China’s Social Credit System

Do you want to rent an apartment? Buy an airline ticket? Get a date? If you do—and you’re a citizen of China—you’d better have a good social credit score.

Four years ago, the Chinese government announced a new system with the goal of “raising the awareness for integrities and the level of credibility within society.” In other words, the government wants more control of the economy and the population. What a surprise.

Much like our familiar credit scores, which tell lenders how good (or bad) a credit risk someone is, the social credit score will reward those who act with integrity and punish those who misbehave. At this time, the government is specifically monitoring for areas: “honesty in government affairs, commercial integrity, social integrity, and judicial credibility. The scores apply to both individuals and businesses.

How will this work? It’s a way of applying pressure to conform, formalized and enforced by the government—and your peers. Yes, your personal score is public information.

Suppose someone wants to rent an apartment. If their score is high enough, they may be considered sufficiently trustworthy that no deposit is required. But if their score is low—perhaps they’ve defaulted on a loan, or forgot to pay their traffic fines—they may find themselves blacklisted and unable to rent.

Low scores are penalized in a variety of ways, from slower internet connections to longer waits at the emergency room. They may find themselves banned from purchasing plane tickets. Parents with low scores are unable to get their children into higher-ranked schools. Even associating with a low scorer can lower your own score. For example, if their friend posts a comment criticizing the government in any way, their own score will suffer too.

On the other hand, having a high score comes with plenty of perks, ranging from access to better jobs and the ability to buy luxury products, to free medical care. Understandably, if you have a high score, you’ll want to flaunt it. Users are even including their social credit score in their profiles on  online matchmaking sites, in hopes that it will make them more attractive to potential dates.

The goal of integrity within society casts a wide net. You can lose points for everything from not paying your utility bills to posting fake product reviews, ducking under the subway turnstile, or even cheating in an online computer game. If you reserve a hotel room, you’d better show up. And don’t even think of joining the crowd blocking the corridor when your favorite pop star is sighted at the airport.

The algorithm adds or subtracts points depending on your purchasing history, who your friends are, what books you’re reading, and where you go online. For example, if you spend a lot of money on video games, it considers you less responsible, and deducts points accordingly.

The technology underlying the social credit program is still being developed. Initially fragmented across the country, efforts are underway to collect all the data into one central clearinghouse. Work is progressing toward a target of full implementation by 2020, at which time participation becomes mandatory.

Punishing poor behavior may seem like a good idea, especially if you’re a law-abiding citizen, and the program is reasonably popular so far. However, it’s easy to see where all this could lead. According to an article in Wired, “In a sign that the government is using the social credit system to deepen its control [over] civil society, social credit is being harnessed to crack down on ‘illegal social organisations.’” The government claims these organizations are all fraudulent, but we know that the underground church will be included in the list; a major crackdown on the house church movement has already begun. In addition, legal organizations are required to actively support the Communist Party, something that may pose a dilemma for Christians.

The real problem for the Chinese government is that no amount of forced compliance will create a truly ethical populace. Real integrity comes from a changed heart, not a government system of rewards and punishments.

Programs such as this one, the Aadhaar system in India (which I covered last week), and even the morality police in Saudi Arabia, are merely human attempts to subdue sin. It just doesn’t work that way.

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