Black Mirror-fan, Jack, draws disturbing parallels between the show and China’s new social credit system. How concerned should we be about this new interventionist scheme being implemented by the Chinese government?

China’s Social Credit System- Is science fiction becoming science fact?

picture from The Independent.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is a television show after my own heart. The combination of dystopia and science fiction harkens back to similar works such as The Twilight Zone, and the keen analysis of the darker side of potential technology helps showcase our dependency on our smart devices. Indeed, it has been previously described as being about “the way we might be living in 10 minutes if we’re clumsy.” Now it appears those 10 minutes may nearly be up. The season 3 episode entitled Nosedive imagines a society in which every social interaction a person has can be rated out of five stars by the other people involved. This affects the person’s individual rating, which has significant influence on their socioeconomic status and place within the society. Examples of this include the fact that certain houses, transport and medical treatment are reserved exclusively for people of a high enough rating.

While this episode was undoubtedly only meant to critique the importance we place on what others think of us online, it has been frequently compared to a new mandatory scheme that is slowly being put into place by the Chinese government. The Social Credit system, which began to be put in place in 2014 and is supposed to be fully implemented by 2020, is designed to use mass surveillance to assign a rating to every citizen in order to control their behaviour. It is supposedly based upon the principle that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful” and is currently being orchestrated largely through private tech companies which hold people’s personal data. The score itself is said to be influenced by the actions that you take, including financial decisions, views expressed on social media (especially those related to politics) and traffic violations. For example, paying back loans on time would increase your rating whereas bad driving would lower it.

This may seem inconsequential, but the real danger comes from the penalties that are imposed on those with a low score. For example, their travel options can be restricted, including some 9 million people who have already been barred from domestic flights and 3 million who have been prevented from buying business class train tickets. Other restrictions will supposedly include slower internet speeds, more limited opportunities in higher education and careers and the inability to apply for credit cards/loans. There is clearly strong evidence here for the comparison to Nosedive, but the key difference is that in China it is the government that determines what is considered right and wrong rather than other people, which gives it huge powers to control the lives of individuals. This system could easily be as far reaching in its scale and effects as it is chillingly Orwellian in nature.
The move to the Social Credit system follows a political trend for China of tightening control over their own domestic affairs. Another example is that by 2016 spending on internal security had eclipsed spending on external defence by 13% and in February of this year China’s Xinjiang province revealed that its spending on domestic security had increased by an astounding 92.8% since 2016. This is in conjunction with the recent amendment to the Chinese constitution in March of this year, which served to remove term limits for the president Xi Jinping. This unprecedented entrenchment of power undoubtedly places him as China’s most powerful leader since Mao, and alongside the Social Credit system, it paints an unnerving picture for the future of the world’s second largest economy. To put it another way, the situation of an authoritarian leader who has entrenched himself in power seemingly indefinitely, and who will be in full control of the most far reaching and potentially oppressive mass surveillance programme in world history, seems to pose clear threats to the human rights of the 1.3 billion people of China.

As stated before, it is not an entirely accurate comparison between the situation in China and that of Nosedive, with the key difference being that in this instance all the power is in the hands of the Chinese government, making the implications ever more frightening. Yet, the important word here is implications. Even though there have been usages of this system to punish people so far, it is still not as pervasive and developed as the scenario displayed in Black Mirror, due mainly to the fact that the Social Credit system is not fully completed. Therefore, it does not seem at this stage that the comparisons to dystopian science fiction can be fully justified. However, in the wake of the scandal regarding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it is important for us all to recognise that it is easier than ever for corporate and state organisations to gather and process data about each and every one of us. Whilst we shouldn’t write off technology, the message from both the Social Credit system and Nosedive seems to be that we should take a careful and cautious about the personal information we choose to hand over, lest it bring with it negative consequences for us all.

By Jack Walker