China’s ‘Black Mirror’ Social Credit Solution

The Dystopian Present hitting China in a big way

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A Little Bit About Black Mirror

Underline

If you’re a Black Mirror fan you may have seen the latest offering from the brain of Charlie Brooker called Bandersnatch. It’s an interactive video game style episode exploring the concept of choice as well as cause and effect.

Whilst this latest episode might not have direct parallels with real life previous episodes have foreshadowed events and technological advances. These include the rise of AI, popularisation of human technology augmentation and even predicting an incident with the former Prime Minister performing a rite of passage on a pig.

Nosedive is a particularly interesting episode. In this, everyone lives in a world where people rate each other between 1-5 stars on things such as their behaviour, seniority of their job role, their diet, how much they exercise and how good they are with finances i.e. not missing payments. As Black Mirror is a show which depicts a dystopian future, the assumption was that this kind of social credit system was years away but it looks like it’s becoming a reality.

So What’s China Got To With It?

Underline

China's Social Credit

China’s nickname in recent history has been the ‘The Sleeping Dragon’. This is due to it’s fairly steadily growing economy and an increasing reliance on them for manufacturing from western countries. Recently it’s seen as more of an equal competitor to the usual economic superpowers because of it’s continually growing economy and the slow wane of some western economies.

It also leads the way when it comes to technological advances creating breakthroughs in robotics and especially the production of electronic devices with over £100 billion worth of the worlds mobile phones being exported from China yearly making it the largest producer by a long way.

This increase in growth and status has come at a cost though. Many countries have had a slow and steady economic growth which has allowed them to solve any issues gradually. However, Chinas rapid growth has led to simultaneous issues with regional wealth imbalances, inadequate education, bloated government, organised crime, unclear morality and subsequently, social unrest.

The Chinese government have attempted to solve some of these issues by taking an approach already seen in the Nosedive episode of Black Mirror

Announced by the government in 2014, Chinas social credit system vows to “make trustworthy people benefit everywhere and untrustworthy people restricted everywhere”.  With the government looking to fully implement the system by 2020 it rates the “trustworthiness” of Chinese citizens according to a wide variety of factors. These include what they buy, how they spend their time, who their friends are and how they talk online to name a few.

Implemented by utilising surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition, body scanning, geographical tracking and a network of computers tracking online activity it’s designed to be an all-seeing eye over ALL citizens.

So What Does This Mean For The People Of China?

Although there was some initial anxiety towards the scheme, notably Liu Hu which resulted in a flying ban, most people have embraced it.

The system works by rewarding people who have high scores and are on a ‘trusted people’ list and penalises those who obtain low scores and make it onto the ‘untrustworthy people’ list. The rewards and severe consequences of being on the respective lists is the mechanism used by the government to incentivise its citizens to behave better and conform to the rules it’s put in place.

Here are some repercussions Chinese citizens can expect from being on the ‘untrustworthy people’ list:

– Slowing down their internet speeds
– Banning them from flying or getting the train
– Banning them or there kids from the best schools
– Being publicly named a bad citizen
– Stopping them from getting the best jobs.
– Keeping them out of the best hotels

Here are some rewards can Chinese citizens expect from making it to the ‘trusted people’ list:

– Priority boarding on airplanes
– Renting a hotel room, car or house without a deposit
– Better interest rates at banks
– More matches on datings sites
– Discounts on energy bills

All of this means it might not be too long before we see a scene like this one from Black Mirror depicting a woman having trouble boarding her flight due to her low score.

The Chinese have deemed the scheme so successful that it’s planning a full rollout in 2020 so it seems inevitable that the people will have to adapt. And adaption means conforming to the rules that will keep them on the trustworthy avoiding the untrustworthy one. 

So here are a few things that would get you onto the trustworthy and untrustworthy lists respectively:

+ Paying bills on time and keeping up with financial commitments

+ Performing selfless good deeds

− Spending too long playing video games,

− Wasting money on frivolous purchases

− Missing bill payments

− Spreading fake news

− Refusing to carry out military service

− Crimes like fraud and embezzlement have a huge weighted effect

− Buying excessive amounts of alcohol

But they say a picture says a thousand words so the below from The Wall Street Journal give a clear high-level summary of the inputs and potential impact.

China's Social Credit

China's Social Credit

So has it been a success so far?

In China, it’s been received surprisingly well considering the system essentially tracks their every move and judges them for it. A number of citizens have seen this as a positive thing for the country. One citizen whom we’ll call Chen (as he didn’t want to be publicly named) says “I feel like, in the past six months, people’s behaviour has gotten better and better.”

“For example, when we drive, now we always stop in front of crosswalks. If you don’t stop, you will lose your points.

“At first, we just worried about losing points, but now we’re used to it.”

And of course, the government has seen this as THE solution to fix a number of problems across a number of different regions across China.

But even though the citizens and the government have deemed it a success not everyone has given it 5 stars. Liu Hu, for example, the journalist mentioned earlier, is not a fan of the system. After posting articles on social media platforms about embezzlement and corruption by members of the government he was subsequently arrested. After his arrest the system then blacklisted him which left him under house arrest, unable to leave the country and unable to get a job.

There has also been some concern with the way the system works, as it essentially creates a social divide, forcing people to separate themselves from others with lower ratings i.e. lower status jobs, low income, and poorer diets. Not only does the system indirectly divide the rich and poor it also makes it very easy to fall into a ‘Spiral of Social Credit Negativity’ (a term that I’ve just created and hoping will catch on). For example, if a citizen lost their job their rating would decrease after becoming unemployed, which also increases the likelihood of missing a payment which further decreases their rating etc.

Another issue that has been raised is that the government haven’t made it that clear how someone can increase their rating. Instead they have given a vague mandate of ‘be a good citizen’. This means that if someone does get into a ‘Spiral of Negativity’ it’s not clear how to stop it OR get out of it completely. 

Summary

This system is a moral violation from a western point of view. But then again there is no place in the western world that has such a large number of people with disparate incomes, beliefs, and moral understanding spread across such a large land mass. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

However, in this case, it’s not just privacy that’s being taken away from citizens. It’s freedom of speech. So although it seems like a system like this is decades away from being implemented it’s more like a matter of time before governments across western countries adopt this with a lighter approach when it comes to freedom of speech issues. It becomes obvious why governments would start to implement a similar system as it harvests everyone’s data and stores it centrally for use. This coupled with the fact that “Data is the new oil” makes it a legitimate reality that something like this could be coming to a town or city near you!

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