Internet start up employees work on their computers at 3W Coffee in Beijing earlier this year. Mobile device usage and e-commerce are in wide use in China, and now the Communist Party wants to compile a “social credit” score based on citizens’ every activity. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post) (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
BEIJING – Imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors every single thing you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how “trustworthy” you are.
In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticizing the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly could see you lose points.
And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are, determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant -- or even just get a date.
This is not the dystopian superstate of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, in which all-knowing police stop crime before it happens. But it could be China by 2020.
It is the nightmare scenario contained in China’s ambitious plans to develop a far-reaching social credit system, a plan that the Communist Party hopes will build a culture of “sincerity” and a “harmonious Socialist society” where “keeping trust is glorious.”
A high-level policy document released in September listed the sanctions that could be imposed on any person or company deemed to have fallen short. The overriding principle: “if trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.”
A whole range of privileges would be denied, while people and companies breaking social trust would also be subject to expanded daily supervision and random inspections.
The ambition is to collect every scrap of information available online about China’s companies and citizens in a single place -- and then assign each of them a score based on their political, commercial, social and legal “credit.”
The government still hasn’t announced exactly how the scheme will work — for example, how scores will be compiled and different qualities weighted against each other. But the idea is that good behavior will be rewarded and bad behavior punished, with the Communist Party acting as the ultimate judge.
This is what China calls “Internet Plus,” but critics call a 21st century police state.
Harnessing the power of big data, and the ubiquity of smartphones, e-commerce, and social media in a society where 700 million people live large parts of their lives online, the plan will also gobble up court, police, banking, tax and even employment records. Doctors, teachers, local governments and businesses could, additionally, be scored by citizens for their professionalism and probity.
“China is moving towards a totalitarian society, where the government controls and affects individuals’ private lives,” said Beijing-based novelist and social commentator Murong Xuecun.“This is like Big Brother, who has all your information and can harm you in any way he wants.”
At the heart of the social credit system is an attempt to control China’s vast, anarchic and poorly regulated market economy, to punish companies selling poisoned food or phony medicine, to expose doctors taking bribes and uncover con-men preying on the vulnerable.
"Fraud has become ever more common in society,” Lian Weiliang, vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s main economic planning agency said in April. “Swindlers have to pay a price."
Yet in Communist China, the plans inevitably take on an authoritarian aspect: this is not just about regulating the economy, but also about creating an entirely new socialist utopia under the Communist Party’s benevolent guidance.