China is developing a digital dictatorship to exert control over its 1.4 billion citizens. For some, "social credit" will bring great opportunities — for others, punishment. The Communist Party’s plan is to monitor its citizens 24/7 and rank them on their behavior, as the dystopian social ranking system will be fully operational by 2020.
According to Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), an active pilot program has already assigned a score out of 800 to millions of people across the country. More than 200 million surveillance cameras are currently using artificial intelligence and facial recognition software that adds or subtracts social points based on physical and digital behavior.
The data collected from the vast network of cameras is blended with information collected from individuals’ government records, medical, financial, and even internet browsing histories. People's scores can oscillate from good to bad in "real time" dependant on the person’s behavior, but also the people they associate with can affect scores as well.
"If your best friend or your dad says something negative about the government, you’ll lose points too," the ABC reports.
In 2014, the Chinese government published a notice concerning all provincial, autonomous region, and cities concerning the construction of the social credit system. The scheme has been seen as a bid to reinforce the notion that "keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful," according to the State Council Notice concerning Issuance of the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020) government document.
"A social credit system is an important component part of the Socialist market economy system and the social governance system. It is founded on laws, regulations, standards and charters, it is based on a complete network covering the credit records of members of society and credit infrastructure, it is supported by the lawful application of credit information and a credit services system, its inherent requirements are establishing the idea of an sincerity culture, and carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues, it uses encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust as incentive mechanisms, and its objective is raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society," said the government document.
ABC said the credit systems are now in at least a dozen cities across China. Several companies are working with the government to set up the vast infrastructure, configure the technology, and finalize the algorithms that determine the score. This is the largest social engineering project ever attempted in modern history, and a way for Chinese elites to control more than a billion people.
If the scheme is successful, it will be the world’s first digital dictatorship.
Under the system, good Chinese are rewarded bonus points. The benefits of having a good score include waived deposits on hotels and rental cars, VIP treatment at airports, discounted loans, access to high-speed transportation, priority job applications and fast-tracking to elite universities.
Dandan, 36, knows social credit is not a perfect system but believes it is a good way for the government to manage the world's largest population effectively. "China likes to experiment in this creative way … I think people in every country want a stable and safe society," she said. "We need a social credit system. We hope we can help each other, love each other and help everyone to become prosperous."
Under one of the pilot tests called Sesame Credit, Dandan has a high score of 770 out of 800; she is considered a good citizen.
Thanks to her rating, Dandan has special privileges like renting a car, a hotel room or a house without a deposit.
But on the opposite side of the spectrum, the social credit scheme is hell. There are an estimated 10 million people with bad social credit.
Speaking out about the government, jaywalking, late payments on bills or taxes, and even buying too much alcohol, will cost citizens points. Punishments for being a lousy citizen range from losing the right to travel by plane or train, social media account suspension and being barred from government jobs.
Chinese journalist Liu Hu, 43, is one of the millions who ended up with a low social credit score. Hu was arrested, jailed and fined after he spoke up against government corruption.
"There are a lot of people who are on the blacklist wrongly, but they can’t get off it," said Hu.
ABC said the credit system has destroyed his career and isolated him, as he now worries for his family’s future. The system has halted all travel options for him and kept him under house arrest in his hometown of Chongqing. Hu’s social media accounts, where he posted his investigative journalism, have also been deleted by the government. Hu claims his combined Wechat and Weibo accounts had two million followers at the peak.
"This kind of social control is against the tide of the world. The Chinese people’s eyes are blinded and their ears are blocked. They know little about the world and are living in an illusion." Liu Hu said.
It would not surprise us if, in the near future, Beijing deducts points from citizens who use American products (Apple iPhone) as the trade war between the US and China deepens.