data project to achieve social reform.
How it works?
Though, China’s social credit system operates in a similar way, it is not be confused with the credit systems found in the US or Europe, which are methods of assessing a person’s financially history in order to determine if they’re eligible for a loan from a financial institution.
However, the goal of the credit system is to rank every Chinese citizen according to their “trustworthiness” in a move that has been branded by many, as highly “controversial”.
To achieve this, every Chinese citizen is said to be enrolled in a vast database that uses algorithms to give each citizen a personalised score based on their social behaviour. And thanks to China’s robust cyber networks, the system relies on real-time verifications of its citizens to monitor their daily activities – or at worst, enforce punishments.
Here’s a dystopian vision of the future: A real announcement I recorded on the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train. (I’ve subtitled it so you can watch in silence.)
pic.twitter.com/ZoRWtdcSMy— James O’Malley (@Psythor)October 29, 2018
Citizens have points deducted from their score for engaging in illegal activity or running a red light to more minor offences like walking a dog without a leash.
Such reductions bare real-life consequences in the case of academics at universities who found themselves blocked from promotions or receiving awards after it was determined that they had committed plagiarism while students who refused to carry out military service were barred from enrolling in higher education.
This has led to many people contesting the lack of anonymity and privacy to accuse the Chinese authorities of using technology to create a dystopian society similar to the mass surveillance regimes found in Nineteen Eighty-Four, often published as 1984, by George Orwell. The “big brother” system has also been compared to the popular television series, Black Mirror, which is both a satire and caveat of the monopolization of technology in everyday living.
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)… 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.www.wired.co.uk
Originally conceived in the 1990s, the Chinese government has continuously been experimenting with the systematic project and the current form of the scoring-based system that we see today online was issued under the guidelines of the State Council of China in 2014.
Currently, the system is only in effect in certain areas, piloted by run by local officials and agencies. But the Chinese government wants to have it implemented across the whole country by 2020.
A new report released by The National Public Credit Information Centre, revealed that Millions of ‘discredited’ people were unable to purchase plane or train tickets due to being blacklisted on the system for unpaid fines back in 2018 with more expected to be prevented from travelling in the near future.
Last month former international beauty queen and actress, Michelle Ye Xuan, 39, was prohibited from travelling out of China when her ID matched the data on the blacklist from the national social credit system whilst trying to board a flight from Beijing. This comes after Xuan who is China-born but raised in New York, was reported to be the first high-profile figure to be punished by the social credit system for alleged misconduct towards on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
However, despite public outcry (particularly in the West) towards the scale of punishments, officials assert that the system has been effective in deterring anti-social behaviour and crimes by 60 per cent after 19 government departments in China implemented the blacklist portfolio and began sharing these profiles to enforce national punishments.
While the system is notorious for blacklisting people, there are also opportunities to redeem points as well as rewards for complying with the social rules of the system or general “good behaviour”.
Such rewards include better matches on dating websites from profile boosts to discounts on utility bills and bank loans, which can be earned through undertaking “pro-social” activities such as volunteering, donating blood.
Perhaps, China’s social credit system is just the digital realisation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon of the late 18th century, in which installing fear (of getting low credit scores) into society is argued by proponents of the system to be an effective policy in the long run.