No regime, however ruthless its leaders, vast its ambitions, or extensive its resources, can tyrannize its subjects without their active cooperation. Every police state ultimately requires the public to regiment themselves—and each other. In the age of social media, successful totalitarians will have to crowd-source state coercion – and China’s new “social credit” system, which will encompass that country’s entire population in 2020, is pioneering an approach that, if successful, will inevitably spawn imitators in the West.
“The Chinese government is building an omnipotent `social credit’ system that is meant to rate each citizen’s trustworthiness,” reports the BBC. Note well that this system doesn’t merely offer an assessment of creditworthiness – which is a measure of the relative risks to financial institutions that would lend money to that individual. Instead, an opaque clique of supervisors employs an abstruse algorithm to rate the individual’s social “worthiness,” as defined by his support for the government, its policies, and its objectives.
“A social credit system is an important component … of the Socialist market economy system and the social governance system,” explained a June 14, 2014 “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System” issued by China’s State Council. “Accelerating the construction of a social credit system is an important basis for comprehensively implementing the scientific development view and building a harmonious Socialist society [and] an important method to perfect the Socialist market economy system.”
The chief objective of this system is to “strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and judicial credibility construction,” continues the Planning Outline. “Sincerity” in this context means much the same thing as “worthiness” – that is, deference to the country’s ruling elite, and at least a public display of enthusiasm for its schemes. Building “sincerity” is an important consideration during what the Chinese government calls “the assault phase of deepening economic structural reform and perfecting the Socialist market economy system.”
How can a comparatively minuscule ruling elite like the Chinese Communist Party exert control over hundreds of billions of consumers in a decentralized cyber-economy? In an essay for CNN, Rogier Creemers of Oxford University explains that China’s ruling elite “seeks to leverage the explosion in personal data generated through smartphones, apps and online transactions in order to improve citizens’ behavior” by expanding the concept of a “credit score” into an index of social “worthiness.”
“Individuals and businesses will be scored on various aspects of their conduct – where you go, what you buy and who you know – and these scores will be integrated within a comprehensive database that not only links into government information, but also to data collective by private businesses,” Creemers elaborates.
The tent pole for this system is Sesame Credit, a financial adjunct to Alibaba, China’s equivalent of Amazon. With more than 400 million users, Alibaba is the world’s biggest online shopping platform. Sesame has also joined with Baihe, China’s largest online matchmaking service, with nearly 100 million clients. Using consumer and credit information provided by Sesame, Baihe gives preferred status to people who have good credit scores. Significantly, Sesame also carefully analyzes the products purchased through Alibaba, using them to extrapolate conclusions about the personal habits, values, and “worthiness” of the consumer.
The backbone of this enterprise is Baidu, China’s equivalent of Google, which – like the American tech giant – is privately owned but works closely with state intelligence and regulatory agencies. Tencent, China’s analogue to Facebook, is also enlisted in the effort to extract data that can be used in creating a composite “social credit” profile of every Chinese citizen.
“Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility,” Sesame’s technology director Li Yingyun explained in an interview last February. On the other hand, somebody who buys “too many” diapers may have irresponsibly had “too many” children: The BBC notes that the data stream will include information from clinics and workplaces as to “whether females have been instructed to take birth control.”
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Ratings agencies will offer assessments of the conduct and performance of professionals in various fields. Local governments and courts will contribute information regarding criminal records, including trivial traffic infractions.
Not surprisingly, social media will be carefully monitored for symptoms of non-“sincere” thought in need of correction.
“The information-harvesting tactics of Alibaba and Tencent play to their advantages and exploit the companies’ unique points of access to their users,” explains Jiyang Fan of The New Yorker. “For the Chinese government, this is exactly the sort of competitive strategizing that might ultimately prove instructive to the construction of its own omniscient system. Indeed, part of what has kept the Party in command over the decades is its pairing of authoritarian imperative with adaptability – a willingness to evolve its mechanisms of control with the technology of the times. To maintain the regime’s political power, the state has already leveraged the market and, for example, erected the Great Firewall. Engineering the lives of its citizens by way of a comprehensive database almost seems like the logical next step.”
