If you’ve seen the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”, then you’ll be familiar with the concept of social credit and how one’s actions can affect their socioeconomic status. What you may be surprised to hear, however, is that a similar social credit system is already active in China.
Representing China’s attempt to restore trustworthiness in its economy and society, their system combines traditional western-style credit scores with more intrusive measures. Individuals are ranked, not only by online payment providers - but companies and neighbours too. The higher the score, the better the perks including discounts and access to competitive loan rates. The lower the score, the greater the challenge to purchase even simple things such as transportation.
Fast forward a few years, and a new pilot scheme in the city of Rongcheng, in the province of Shandong, has been hailed as one of the best examples of the system working as intended.
Every resident of Rongcheng is assigned 1,000 points and from there the point system comes into play. Residents hold a grade ranging from A+++ to D. They can lose five points for a traffic ticket, whilst undertaking a heroic act would gain them 30 points. Donating to charity or volunteering can also earn credit, providing that such activities are verified by official documents. Some offences are considered so serious – such as drunk driving – that grades would drop dramatically.
And it doesn’t stop at individuals. Businesses are monitored and graded too. They can remain a top point earner through paying taxes on time and avoiding fines for substandard products. What’s more, they’ll be rewarded with improved loan conditions and fewer steps when it comes to public tenders.
It’s important to note, that the rolled out system will not be a unified platform whereby you can search for your individual “score” and be presented with a number, like many of our western credit score sites. It will instead be leveraging technological advancements to enhance and expand upon existing controls.
In Nosedive, the main protagonist - played brilliantly by Bryce Dallas Howard - faces such frictions whilst travelling to a wedding. Due to a series of unfortunate mishaps, her social score plummets resulting in many everyday options - such as which plane she can travel on and the calibre of rental cars available to hire - becoming closed off to her. As you can imagine with a Charlie Brooker penned script, things descend from there pretty rapidly ending up with Dallas Howard’s character behind bars.
China have plans to roll out a comprehensive, national system by the end of 2020. So what would the implications be in the real world?
As early as 2010, a citywide experiment took place in Suining, Jiangsu (a province near Shanghai) whereby criteria including residents’ education level, online behaviour and compliance with traffic laws were taken into account. Points could be earned for looking after elderly family members and helping the poor, leading to high scorers being fast-tracked for job promotions and gaining access to top schools. Poor scorers, in comparison, faced restrictions on permits and social services.
Unsurprisingly, the scheme was branded a disaster, with both residents and state media blasting the seemingly unfair and arbitrary criteria. The pilot was duly cancelled, but not before teaching the government about what would and would not be palatable to the public.
The “blacklist”, however, can be viewed. This represents a list of debtors drawn up by the Supreme Court in an attempt to make offenders repay their debts. The court publishes the names and ID numbers of debtors on its websites, leading to considerable restrictions for those individuals. In March 2018, the National Development and Reform Commission- a powerful central body - stated it would extend train and flight travel restrictions for actions such as spreading false information about terrorism and using expired tickets. By May 2018, China’s social credit system had reportedly blocked blacklisted people from taking 11 million flights and 4 million train trips.
Certain provinces even go as far as to play a recorded message when someone calls a blacklisted debtor, informing the caller that the person they wish to speak with has outstanding debts. In May 2018, Business Insider also reported on a short cartoon displayed in cinemas, on buses and on public noticeboards. Featuring the photographs of debtors’ faces, a voiceover said: “Come, come, look at these [debtors]. It’s a person who borrows money and doesn’t pay it back.”
Sounds a bit much, right? In the UK – and no doubt in many parts of the world - people are particularly private where finances are concerned. There is a distinct lack of transparency surrounding salaries, and the thought of having your credit status announced on the phone would leave most of us recoiling in horror. But maybe that’s the point - what better deterrent for debtors than the prospect of shaming them to their friends, family and co-workers?
But despite the personalised nature of the system, I can’t help but think that this element is severely flawed. Shaming a single parent or elderly widow who are behind on their bills, for instance, is surely not the appropriate action to take. It’s the 21st century equivalent of putting someone in the stocks – leaving them open to embarrassment, ridicule and scorn. Surely such a deterrent could only be effective if each and every resident has a choice of actions. For the poorer members of society, that choice is often removed. Paying a bill in full and on time is only possible if they physically have the money to do so.
Becoming entangled and trapped in China’s social credit web is inevitable for many. The perks and pitfalls are clear for all to see, but how they translate - and fairly - to reality is a different proposition altogether. Dallas Howard’s character in Nosedive was down and out in no time at all with little hope of restoration. As with traditional methods of correction - such as prison and community service - scope for rehabilitation must play a central part or the whole concept comes crashing down.
An effective deterrent such as blacklisting is certainly important (or else why would anyone abide by rules and regulations?), but the ability for offenders to redeem themselves - and permanently improve behaviour and attitudes - is even more imperative. Intrinsic to China’s social credit system is the notion of conditioning - conditioning individuals to care for others, to pay their dues and to be good neighbours, employees and overall contributors to a better society. Or, as John Lanchester succinctly puts it in his London Review of Books article Document Number Nine:
The ultimate goal is to make people internalise their sense of state: to make people self-censor, self-monitor, self-supervise.
Hopefully, given time, taking positive actions will become second nature to more than just the residents of China. And not for fear of losing points, but due to an innate desire to do good – perks or no perks.