China's Orwellian "Social Credit" System to be Mandatory by 2020

By Rae Avery

In a move likened to an "Orwellian Citizen Score," by the ACLU China has begun voluntary partnership with an app that ranks users based on their behavior and loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Participation in this system will be mandatory by 2020.

In the United States, like many other countries, your credit score is calculated based on your past payment history – the likelihood that you'll repay any future credit, based on whether you’ve repaid any past credit (a mortgage, credit card bill), if you've paid on time, etc. If you've ever tried to rent an apartment or take out a loan, you know what I'm talking about.

China is working on plans to introduce a “credit system” to its citizens that is much more complex and comprehensive than the credit system we use; your score or ranking is determined by factors like criminal record, social media activity and even who your friends are. It is more of a social credit system than a financial one, yet it still affects things like how easily you can rent a car, take out a loan, or even get a job.

The CCP has announced that by the year 2020, this Chinese social credit system will be mandatory. In a move some are likening to a a prologue to dystopia, every adult citizen will have a government-issued ID and “trustworthiness” score derived from a massive database containing personal information on everyone – education, employment history, friends, behavioral patterns based on social media involvement and online shopping, and more.

As part of a trial run, eight prominent Chinese companies have been given “state approved” projects that introduce the system to the public. Alibaba and Tencent introduced part of the new system this past summer. Alibaba is responsible for the world's biggest online shopping platform, boasting 400 million users, and monitors those purchases with its payment system, Alipay. Tencent is China's internet portal giant, which oversees virtually all of Chinese social media. This type of information gathering is at the core of their part in the new credit system.

It's called “Sesame Credit,” and for now it's optional, albeit hard to avoid. Each person who downloads the app is evaluated and then assigned a rank or credit score between 350 and 950. Those with a high score are entitled to various tiered benefits such as renting a car without a cash deposit, and getting a travel visa to Luxembourg without extra documents. Users of the rating system are actually encouraged to share their score with family and friends, and many have posted their score on social media. The system has already pervaded the culture to the point where a high score is used to attract a mate. China's biggest matchmaking service, “Baihe” (who has partnered with Sesame Credit), encourage their users to post their score in their profile, and give those with the highest scores a distinguished  place on their website.

Part of the rank is based on past purchases – and not simply whether you paid off the item, but on what the item actually is. For example, buying something like diapers is seen as “responsible” and will improve your score, while things like video games are seen as idle and irresponsible, and will bring your score down. The taxi service Didi Kuaidi has also partnered with Sesame Credit to report whether any passengers stiff a driver on the taxi fee, so things like that factor in as well. Other things that could cause a score to diminish are what you talk about or post online politically, like publishing a political opinion without permission, posting unofficial, albeit accurate news, or a history other than the official one.

Perhaps the most startling aspect is that your score also goes up or down based on interaction with friends who have a higher or lower score than you. Meaning, if a friend is given a low score and therefore deemed “less trustworthy,” you would be urged to spend less time with that person for your own score's sake, thus slowly isolating anyone the government disapproves of. Among the official tips users are given to improve their score is to unfriend those who do not use their real name online, as many do to protect their identities when speaking freely and honestly on the internet. The credit rating system creates a creepy hierarchy where blind patriotism is valued above friendship and community. If you fall in line, you are rewarded, but any independent thinkers who disagree with China's official opinion will be slowly shut out of society, crafting a generation of citizens loyal to the government only.

The social credit system is an interesting idea, and there are definitely aspects of it that can have positive effects. It can compel countless people to live more responsible lives. It makes people more accountable for their actions. However, it also singles out anyone who is viewed as untrustworthy, and makes them stand out like a sore thumb. The long-term effects of this system will determine whether it is actually a good idea, or if it is truly just “Big Brother” watching.