George Orwell in China – Digitization as a Method of Total Social Control

By Markus Pohlmann

Socialist systems traditionally have the improvement of man on the plan. And those who are unable or do not want to improve are eliminated or at the present time, imprisoned. China is now using digitization to expand social control – in the best tradition of socialist systems. Currently, a scoring system has been introduced or is being tested in approximately 43 cities and districts to assess social behaviour. If you live alone in a large apartment, there is a deduction of points. It is better if you live together with many in a small apartment. Anyone driving alone to work with a large imported car, such as a Mercedes S-Class, gets fewer points than someone who uses a rented bike. And these are, however, the harmless examples. Those who accumulate too much debt or fail to repay can no longer ride high-speed trains or take flights in China. According to the Supreme People’s Court of China, 8.42 million[1] attempts by debtors to take flights alone have been rebutted by the end of September 2017.[2] But even this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Chinese government is now building a comprehensive social credit scoring system to reward and punish the social behaviour of its citizens. Anyone who does poorly in a rating can be restricted in all areas of life. “Lose credit somewhere, face restrictions everywhere”. George Orwell is trendy in China.

The „Social Credit System“

„Social credit“ is a term that was introduced in 2003 by the Chinese government. After ten years of discussions and preparations, the Chinese State Council in 2014 published the planning to build the social credit system. According to a responsible government official of the administrative unit of Xiong’an New Area, social credit will rate citizens in five dimensions: „lawfulness, moral behavior, social engagement, activities of public interest and environmental protection“.[3]

Sources: Based on http://www.cup.com.hk/2016/10/28/chinese-society-credit-system/ and created by ClipArt (Microsoft Office 2010).

In Suining County, Jiangsu Province, each of the a little over one million citizens has since 2010 had his social credit score with 1000 credit points to begin with. They refer to a total of more than 400 indicators used for the evaluation. If the socialist citizen fails to help, say, his parents, who are in a situation that requires caring, he gets 50 points deducted. Anyone who accuses someone wrongly on the Internet or by SMS gets 100 points deducted  – a kind of license for the officials who decide on it. If the socialist citizen, however, helps an elderly lady cross the street, he receives 10 points. If he gets a government commendation, he gets another 100 points.[4] In the county-level city of Rongcheng, Shandong Province, for which data on the number of points are available, citizens have since 2014 been sorted into five grades from A+, A, B, C to D. Citizens with more than 1000 points belong to Grade A +. Grade C citizens only have somewhere between 600 and 849 points, and those whose points stand below 599 languish in Grade D.[5] Socialist citizens of Grade A+ or A move around with as much freedom and opportunities accordingly, whereas citizens of Grade C and D face numerous serious restrictions for a period of two and five years, respectively. They cannot get loans anymore. They have big problems renting or buying new apartments. They no longer have access to good jobs or their children to good schools. All these accesses and opportunities are tied to the score. Even entrepreneurs who only possess a few points can also be barred from winning orders. Welcome to the total social control!

However, this of course merely serves as but one more recipe for „gaming“ in China. He who, for example, continues to drive alone or with a chauffeur in the Mercedes S-class to work, just let his employees to certify that they ride. Or he who lives alone in a large apartment can simply specify several roommates in the housing register. So it is drilled practice in the country. Also, the rating rules of the social credit system provide just another reason to „outfox the system“. Certainly, bribery is also a good way to supplement your points account. However, this manoeuvring space is much smaller for the poor, and for political dissidents or those who are critical of the system, because the latter are under permanent surveillance anyway.

Digitization as the Trailblazer of Total Social Control

Digitization is the trailblazer for this system. A good example of this is Sesame Credit, a subsidiary of Alibaba. It is one of the eight companies involved in the pilot phase of the government’s social credit system. Its users are already being evaluated electronically for personal characteristics (qualification, occupation, income, etc.), their handling of money, their reliability in online trade of goods, the behavioural preferences and the personal networks in which they move. Each of the more than 100 million users can access their scores at any time on their smartphone. At the same time, this rating has a strong social impact because Sesame Credit serves a range of partners with this information. These include, for example, China’s largest online dating service, Baihe, where partner seekers can already see each other’s score point.[6] It is both a reward and a punishment system. In order to get „better“ partners, you have to adjust your behaviour and networks to it. It is now already another status symbol that facilitates the formation of the most status-homogeneous possible networks and the mutual social control.

According to the planning of the Chinese State Council, the social credit system will be introduced nationwide starting in 2020. It is intended to replace the currently existing system of black or red lists. In the case of China, this shows that neither is the Internet a medium that escapes political control, nor is a digitized dictatorship a mere illusion or a vision of the future. From a sociological perspective, these political education attempts are nothing new, only the ways in which they are implemented on a changed information technology basis are. Like all other large-scale political educational attempts, they too will sooner or later be shattered by the autonomous social dynamics and individual resistance of dealing with education. The only question is what is the price that millions of individuals have to pay by then.

In any case, from 2020 onwards, Chinese citizens will probably have to work harder on the form of representation of their socialist citizenship as well as the illegal acquisition of social credit points to make social control what it has always been in the planned economy: an artificial, nonetheless politically risky game with numbers and points.

 

Sources

Böff, Melanie (2017): Totale Kontrolle. China testet soziales Punktesystem, accessed on 09.02.2018.

China Copyright and Media (2014): Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020), accessed on 09.02.2018.

Ohlberg, Mareike et al. (2017): Central Planning, Local Experiments. The Complex Implementation of China’s Social Credit System, MERICS Mercator Institute for China Studies, accessed on 09.02.2018.

 

Footnotes

[1] The number of 8.42 million is not refered to 8.42 million persons because one debtor could be rebutted several times.

[2] https://www.weibo.com/ttarticle/p/show?id=2309351003164165250701253838 [in chinese], accessed on 09.02.2018.

[3] FAZ (2017): Nationales Punktesystem. China plant die totale Überwachung, accessed on 09.02.2018.

[4] http://js.people.com.cn/n/2014/0620/c360300-21473226.html [in chinese], accessed on 09.02.2018.

[5] http://www.wenming.cn/lianmeng/lmwz/201403/t20140320_1817062.shtml [in chinese], accessed on 09.02.2018.

[6] Lenz, Herbert (2017): Zur Hölle mit uns Menschen: Warum wir mehr Verbote und ein neues Denken brauchen. Komplett-Media.