China using big data to police small details of citizens’ lives

Multipurpose ‘national social credit’ system uses carrot and stick to control

When booking a cab in Beijing the other day using Didi, the Chinese version of Uber, I accidentally booked twice. I was chastised by text message on WeChat, the multipurpose online system on which Chinese people do everything these days, from banking to messaging.

Luckily, however, my credit rating was not affected, but it could have been. I breathed a sigh of relief. This may seem excessive, but in the coming four years, when China unveils its social credit system, this kind of thing will make a big difference.

The social credit system is a hugely ambitious big-data system that will store information of people and use this to monitor and assess and, ultimately, control their actions, using a combination of sticks and carrots.

The goal is to “raise the awareness of integrity and the level of trustworthiness of Chinese society” and the system is due to go live by 2020 when it will assess in detail the trustworthiness of China’s 1.3 billion people.

The aim of the system is “to assess individuals and government agencies on areas ranging from tax payment and local government bonds to judicial credibility”.

The plan was introduced by China’s cabinet, the state council, and according to the Xinhua news agency it focuses on credit in four areas, including administrative affairs, commercial activities, social behaviour and the judicial system.

It's proving popular in China, especially given that the civil-liberties argument was never going to take place here, because the Communist Party controls everything with an iron fist.

Dystopian nightmare

Because of China's draconian laws and status as a single-party state, it's easy to paint the social credit system as an Orwellian dystopian nightmare, or another example of how well Black Mirror-writer Charlie Brooker has got it right again on the totalitarian future vision.

However, these kinds of algorithms have been in use in the West for a long time, and to some extent China is just playing catch-up on areas such as credit ratings. It will also give lower-income groups access to the credit system, which is not the case currently.

“I support this ‘credit action’. Creditworthiness is good to build a good social system and a good commercial system. We should build personal credit system, enterprise credit system and national credit system. It is a responsibility and we should fulfil the obligations of good faith,” wrote one online commentator, Duochong renge de yanyuan.

The system is already partially in place. In the last four years, 6.15 million people have been blacklisted from taking flights because of various social misdeeds. Another 1.65 million have been barred from travelling by train.

"Building a national social credit system is in everyone's interest," said Chen Hongwan, an official of the national development and reform commission (NDRC), a government agency charged with introducing the system.

In Nanjing last year, the authorities gave out 1,400 citizen credit cards to good citizens who donated four litres of blood, were model workers, donated to charity and were moral models. These people can take public transportation for half price.

Text messages

People who fail to pay a court order will get a text message to their phones telling them to do the right thing. Repeat offenders who dump their rubbish on the street will also be politely reminded of their civic duty by text message.

Anyone who does not fulfil their Confucian duty and look after their aged parents – which is now a law in China – will also lose credit on the social credit system.

The government says the system is a way of keeping people honest and making people good.

A key step in setting up the system came in 2013, when the supreme people’s court set up a website to disclose information about defaulters, including their names and identity-card numbers, to pressure them to follow the court rulings by blacklisting. This is one of the planks on which the broader system is being built.

Twelve cities have been designated as trial cities and the current leader in implementing the system in China is Hangzhou, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, according to the NDRC.

Hangzhou was early in implementing the system. In 2006 it introduced a system of generating scores for individuals and institutions based on data such as tax filings and traffic demerits.

In December, Shanghai held an honesty week and launched an app called "Honest Shanghai," which draws on data collected from the government to determine a business or citizen's public credit score, and includes a feature to check the social credit scores of key local industries and groups.

The app has more than 100,000 items of information about 23 different kinds of organisations, include lawyers, tourism, NGOs, private schools, property management and real estate.

Users with a good credit score collect rewards such as discounted airline tickets and shopping vouchers, which can be used at more than 40 participating businesses.

Centralised system

At the moment the system is somewhat scattered, with different government departments introducing their own elements which will eventually be streamlined into a centralised system.

In a system introduced in January, the general public can report crimes committed by military personnel or damaging information related to national security to military authorities via a new website.

They can also report “cases of theft or leaks of military secrets, false rumours about the People’s Liberation Army or anyone impersonating the military” to the site.

“Experts said this site and one launched in November will allow the public to supervise military personnel, curb false information on the internet and make rumourmongers accountable for their actions,” it said.

The Berlin-based research group Merics said: "Several social credit pilot projects are already operational, testing new approaches of collecting data and using it to sanction undesirable behaviour on a limited scale.

“These punishments offer unprecedented possibilities to surveil and steer the behaviour of natural and legal persons and therefore would have far-reaching consequences if adopted nationwide.”

One aspect that is being closely watched is the relationship between government agencies and the big commercial tech firms such as Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba.

Private companies will play a crucial role in making the system a success and if there is a clash between the state actors and the commercial agencies this could have a strongly negative effect.

Media coverage of the social credit system is thin, and it tends to be fairly positive, showing examples of how it can be a force for good in society.

In one case, an entrepreneur died by suicide after receiving demands for large amounts of cash from his ex-wife, a woman he had met on an online dating site. They were married for a month but she allegedly lied about her marital status. Local media believe that the social credit system would be a good way of ensuring this kind of case does not happen again.

Not everyone is convinced. One online commentator, Yu Lin wrote: “How do you understand and use the word ‘credit’? Credit is used for evaluating a contractual relationship, not for rewards. If someone does some good deeds in some respects, it doesn’t mean he is trustworthy, creditworthy or is honest.”

Read More