China is sawing away the rungs of social mobility: where do we go from here?

New Year

Since the announcement by Beijing that it will seek to roll out a points-based rating system predicated on ‘personal trustworthiness’, international headlines have either pointed out the eerie similarity of China’s proposed social credit scores to dystopian episodes of ‘Black Mirror’ or derided this response as hysterical misinterpretations. However, The Week reported this week that 11.1 million people have been blocked from flights and 4.25 million have been unable to buy tickets to travel on high-speed trains, indicating that the system has already begun to police millions of people. Travel preventions are perhaps the most alarming punishment to come out of the furore, as it implies that falling from grace will result in being unable to leave the country; an effective prison system.

Unlike Black Mirror’s ‘Nosedive’ episode, ratings are not being carried out by society, but by state representatives or corporations, seeking to monitor personal behaviour and financial credit. And it is not just individual citizens that will be at the mercy of such ratings, but companies themselves will be subjected to scrutiny. Punishments have yet to be officially detailed, but all suggestions point to decreased social mobility, such as restricted access to transport, schools or jobs, or being ineligible for favourable terms on loans and house rentals. The concerns over this are easy to spot; the state should not have the power to judge and punish people for behaviour that may or may not be social or ‘trustworthy’, but is not breaking any laws. The criteria of what counts as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour is based on government-approved norms of social morality, which interferes with the basic right of self-expression and bodily autonomy. Finally, and somewhat ironically, the mass-surveillance system works hand in hand with e-commerce, rewarding users for purchasing from Amazon’s most credible rival, Alibaba. An easy way to get points in communist China is to contribute to the nations capitalist market economy – consuming and purchasing goods from pre-approved suppliers.

Yet a little talked about consequence of the social credit system is the impact it could have on foreign businesses – or even in the sovereignty of other countries. Any company that wants to continue doing business with China will need to deal with the potential negative consequences of the integration of their business licences with the social credit system, that will report any transgressions. A prominent example is the Japanese retail company Muji, which was recently fined for listing Taiwan as a country on its packaging – which violated Chinese advertising law that prohibits any advertising considered harmful to the nation’s dignity. This violation was recorded on the social credit system which affects Muji’s ranking and opens it up to more fines if it is found to be committing other ‘transgressions’. Pressure has also been put on airlines who allude to disputed territories such as Taiwan and Tibet as countries, indicating that China is now monitoring the social and political behaviour of foreign companies which could have wide-reaching consequences on foreign democracies, although it is not yet clear how far beyond the border the social credit system will be able to reach.

Although I am sceptical that the social credit system is an attempt by China to force the rest of the world to bend to its will, I do find it alarming that the state is becoming so involved in the lives of its citizens to the point where it can judge someone’s videogame or smoking habit as ‘antisocial’. The state has no right to start listing what kind of non-criminal behaviour is acceptable. Not to mention that marginalised people– particularly political dissenters, LGBTQ+ groups or those who have special needs – are perhaps the most vulnerable to being policed for behaviour the Chinese government wants to control. And forcing companies to bend to the political will of the country is disrespectful to the movements in those disputed territories that insist on their right to self-governance.

“An easy way to get points in communist China is to contribute to the nations capitalist market economy – consuming and purchasing goods from pre-approved suppliers.”

The consequences of China’s social credit system remain to be seen, particularly as it is still in the early stages. But 11.1 and 4.25 million are not small numbers, and we need to urgently increase our understanding and awareness about the potential uses of personal data. After all, it’s not just China that is beginning to capitalise on social surveillance – Facebook and Apple have been doing it for years. Digital information is quickly becoming the biggest form of capital in existence, so we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the why, where and how of personal data collection.

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