China's Social credit system
In 2020, the Chinese Social Credit System, which has been under development and testing since 2009, is intended to standardize the assessment of citizens' and businesses' economic and social reputation, or 'Social Credit'.
With this system, people and companies can be tracked and evaluated for their trustworthiness. The Chinese credit system is closely linked to China's surveillance system with facial recognition, big data analysis, and AI.
The Social Credit System is marketed by the Communist Party of China to its people as a great improvement to society as a whole. The aim is that people and companies become more honest, to fight corruption, and to have a better functioning and a more stable society overall.
The idea behind this is understandable: As social networks decline and anonymity in cities rises, the social pressure to behave in an acceptable way declines as well. China now replaces this social pressure with the Social Credit System so that people even when living anonymously in any city behave in an acceptable way.
Power over people
China, however, is an autocratic country. Here the power does not lie with the people, but the government wants to have maximum power over the people. Opposing the Chinese Communist Party is not allowed. Activists and investigative journalists have a very difficult stand in Chinese society, and the Social Credit System will make this even worse.
The Social Credit System has a lot of potential to improve society on the surface while destroying people's trust in the government and society as a whole underneath it. After all, the system undermines the rule of law.
People can get blacklisted easily, which has severe real-life consequences. Anyone being blacklisted, is put on such a list instantly. There is no trial at court. While people and companies can appeal against being blacklisted or against receiving bad credit, the concept of 'innocent until proven guilty' is reversed: You have to prove that you are innocent.
As the Social Credit System goes hand-in-hand with one of the worst surveillance apparatuses, it infringes legal rights such as the right to reputation, the right to privacy, and the right to free speech.
Millions of people blacklisted
Negative factors for credit ratings have been different in the past, depending on where you live, but are supposed to be streamlined across China in the future. Negative factors include:
- dishonest and fraudulent financial behavior
- playing loud music
- violating traffic rules
- making reservations at restaurants and not showing up
- failing to correctly sort your waste
- fraudulently using other people's public transportation ID cards
Positive factors, on the other hand, include:
- donating blood
- donating to charity
- volunteering to community services
According to Wikipedia, blacklisted people are already being banned from using public transport: For instance, 26.82 million air tickets as well as 5.96 million high-speed rail tickets had been denied to people who were deemed "untrustworthy (失信)".
On top of that, some personal information of blacklisted people is deliberately made accessible to the society and is displayed online as well as at various public venues such as movie theaters and buses. Some cities have also banned children of "untrustworthy" residents from attending private schools and even universities.
A modern way of putting people in the pillory.
Who is being blacklisted?
Every citizen and every company in China now has to worry about being blacklisted by the Social Credit System. Since the rule of law does not apply to the system, people might even get blacklisted by accident. Then, it is their duty to prove their innocence - not the other way around. This can make life for lots of people very difficult.
For people being blacklisted, the consequences can be very similar as for people who are being innocently charged based on location tracking data, whih these two US examples show.
On top of that, China also uses the system to blacklist people opposing the government. According to The Globe and Mail one of the first persons being blacklisted was Liu Hu, a journalist in China, writing about censorship and government corruption.
Liu was listed on a List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement by the Supreme People's Court as "not qualified" to buy a plane ticket, and banned from traveling some train lines, buying property, or taking out a loan.
"There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to," he told The Globe and Mail. "What's really scary is there's nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere."
Government's use of Social Credit System
Another example of how the government uses the Social Credit System is threatening companies - even international ones - to act in-line with government's requirements and expectations:
In April 2018, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) sent letters to international airlines demanding they show the map of China with the inclusion of Taiwan. The Chinese government threatened these international companies to "make a record of your company's serious dishonesty and take disciplinary actions" should they not comply.
In the end, every company complied. The Social Credit System is used to pressure not only Chinese citizens and companies. It is meant to change the way we deal with and perceive the People's Republic of China.
Social Credit System in the West
This shows the dramatic impact of the Chinese Social Credit System. While a system that infiltrates personal lives to such an extend does not exist in the West, there are similar tendencies: Companies such as online companies, marketers, insurance companies, financial institutions and so on like to know a lot about their clients. They compile so much data about you that they can establish their own credit system. We explain this further in the article on why a social credit system is so scary.
Nevertheless, the Chinese Social Credit System reaches entirely new levels: China is an authoritarian country, and the government - the Chinese Communist Party - uses the Social Credit System against its own citizens.
This must be the warning we take out of this: Once surveillance and social credit is there, it can be easily abused by the people - or companies - in power. While China is presenting the worst example of a Social Credit System, there are a lot of tendencies around that world that go into the same direction.
In the West, we still have a chance to stop the building of social credit systems. We have to stop feeding the data miners, the companies that use and abuse our data for their own profits and look out for privacy-friendly alternatives.
Let's fight for our privacy rights now - while we still can.