Have you ever seen “Minority Report,” featuring Tom Cruise? Set in 2054, the state creates a technology capable of pre-empting crime by observing the criminal act before it actually happens. Obviously, the plot raises many questions regarding privacy rights, actus reus, and mens rea. Of most importance, however, the film gives viewers a taste of what extreme government oversight could look like.
Though not as sophisticated as the technology used in the “Minority Report,” similar technology has already been developed and implemented in China. Dubbed the “Social Credit System,” or “Digital Dictatorship” in the West, it promises to eliminate crime and other social ills. Since 2014, the Chinese government has been developing and installing a vast network of cameras, sensors, and servers all over China to gather, analyse, and store personal information. The system is set for completion nationwide by 2020.
Via the information gathered, the system assigns each person a “social credit score.” This score represents one’s “trustworthiness” in the eyes of the state. The “better” the score, the more trustworthy one is. For example, if one maintains a high-level of trustworthiness, then he/she will have a high enough score to buy a ticket for a domestic flight, while one who has a low-level of trustworthiness will not. Currently, the Chinese government uses social credit scores when selling business-class train tickets. In fact, roughly 3 million Chinese are barred from buying business-class tickets, and around 9 million Chinese are prevented from buying domestic flights. Other “perks” to having a good social score include, better mortgage rates and increased internet access.
A social credit score is determined by rewarding good behaviour while punishing bad behaviour. “Good” behaviour can be anything from paying one’s taxes on time to driving within the posted speed limit. “Bad” behaviour can be loitering around a ticket booth, smoking, speeding, failing to stop in front of a crosswalk, speaking ill about the Communist government, spreading fake news, or hanging-out with the wrong friends. More sinister is the fact that scores are also determined by one’s personal details, habits, and past behaviours by analyzing their digital footprint, geographical location, religion, or payment records.
A 2014 Chinese government document obtained by the Globe and Mail provides a partial list of industries and organizations the social credit scores will govern: import and export trading, health inspection, government procurement, labour and employment, taxation, public transportation, social security, scientific research management, Communist Party promotion and appointments, applications for government financial support, hotels and restaurants, currency conversion, insurance sales, work in mining, chemicals, the manufacture of special equipment, and the production of food and medicine.
Though some are mentioned above, the consequences of having poor social credit scores may ban one from transportation services, throttling one’s internet speeds, poor scores may ban citizen’s and their children from good schools, prevent an employer from hiring certain people, prevent one from booking the best hotels, and/or being publicly black listed. Interestingly, the Chinese city of Jinan implemented a social credit system for dog owners in that those who fail to leash their dogs or create a disturbance receive worse scores. Upon reaching a particular score threshold, the state then confiscates the dog and the owner is barred from owning another pet until he/she passes a test on pet-owner regulations.
Conversely, dog owners are granted better scores if they volunteer at a dog shelter or clean dog litter. Despite the “dystopian” feel, there is some evidence that this system is creating “better” dog owners. In August 2018, 80% of dog owners now use leashes and complaints about dog biting or barking are down 65%.
One of many objectives of the system is to curtail crimes by dissuading people from committing them in the first place. Since the point system is electronically based, punishment is quick, and since notices of curtailed rights are not served, individuals are incentivized to watch their actions or else suddenly lose their once coveted privileges and freedoms. Another way the system is curtailing crimes is through gamification, which is a term used to describe a system that gains the attention of participants through score generation, while simultaneously creating positive emotions towards the system. In a sense, the social credit system implements gamification by encouraging its participants to attain the best score possible. Like in video games where participant scores are shared amongst each other to prompt further competition, social credit scores are shared amongst the Chinese population in order to encourage others to better their scores by performing additional socially accepted activities.
For some, there is a positivity to this system in that such social competition is said to build social morality, business integrity, food safety, and power dynamics. Some Chinese academics state that this system serves as a fantastic counterterrorism tool and are widely implemented in the predominately Muslim territory of XinJiang, China where instances of terrorism have occurred. However, this comes at a price. Western academics and human rights groups are alarmed by the strict intrusion into the private lives of ethnic minorities by the Chinese state. For instance, members of the Communist Party living in the region are encouraged to enter into people’s houses unannounced, and all religious activities are confined to one designated mosque, which, of course, is highly monitored by the system.
The Globe and Mail published a story concerning a well-known Chinese journalist, Liu Hu, who was charged and found guilty of “fabricating and spreading rumours” about the Chinese government. Amid his legal battles, Mr. Hu was suddenly barred from taking high-speed trains, booking domestic flights, buying property, or obtaining a bank loan. Though in theory the social credit system may help curtail rampant crime or social moral ills, a lack of due process of law is of primary concern here. Doling-out quick and fast punishment at the expense of proper fact-finding and legal application, buttresses an authoritarian regime’s power, and extinguishes minority rights without any chance of redress.
Rogier Creemers, “China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control” (22 May 2018), online: Papers SSRN < https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3175792>.
Nicole Kobie, “The complicated truth about China’s social credit system”, Wired (21 January 2019), online: <www.wired.co.uk>.
Katika Kuhnreich, “Social control 4.0? China’s Social Credit Systems”, Eurozine (10 August 2018), online: <www.eurozine.com>.
Alexandra Ma, “China has started ranking citizens with a creepy ‘social credit’ system – here’s what you can do wrong, and the embarrassing, demeaning ways they can punish you”, Business Insider (29 October 2018), online: <www.businessinsider.com>.
Nathan Vanderklippe, “China probes deeper into the lives of Uyghur minority”, The Globe and Mail (29 December 2017), online: <www.theglobeandmail.com>.
Nathan Vanderklippe, “Chinese blacklist an early glimpse of sweeping new social-credit control”, The Globe and Mail (3 January 2018), online: <www.theglobeandmail.com>.