Chinese credit: fear or future?
China is creating a new social credit system to rate citizens’ trust. “By 2020, everyone in China will be enrolled in a vast national database that compiles fiscal and government information, including minor traffic violations, and distills it into a single number ranking each citizen.” Alibaba is a big user of similar aggregate technology at the moment, as is China’s biggest dating site, Baihe, promoting users who flaunt good credit scores on their profiles. Sesame Credit is the big company behind many of these scores, but it refused to grant a BBC interview for fear that the Chinese government would “refuse to grant a permanent licence to issue credit scores if it engaged with foreign media.” They claim to not track materials published on social media in creating this credit score, but do track financial and consumption details like Alibaba transactions, taxi payments, and judging shoppers based on purchase history: “Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”
China says the system will “forge a public opinion environment that trust-keeping is glorious”, and “reward those who report acts of breach of trust”. A mobile phone game designed by Sesame Credit encourages users to guess how their credit scores compare to their friends, encouraging everyone to openly share their ratings. Certain professions will be under particular scrutiny, including teachers, accountants, journalists, medical doctors, and even veterinarians and tour guides. “A national database will merge a wide variety of information on every citizen, assessing whether taxes and traffic tickets have been paid, whether academic degrees have been rightly earned and even, it seems, whether females have been instructed to take birth control.” Sesame Credit’s English Wikipedia page (accessed Sept. 17, 2017) elaborates further (emphasis mine; unverified allegations omitted):
“It uses data from Alibaba’s services to compile its score, which include two services that have been described as the equivalents of Twitter and Facebook in China and another service that has been described as the equivalent of Amazon and eBay. The score is used to rank citizens of China based on a variety of factors like […] social media interactions and online purchases. The rewards of having a high score include easier access to loans […]. Likewise, the immediate negative consequences for a low score, or being associated to someone with a low score […] [include] denied access to [public office] job offers, loans [or even prohibitions on travel or preferred school access for children].”
“On this basis, citizens were classified into four levels: those given an ‘A’ grade qualified for government support when starting a business and preferential treatment when applying to join the party, government or army; or applying for a promotion. People with ‘D’ grades were excluded from official support or employment.”
… making immediate comparisons to Mao’s infamous Five Black Categories of enemies of the revolution, to the Japanese occupying forces’ “Good Citizen Certificates” issued to conquered peoples during World War II, and of course, to Black Mirror’s now classic Nosedive episode:
Though being rated is currently voluntary, it seems social pressure exists on many key services to go ahead and use it (eg: Alibaba, Baihe). My big worry is the future: where will this stop? Will political party affiliation get tied in? Personality traits? Cultural characteristics? Health status? If not, how easy will it be for third parties to go ahead and do it anyway? And what will happen when statistical analyses come into play? AI? Robots? Robots with AI? Is this the beginning of Gattaca? And, above all, who is guarding the guardians?
Fears aside, the Chinese have a reason to want this. The few I have talked to don’t even bat an eye, saying this system is sorely needed to keep people honest in a society so huge we in the West generally can’t quite comprehend. Currently, similar (though much less comprehensive) systems are already in place but they are city-centred, meaning crooks can move and continue being cons in a new city quite easily. Plus, Chinese tend not to take out loans for houses, cars, or credit cards, so the traditional means of creating a credit rating are unavailable for most. There is also the whole cultural aspect of China operating with a history and value system drastically different than ours in the West that further explains their complacency and even desire for such a system… but I’ll leave this aside for now, apart from saying the country has very real reasons to fear losing sovereignty and it combats this fear through practical control via collectivism over individualism. Only now do I understand the great film Hero, well worth the watch for understanding its selfless, unifying Chinese origin story as it is for its silent, powerful beauty:
All that said, it’s unfair to focus solely on the negatives; it’s not so one-sided. One Chinese value that seems to have stood the test of time is practicality, which can be seen in their ages-old lean towards meritocracy — since before we even had democracy. To be fair, I can say that such a system would indeed be very practical, and even useful. I really love things like CouchSurfing and Airbnb (and even Steemit, to an extent) for their reputation formation, and don’t see it as entirely a bad thing to have a number following me around — but only should I choose to share it. In fact, before these services existed I distinctly remember wishing something like a reputation system existed while I was looking for housing during university… as it was, I had to start building up a reputation again from scratch with every move, something that isn’t very easy to start for a bigger guy asking to stay in your spare room.
I suppose the worry, though, is what will happen to those who don’t use this system when others start. Were I a merchant and two potential clients were interested in my wares, one with and the other without such a score, I honestly would probably go with the rated fellow, all else being equal. Now what if you were suddenly pressured to get such a score to keep up with the Joneses? Or, more realistically, to get a job or rent a house? I mean, how many of us went to university because we “needed” a degree to get a job”? And even when I started my studies a decade ago, I immediately heard rumblings of how limited a BSc actually was and how it was at least a master’s you needed to ensure a fulfilling career. Returning to the WWII Good Citizen Certificates, there is one quote that keeps coming back to me from the video below (0:00–1:55):
“Each one’s face says, ‘If only I can get it, I feel relieved.”
But this is just the first layer of what can go wrong. We often forget that social networks aren’t just about us anymore, but also about the information others fill in for us. Many pertinent examples come to mind: our presence in contact lists (you may be Snoopy the Wonder Dog in your Gmail but your boss likely has you under your real name in his), friends uploading and tagging photos of us on Facebook, team cohesion analysis… Or even here, in this credit rating system, where our refusal to take part is merely a tiny black speck dwarfed by the meteor shower of information close ones might be encouraged to happily provide for the same two reasons that justify just about every human atrocity ever committed: individual comfort and security.
What if you hold out and live a hermit’s life, only to discover friends started unknowingly feeding the big credit corporations your information in your place? What if your business listing you didn’t make (or authorize!) suddenly gets modified by a competitor to say you are closed on what are, in fact, your busiest days? What if Google Maps says your neighbour’s borders are actually in your territory and then Nicaragua invades Costa Rica? What if this collected information leaks and suddenly 143 million identities are compromised? What if this process goes hand-in-hand with banning anonymity online? What if, what if, what if…
In my circles there is already something of a motto forming:
We are living in an information economy, where attention is currency and reputation is value.
This social credit rating is inevitable, especially with the advent of traits like identity and biometrics entering the blockchain. I mean, we already have our own credit scores, right? And official status cards permitting certain benefits: driver’s licenses, health insurance cards, SCUBA diving certificates, university diplomas, professional degrees… this social credit is, in a very real way, just the aggregation and reorganization of all these associations to make life even simpler and, really, better for all.
It’s just a question of fair and just and secure and private and good implementation that I worry about… otherwise we’re looking at a united world at the expense of a divided self.