Imagine you were always being watched, whether you’re online or offline, and every move you make is a point in your favor or a point against you. It isn’t the plot of a new dystopian movie—it’s becoming reality in China. The country’s new social credit system means citizens with “violations” have a lower score. These violations include breaking rules, like smoking in a non-smoking zone or disobeying traffic signs, but you can also get docked for normal things like playing games like online roulette, posting too much on social media, or making expensive purchases.
The system is set to roll out nationwide in 2020, but members of various pilot groups across the country have already felt the backlash of the system. Wang Sicong, the son of a Chinese billionaire, was banned from luxury activities like flying first class, buying fancy things, and going on vacation when the system brought him down for not paying a lawsuit settlement and being a frivolous spender (his dog wears an Apple Watch). As the system becomes more widespread, keep an eye on China to see how it plays out. Will it be a dystopian horror story, or will it make people behave better?
How does China’s social credit system work?
The social credit system is a lot like a normal credit score—only even less transparent. Credit scores keep track of whether you pay your bills on time and how many lines of credit you have so that lenders can tell how high of a risk you are. The social credit system takes this idea and multiplies it by a thousand. Every little thing you do is taken into account to figure out your social standing. Then, that score decides what you can and can’t do.
What lowers your score?
Some of the things that lower your score make sense. If you don’t pay your taxes or run a red light, you could see your score go down. Bad or rude behavior in public can affect it too. But it’s the subjective things that make the system creepy—you could be penalized for opinions you post online, if you don’t visit your family enough, or if you’re spending too much money on luxury goods.
This bad score means that you might not be allowed to fly first class, get a prestigious job, or get your kids into a good school.
What can raise your score?
Your score can go up for being generous or charitable—including donating blood or doing charity work. But it can also get a boost if you talk up the government on social media, bringing an element of propaganda to the whole scheme.
This good score could get you ranked higher on dating sites or give you access to exclusive “rewards” like better bank loans or even tax breaks.
So will this change people’s behavior?
Even though the system isn’t full rolled out, it’s already had an effect in China. Social credit has kept citizens from buying plane tickets 17.5 million times, and train tickets 5.5 million times. It’s affected almost 300,000 workers seeking better jobs or promotions. It even affects dog owners—people who the system considers bad pet parents or who don’t pick up after their dogs could get their pets confiscated.
The system is meant to train people to be more trustworthy, which is important in China’s huge society. However, there are a lot of other implications of watching your citizens 24/7, forcing them to play the system right. While it may help companies and banks know who to trust, critics say it’s likely to make people feel untrusted and could eventually backfire.
How could it go wrong?
When dystopian scenarios happen in real life, you can often find predictions in television and literature. China’s data on people’s behavior is gathered through surveillance—so you’d be right to think about George Orwell’s “Big Brother” in 1984…except in this case, Big Brother is watching you and so is everyone else (including your devices). Orwell would likely have warned us that this type of propaganda and surveillance won’t lead anywhere good.
More recently, the British television series Black Mirror played with the idea of a social credit system, and they weren’t far off. The first episode of the third series, “Nosedive”, takes place in a world where every interaction is given a 1 to 5 star rating. The whole world revolves around elevating your score, and anyone with a low score risks being ostracized from society. The difference between the premise in Nosedive and the Chinese system, though, is that in the fictional scenario the scheme isn’t government run. It has more to do with impressing your peers than being a model citizen—but the results could be equally sinister.
How could it affect people outside of China?
We’re unlikely to see any sort of system implemented in Canada any time soon, but there could still be worldwide effects from China’s system…because the Internet is global. That means that Chinese gamers, gamblers, and social media users could be cut off from these services, forcing a divide between China and the rest of the world.
As China’s pilot experiments play out, everyone will be watching to see how this gamification of virtue changes people’s behaviors. It’s already been the subject of criticism as a government overstep and even a human rights violation and could open up a larger conversation about what it means to be a “good” person or what makes you a “bad” person.