25th Oct 2016
PICTURE a world where every single action you make is monitored by the federal government.
Accidentally running a stop sign on a deserted street at 3am? That’s on your record.
Subtly scanning those slightly-fancier $6.99/kilo apples as the ordinary $4.99/kilo ones? That’s on the record too, thief.
Posted a harmless narcissistic selfie to your social feed? The government is ogling you as we speak.
All your social media activity, job movement, leisure activities and online purchases are ranked and perpetually monitored.
Oh — and did we mention this whole thing is both public and mandatory?
It sounds like a creepy George Orwell knock-off, but China’s government is actually developing a “social credit system” in which it monitors each individual citizen and collates information about their day-to-day lives.
The Communist Party of China hopes the ambitious plan will create a culture of “sincerity”, where citizens will be kept in line.
The whole thing is designed to assess each individual person’s trustworthiness in the eyes of the government, and your actions have the power to dramatically alter the rest of your life.
Each person is given a numerical “score” that could determine whether they qualify for financial loans down to getting a nicer room in a hotel or a better table at a restaurant.
It can even affect how many dates you pull, because the information is publicly available, and your social circle can influence your number.
In other words, if you want to live the high life, you and everyone you associate with had better comply.
The Chinese government is hoping that every one of its 1.3 billion citizens will soon be enrolled in a national database that includes all these little details.
The idea has been in development since 2003, but China hopes it will be fully achieved by 2020. It could spark a dramatic shift in how citizens interact with each other and the outside world.
For example, posting pro-government statuses to social media, recycling and showing evidence of fiscal responsibility in your purchases will increase your score.
Wasteful spending, posting political opinions without permission and posting information the Chinese government deems controversial — such as about the Tiananmen Square massacre or Tibet — will decrease your score.
Last month, the Chinese government released a revised plan detailing how the elaborate system would work.
A translation recently published by Oxford University China researcher Rogier Creemers points out that a person’s “score” would be publicly available and integral to their place in society.
It states: “Eliminate credit information obstacles between all localities, all departments as well as state organs and people’s organisations, social organisations, enterprises and undertaking work units, and move forward credit information interconnection, exchange and sharing according to the law.”
It also warns that any person or company who is deemed “untrustworthy” could see sanctions imposed on them: “All localities and all departments must carry out their proper functions, mutually co-ordinate, shape joint forces, and build credit supervision, warning and punishment systems where if trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.”
What your friends say and do can also influence your public score — a feature that will create social pressure among citizens.
It stresses the importance of this being a communal system, saying “all levels’ governments must play a leading role” in helping to “stimulate the common participation and joint governance of the entire society, and realise the effective convergence of government leadership and joint social action.”
The country’s state news agency Xinhua reported on the social credit system two years ago, saying it would focus on four key areas: administrative affairs, commercial activities, social behaviour, and the judicial system.
The system would be accompanied by a related reward and punishment mechanism, with individual identity card numbers or organisation numbers to allow for the sharing of information.
While China’s government has sought to keep tabs on its citizens for decades, this would be the first of its kind of include technologies such as big data, cloud computing and the mobile internet.
Last year, China’s central bank gave eight private firms permission to provide personal credit reference services.
Alibaba’s Sesame Credit Management was permitted to score people based on their hobbies, interaction with friends, spending and lifestyle.
China Daily reported the rating method consisted of a numerical score scale between 350 and 950 points, with a higher score making it easier to borrow money.
For example, people with 600 points or more were permitted to take out a loan of less than 5,000 yuan ($A972) when shopping on Alibaba’s online marketplace.
Those with more than 666 points could take out a cash loan of up to 50,000 yuan ($A9719).
Creemers told Fast Company this is nothing new.
“They’ve been working on the credit system for the financial industry for a while now,” he said. “But, in recent years, the idea started growing that if you’re going to assess people’s financial status, you should equally be able to do that with other modes of trustworthiness.”
He points out that — while it comes with certain efficiencies — it’s ultimately just another means by which the government can directly control its people.
“On the one hand, this credit system is the institution of commonsensical rules for market behaviour. On the other hand, it’s a control tool.
“The Party sets out a way of behaving, then it makes that way of behaviour rational. You take away the ability for people to decide on what they think is good and you take away their choice of living a different lifestyle.”
In other words, the system could improve how workers and citizens function in their day-to-day lives.
But this comes at the expense of personal freedom. Is that really worth it?