Taamara de Silva assesses the implications of Chinese social credit systems

Imagine a future where your life will be measured by a number – three digits that’ll dictate your place in society. The ability to obtain a travel ticket, access the internet quicker or even date someone will be entirely dependent
on how you behave.

From defaulting on a loan to treating your parents with respect, the way you’re supposed to live will be predefined and brutally applied. This scenario is not from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 but could very well be China in 2020.

As recently as 2011, a third of the Chinese population did not have a bank account. However, China’s rapid ascent to the status of the second largest economy in the world in a short space of time meant that it didn’t have a chance to develop a Western format of credit history. People defaulted on loans and sold counterfeit goods with hardly any consequences. As a result, trust became the most critical issue.

In 2013, China began blacklisting debtors and defaulters, carving them out of the system to administer swift retribution. The wheels were set in motion. Two years later, the People’s Bank of China licensed eight companies to start a trial of social credit systems that made use of big data and surveillance mechanisms.

China’s ambitions to develop a far-reaching and terrifyingly comprehensive social credit system – with the intention of establishing a culture of sincerity and trust – is now referred to by many critics as having the hallmarks of a police state.

According to the Communist Party of China, the system will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it difficult for the discredited to take a single step.” In January, Beijing officially announced that it would begin testing a personal credit score.

This is in stark contrast to Confucianism, which is based on the belief that human beings are fundamentally good and can be taught to improve, as well as achieve perfection through personal and communal endeavours.

For China, it is not only about regulating the economy but more about creating a new socialist utopia under the Communist Party’s benevolent guidance. Meanwhile, it would usher in a new era for the rest of the world in doing business with the emerging superpower.

Regarded as the most ambitious infrastructure investment in history, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will improve China’s connectivity across economic corridors on a transcontinental scale. Yet, its influence abroad is not merely economic in nature, and is rapidly shaping laws and policies in strategic locations.

Companies may have no choice but to comply if they want to continue doing business in China. Strict compliance would mean more favourable economic incentives, and natural survival instincts will eventually breed a meek and docile culture of conformity.

Where the test versions of the social credit systems are in operation, it seems that there has been a significant improvement in the behaviour of citizens. Chinese tech giants Alibaba Group and Tencent Holdings are evaluating user credit files, based on behavioural data gathered from social media and purchase histories. This intensified surveillance will see the birth of digital social control emerging as a new phenomenon.

The question we should ask ourselves is whether big data and algorithms actually replace the free will, for which our predecessors fought so hard to establish and preserve. When we voluntarily release protected and private information, by using social media and the internet, we automatically expose ourselves to digital networks that penetrate and scrutinise every corner of our lives.

We need to ask ourselves what kind of life we want to lead. Do we want to turn ourselves over to total surveillance and human exploitation, thereby surrendering our freedom and dignity?

The boundaries of surveillance and censorship have changed over the course of the internet’s history. Today, reforms in legislature, immediacy in policy and global discussion must be established more than ever before – lest we all lose trust in the system. The speed at which digital technology moves forward cannot be matched as the legislation surrounding it will take forever to change.

Going forward, we may very well experience a divide of people conforming to big data algorithms to make decisions on their behalf and those who are able to lead more autonomous lives. This will give wealth a new meaning. Freedom from surveillance will surface as the new denominator for being rich!

Whether China’s social credit system will actually work and the extent to which it can be implemented are yet to be seen. However, the genesis of and philosophy behind the system underscores the mindset of China’s Communist leaders.

We may see the transition from a social credit system to a social control system. Meanwhile, living carefree and unencumbered, we can only wonder what would transpire if Sri Lanka were to implement a similar programme?