The new Beijing vision combines social activity and high technology in an unprecedented framework

On June 14, 2014, the State Council of China published an ominous-sounding document called “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System”. In the way of Chinese policy documents, it was a lengthy and rather dry affair, but it contained a radical idea – a national trust score that rated each citizen’s social conduct.

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. It’s not hard to picture, because most of that already happens, thanks to all those data-collecting behemoths like Google, Facebook and Instagram or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit.

But while in our society this process is chaotic and (relatively) harmless, try to 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. That would create your Citizen Score and it would tell everyone whether or not you were trustworthy. Plus, your rating would be used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school – or even just your chances of getting a date.[i]

This futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control is in fact more real than you think.  It is already getting underway in China, where the government is developing the Social Credit System (SCS) to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens[ii]. As the policy states, “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”

Others have a more realistic opinion about this social phenomenon

“The is very ambitious in both depth and scope, including scrutinising individual behaviour and what books people are reading. It’s Amazon’s consumer tracking with an Orwellian political twist.” –Johan Lagerkvist, specialist on China Swedish Institute of International Affairs commented.

Rogier Creemers, a post-doctoral scholar specialising in Chinese law and governance at the Van Vollenhoven Institute at Leiden University, compared the system to “Yelp reviews with the nanny state watching over your shoulder”.[iii]

For now, technically, participating in China’s Citizen Scores is voluntary. Applying social engineering the authorities have already penalized more than seven million people. For instance, restrictions were imposed on the free movement of people with large debts while disorderly conduct resulted in bans to buy airplane or train tickets. Disseminating fake news or idle terrorist threats was sanctioned; other transgressions such as public offenses and others are also prohibited. Even something as speculative as an insincere apology is deemed as a transgression.  By 2020 it will be mandatory and the behaviour of every single citizen and legal person in China will be rated and ranked, whether they like it or not. In the meantime, the government has given a licence to eight private companies to come up with systems and algorithms for social credit scores. Predictably, those are the data giants that have access to huge databases anyway. Now with Beijing’s blessing they will be able to control vast amounts of information.

They are the usual suspects – the tech giant Tencent, whose products are used by more than 850 million Chinese; Sesame Credit, which is the financial arm of Alibaba dealing with loans for small and medium businesses and insurance; the shared travel company Didi Chuxing; and the largest Chinese dating site Baihe.[iv] In other words, those are the companies which have already become a stable part of the everyday life of the majority of the population and which are ideally positioned to collect information about as big a number of activities as possible.

Just how are people rated?

Individuals on Sesame Credit are measured by a score ranging between 350 and 950 points. Alibaba does not divulge the “complex algorithm” it uses to calculate the number, but they do reveal the five factors taken into account. The first is credit history. For example, does the citizen pay their electricity or phone bill on time. Next is fulfilment capacity and third is the personal characteristics, verifying personal information such as someone’s mobile phone number and address.

But the fourth and fifth categories are where things get interesting and cause concern. One category is behavior and preferences according to which something as innocuous as a person’s shopping habits become a measure of character. Alibaba admits it judges people by the types of products they buy.

“Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person,” says a representative of the company. “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”

So the system not only investigates behaviour – it shapes it. It “nudges” citizens away from purchases and behaviours the government does not like. Friends matter, too and they fall into the fifth category of interpersonal relationships. What does their choice of online friends and their interactions say about the person being assessed? Sharing what authorities refer to as “positive energy” online (nice messages about the government or how well the country’s economy is doing), will make your score go up. Alibaba is adamant that, currently, anything negative posted on social media does not affect scores. We don’t know if this is true or not because the algorithm is secret. But you can see how this might play out when the government’s own citizen score system officially launches in 2020. It is hard to believe that the government will not want to extract the maximum amount of data for its SCS which will result in private platforms acting essentially as spy agencies for the government. They may have no choice.[v]

Posting dissenting political opinions or links mentioning Tiananmen Square has never been wise in China, but now it could directly hurt a citizen’s rating. Moreover, a person’s own score will also be affected by what their online friends say and do, beyond their own contact with them. If someone they are connected to online posts a negative comment, their own score will also be dragged down.

What will happen if we deploy the system elsewhere?

Although the system looks like something inherently Chinese and is still in its prototype stages, three things are already becoming clear: First, where it has actually been deployed, it has teeth. Second, it has profound implications for the texture of urban life. And finally, there’s nothing so distinctly Chinese about it that it couldn’t be rolled out anywhere else the right conditions obtain. The advent of social credit portends changes both dramatic and consequential for life in cities everywhere—including the one you might call home.

The social credit system of China is in fact based on a Western model – the credit. In reality the reputational index, the credit rating of a person has a strong bearing on what they could rent or buy, what educational, health and labour opportunities they have and even how they move around the city. Western cities are actually very similar to the multimillion urban centers in China.[vi] In both large numbers of people live together practicing a form of civic inattention. In other words, big city residents everywhere accept and tolerate the other residents as long as they do not fundamentally threaten their peace and security. What happens however when they do? Both in the East and West the authorities will bring the perpetrators to justice and hold them liable. And all methods such as CCTV, license plate cameras and phone tapping are considered as “normal” in the East as in the West.[vii] The rise of the private companies and their involvement in urban development together with the penetration of technology in almost every aspect of modern life create a favourable environment for the Chinese social credit system to be deployed elsewhere.

The Chinese genius so to speak is in the fact that Beijing perceives the social credit as a tool for imposing discipline and takes it even further to its logical transformation into a new form of public relations. At a certain moment the government authorities will have access to large amounts of data which will allow them to interfere in the social relations, political life and the economy. Using the information, the authorities are trying to eliminate the shortcomings of the current Communist system. It is expected to help them direct the resources to where they are most needed and suppress dissent when threatens public order…or the regime.

It is not hard to predict how the social credit system has the potential to become a powerful data-enabled instrument which will not only be used to avert anti-social and illegal behavior but to navigate the masses towards desired political or economic goals. It is not surprising that the plans of the Chinese government sparked a public outcry among human rights activists. For instance, Human Rights Watch called for the Chinese government to stop using advanced data analytics methods to track and predict behavior of its citizens. The Asian Institute for Policy Studies even labelled the Chinese Social Credit System an “Orwell’s nightmare” and proposed to rename it to the Social Control System, since every aspect of Chinese citizens’ lives will be monitored, assessed and graded with the ensuing consequences for individuals.[viii]

In the particular case of China the Communist Part is probably trying to solidify its power by making the country a better place to live in and not giving people reasons to be angry at the authorities. This does not mean however that it means well; it simply that keeping people happy is more effective than applying force. The success of such a social rating system depends on the ability to balance between compulsion and praise when integrating it into people’s everyday lives. This is exactly what makes the system so similar to an Orwellian novel. It is a pre-emptive tool which could be used to influence how people think and act. And when you eliminate free will and free thought, dark times have come.

[i] China to ban citizens with bad ‘social credit’ rating from taking flights or using trains for up to a year, Independent,

[ii] Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens, Wired,

[iii] Idem

[iv] China’s new viral app could be straight out of Black Mirror, Wired,

[v] Life Inside China’s Social Credit Laboratory, Foreign Policy,

[vi] China’s Dystopian Tech Could Be Contagious, The Atlantic,

[vii] It could happen here: How China’s social credit system demonstrates the future of social control in smart cities, BoingBoing,

[viii] Social Credit System in China: Orwellian Future or Economic Knowhow?, China US Focus,