Editor’s Note: Rogier Creemers is a lecturer in the politics and history of China at the University of Oxford. His research addresses the interaction between politics and technology in China. The opinions expressed here are solely his.
"Social Credit System" at heart of China's Internet agenda
Individuals will be scored on various aspects of their conduct online
Plan described as "Orwellian" tool of control
China’s opinion of the Internet is changing.
No longer distrusted as a possible destabilizing force, the country’s leaders are embracing it with a more assertive and ambitious approach.
Called “Internet Plus,” this strategy combines stricter censorship and content monitoring with efforts to insert information technology into most aspects of everyday life.
The agenda will be at the heart of many of the initiatives under discussion this week as top Chinese Communist Party leaders meet to deliberate the 13th Five Year Plan – China’s policy blueprint until 2020.
At the core of China’s Internet agenda lies the so-called “social credit system”.
This system, which is currently in the planning phase, seeks to leverage the explosion in personal data generated through smartphones, apps and online transactions in order to improve citizens’ behaviour.
According to a planning document published by the State Council last year, its objective is to improve “sincerity” in government affairs, commerce and social interactions.
The principle is simple:
Individuals and businesses will be scored on various aspects of their conduct – where you go, what you buy and who you know – and these scores will be integrated within a comprehensive database that not only links into government information, but also to data collected by private businesses.
Policy documents about how the system might be used remain vague and general.
However, they do indicate that an individual’s credit score might be used in granting or withholding particular social services, barring fraudulent individuals from certain forms of business, and in order to publicly shame perpetrators of “trust-breaking.”
Scores will measure professional conduct, for instance for doctors and teachers, commercial probity, including the sale of sub-standard or counterfeit goods and social security.
It will also monitor the performance of local governments and courts.
To the extent that the system will monitor government officials and businesses, it is designed to disrupt some of the perennial bugbears of China’s system of government: the difficulty of managing localities and enforcing laws consistently.
The mountains are high and the emperor far away, as the cliché goes.
Yet technology is flattening the mountains and bringing the gaze of the emperor everywhere.
Food security, counterfeiting and local abuse are real issues for Chinese citizens, and if this particular scheme results in more effective oversight and accountability, it will likely be warmly welcomed.
Yet the system will go further than that – it will also comprise comprehensive monitoring of individuals’ conduct online.
The State Council plan, for instance, mentions rumor-mongering as an example of behavior to be sanctioned.
It is this part of the plan that has led many commentators to describe it as an Orwellian tool of individual control.
They may well be right – the Chinese state has continuously sought to expand its power to intervene in the lives of their citizens.
It is where the hard power logic of state survival and political stability intersect with a tendency towards social engineering with roots both in Socialist and Confucian thought.
Technology and solving problems
However, this trend towards social engineering and “nudging” individuals towards “better” behavior is also part of the Silicon Valley approach that holds that human problems can be solved once and for all through the disruptive power of technology.
In this approach, debate about ends and means is derided as unnecessary interference in the improvement of the human lot.
Human beings are reduced to a set of numbers indicating their performance on pre-set scales, on their eating habits, for instance, or their fitness regimen, which they are then challenged to improve.
In other words, one way to look at the social credit system is not as a perversion of the promise of information technology, but as the logical culmination of the increasing generation and processing of data.
The very fact that information exists means that companies and governments will seek to harness them for their own purposes, be these political or commercial.
In many cases, civic oversight is lacking. In China, this is due to Party-State politics, while in the West, it often steps from a techno-optimist attitude in which government only tends to get in the way of things.
In that sense, perhaps the most shocking element of the story is not the Chinese government’s agenda, but how similar it is to the path technology is taking elsewhere.