China just introduced a universal credit score, where everybody is measured as a number between 350 and 950. But this credit score isn’t just affected by how well you manage credit – it also reflects how well your political opinions are in line with Chinese official opinions, and whether your friends’ are, too.
In the West, the surveillance agencies have been trying to stay as low-key as possible, while listening to everything and anything. China has taken a different approach. Not only is the surveillance very overt, you are also constantly nudged to fall in line.
This Chinese credit score, which seemed innocent at first, was introduced this summer. More precisely, it was introduced by Alibaba and Tencent, China’s IT giants who run the Chinese equivalents of all social networks, and who therefore have any and all data about you. People can download an app named “Sesame Credit” from the Alibaba network, and the score has become something of a bragging contest, being interpreted as a kind of “citizen status” – and not entirely falsely so. Almost 100,000 people have posted their “status” online on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
In the West, our credit score is simple. It’s our ability to pay. It’s measured from our assets, our income, and if we have bought on credit in the past and managed it well. That’s it. In China, the situation is… more nuanced. It’s not just that you have bought things, it’s also what you buy that contribute to your credit score, in either direction. If you’re buying things that the regime appreciates, like dishwashers and baby supplies, your credit score increases. If you’re buying videogames, your score takes a negative hit.
In theory, Sesame Credit (and its benefits) is optional. So far. For the time being. But China has already announced that it, or something very like it, will become mandatory from 2020. It has also announced that while there are benefits today for obedient people, it intends to add various sanctions for people who don’t behave, like limited Internet connectivity. Such people will also be barred from serving in certain high-status and influential positions, like government official, reporter, CEO, statistician, and similar.
Things that will make your score deteriorate include posting political opinions without prior permission, talking about or describing a different history than the official one, or even publishing accurate up-to-date news from the Shanghai stock market collapse (which was and is embarrassing to the Chinese regime).
But the kicker is that if any of your friends do this — publish opinions without prior permission, or report accurate but embarrassing news — your score will also deteriorate. And this will have a direct impact on your quality of life.
“Sesame Credit, however, also uses other data to calculate the scores, such as a person’s hobbies, interaction with friends, shopping habits and lifestyle.” — Quote from China Daily Asia
The KGB and the Stasi’s method of preventing dissent from taking hold was to plant so-called agents provocateurs in the general population, people who tried to make people agree with dissent, but who actually were after arresting them as soon as they agreed with such dissent. As a result, nobody would dare agree that the government did anything bad, and this was very effective in preventing any large-scale resistance from taking hold. The Chinese way here is much more subtle, but probably more effective still.
This scheme is far more sinister than it seems at first, as you’re also getting assorted immediate privileges based on this credit score:
If your credit score reaches 600, you have the privilege of an instant loan of about $800 without collateral when shopping online.
At a score of 650, you may rent a car without leaving a deposit.
At 700, you get access to a bureaucratic fast track to a Singapore travel permit.
And at 750, you get a similar fast track to a coveted pan-European Schengen visa.
There are many more examples – these are just to illustrate.
Anybody can check anybody’s Chinese credit score today using the site Credit China, which helps – no, nudges – people to disconnect from friends and acquaintances who significantly draw down your own credit score merely by association: they’re listed as such. All 869,582 of them. While this Credit China rating is purely fiscal at present (but your friends’ score still affect your own score), the general idea will expand to this “social credit score” no later than 2020, according to the official directive.
Do you see what’s happening here? This means that people need to choose between that coveted European vacation and keeping in touch with their old friends who are disagreeing with the regime’s opinions openly. This means that staying in touch with dissidents will cause you and your family to lose out on social benefits. As a result, this will very effectively isolate and neuter anybody who posts unofficial political opinions or unofficial history facts. They’ll effectively be sent into social exile, based on everything they do, write, think, and discuss online.
What China is doing here is selectively breeding its population to select against the trait of critical, independent thinking. This may not be the purpose, indeed I doubt it’s the primary purpose, but it’s nevertheless the effect of giving only obedient people the social ability to have children, not to mention successful children.
People sometimes mock the notion that we’re not at a 1984 level yet. I wonder what it’ll really take to make such people realize that the 1984 point of surveillance has long come and gone.
Privacy remains your own responsibility.
H/t Kit (in Swedish).
UPDATE: Here’s a link to the official directive (in English) to construct this Chinese “social credit score” by 2020. As commented on Hacker News, this Sesame Credit appears to be a trial for the official requirement. Link added inline to text above as well.
About Rick Falkvinge
Rick is Head of Privacy at Private Internet Access. He is also the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. Additionally, he has a tech entrepreneur background and loves good whisky and fast motorcycles.