Fan grew up in China in the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping’s regime was pioneering the concept of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” – or what we might call corporatism with a Communist rhetorical gloss.
“For a time in my first-grade classroom at Xingqiao Elementary School, in Chongqing … there was an initiative called `the Stars of Xingqiao,” Fan reflects. “One of the school’s co-principals had come up with the idea to instill in our seven-year-old hearts the ambition to be `better students, citizens, and stars.’ So, on a large white chart pasted to the back of the classroom wall, the teacher had printed our names in rows and, in each column along the top, an attribute such as punctuality, classroom manner, and orderliness, the successful embodiment of which earned a red star. Whoever got the most red stars at the end of the week would be publicly pronounced the brightest star of Xingqiao; the student with the fewest stars was punished with Friday-afternoon janitorial duties.”
The classroom with the highest aggregate red star count would be given special treats at the end of the semester, and the teacher would receive a bonus (and, presumably, there would be collective punishments for the lowest-achieving class and its teacher). Not surprisingly, the program dissolved into rancorous disputes regarding “mass star inflation” and the merits of various star recipients and the criteria used to select them. Parents intervened to protest “the unquantifiability of certain categories and perceived inequities in the award system.”
This short-lived experiment in competitive collectivist docility, Fan writes, somewhat prefigured the Chinese government’s system for assessing the “sincerity” and ‘worthiness” of its subjects. There is one significant difference between the ill-fated “Stars of Xingqiao” experiment and similar incentive programs that can be found in American schools, on the one hand, and China’s social credit program: The latter will use data volunteered by those subject to its rankings, and those rankings will be compiled by unaccountable people with the power to restrict or cut off access to credit and other social benefits to those deemed “unworthy.”
As a recent episode of the gaming-oriented YouTube channel Extra Credits points out, the Chinese government “has game-ified being an obedient citizen.” Tencent, one of the pillars of the “social credit” initiative, owns Riot Games, and has significant shares in Epic Games and Activision Blizzard.
“Like many games, Sesame Credit has tiers and levels, and having a high score gives you special benefits – like making it easier to get the paperwork you need to travel, or making it easier to get a lone,” explains Extra Credit. Penalties would likely become part of the system once it becomes mandatory in 2020 – it wouldn’t be “mandatory” otherwise. Among the possible sanctions being discussed are slower internet service or job restrictions for low-scoring citizens.
Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the Chinese social credit system is the fact that each citizen’s acceptability rating would be defined, in part, by the rating earned by each of his friends and social media acquaintances. The system would allow you to check the social credit score of each of your social media contacts – allowing you to identify anybody who is dragging your own score down, and providing you with an incentive to rebuke the backslider and brow-beat him into reforming his thinking.
This is the same dynamic that was seen during the paroxysm of bloody violence called the “Cultural Revolution” under Mao, in which non-conformists and ideological heretics were subjected to “struggle sessions.” The “Social Media Revolution” being prepared by China’s rulers would inevitably entail cyber-struggle sessions targeting people whose lack of “sincerity” contaminates an entire online collective.
Hideous as it is, China’s social credit system isn’t dramatically different, in principle, from the “Pattern of Life” analysis employed by the NSA, in which “metadata” are used to extrapolate a detailed account of any individual’s daily life, his or her acquaintances, habits, and vulnerabilities. The Obama administration’s “Disposition Matrix” uses “pattern of life” analysis in selecting individuals to be targeted for drone strikes – often on the basis of a casual contact, such as a single cell phone call.
It’s reasonable to believe that those in charge of Washington’s Homeland Security State are watching China’s social credit system with considerable interest – and that Beijing is, in effect, beta-testing a program that would soon be adapted for use in the United States.