Issues surrounding data protection and personal privacy have become a part of our daily lives. Recently, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russia’s controversial election meddling have brought such topics to the forefront of our attention. In 2017, 71% of Canadians reported being concerned about the safety of their data compared to 66% in the prior year. These recent events raise serious questions regarding the information that corporations, social networking platforms and governments have access to, their motives as well as our right to personal privacy. China’s newly minted social credit system is an incredible step backwards.
Since 2003, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government has slowly been phasing in a social credit system which is set to become operational in 2020. At its most basic level, the system records all social, cultural and professional situations. Citizens will be awarded credits or docked a certain amount depending on their actions, behaviours and how they corroborate with state laws and standards. As a consequence, this system will crack down on various forms of individuality and self-expression to enforce a culture of propriety deeply rooted in Confucian tradition. Already, the Chinese are known to respect hierarchies as seen through filial piety and their unwavering governmental support. It is then unlikely that the social credit system will be a hard pill to swallow. Edelman’s Trust barometer indicates that 84% of the population trusted the Chinese government in 2017.
The system first garnered media attention in 2003. Its original purpose was to ensure economic stability and the competitiveness of their financial institutions. By 2014, the social credit aspect of the system profoundly expanded. With 50% of their population still living without internet, growing challenges to governmental authority and an increase in online fraud, the Chinese government needed to find a way to control and monitor the behaviour of its population. This situation is attributable to the social inconsistencies which have arisen in China due to modernization. A growing rate of internet use, exposure to western culture and its ideals have created new consumer behaviours that undermine traditional Chinese norms and values. In light of this, 47% of the general population rank moral decline as one of their most significant concerns. The social credit system will allow the government to discriminate against behaviours and beliefs that is sees as a detriment to Chinese cultural traditions. In conjunction with these emerging threats and a lack of social cohesion, the government also aims to rectify a profound lack of trustworthiness amongst the general population as well as high levels of corruption amongst governmental bodies and other Professionals. Politicians, doctors, lawyers, teachers and accountants all have a reputation for taking bribes as well as providing inadequate services. The social credit system will allow the general population to rate specific services and businesses for their integrity and professionalism.
To deal with the previous issues and a large population base without internet access, certain Chinese provinces have started collecting retina and fingerprint scans. Additionally, the national government plans on utilizing a combination of big data, artificial intelligence and mass surveillance. These advanced technologies will be used to analyze and monitor social media, smartphone data, credit scores as well as all personal purchases. The Chinese government has placed much pressure on internet firms such as Alibaba, Tencent and their subsidiaries to provide them with customer data. By 2020, 600 million surveillance cameras are expected to cover almost every important street in the country. The government hopes to establish live streams that the general population can access. On that note, there will be a strong incentive to let state officials know of suspicious activities or individuals. The general population will then be motivated to take part in upholding socially accepted norms and behaviours. A person’s social credit score can go down if they are around people that already have a low score.
Furthermore, there will likely be immense social pressure to have family members and friends with relatively high social credit scores. The mass social anxiety that this system may perpetuate will reduce bureaucratic stress on the state by partly shifting the responsibilities of surveillance over to the population. With this system in place, China will gain an essential strategic advantage. Various punishments and rewards related to specific purchases, the use of public services as well as employment prospects will entrench particular codes of conduct and a limited set of behaviours. China will then be able to enact proactive policies to further their own social, economic and political ambitions.
On the flip side, their social credit system poses a security and moral dilemma. In regards to potential security threats, cyber-attacks will become more frequent, mainly since the system plays a vital role in dictating a person’s social mobility, thus increasing willingness to subvert or manipulate the system. Currently, China is the country with the highest malware infection rate with 43%. Additionally, they are the country in which the most Global Denial of Service Attacks (DDoS) originate from with 29.56%. These statistics show how citizens, services, businesses and government bodies are vulnerable to many Chinese hackers. Many of them have years of experience in conducting cyber-attacks as well as setting up illegal VPNs to bypass Chinese internet censorship. The tech-savvy parts of China’s population will inevitably not disappear and may seek to subvert China’s social credit system if government sensors continually crackdown on illegal VPNs and the internet freedom attributed to them. Moreover, the government is pushing corporations to instill state approved VPNs as a means to force population members into state-designated cyberspaces as quickly as possible.
Furthermore, the social credit system presents a moral dilemma since the Chinese state will fundamentally shape the interests and pursuits of each as a means to promote a collective conscious. Arguably, this may not increase trustworthiness amongst the general population. Due to the contagious effect of being around a person with a low credit score and the potential score gain associated with ratting out citizens that break the mould of socially accepted endeavours, the idea of a harmonious society seems somewhat far-fetched as much of the damage done on members of the population will be psychological. Constant fear and suspicion regarding other people’s motives or desires may become part of the daily lives of China’s population.
Vincent Huston is a Research Analyst at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. He is currently undertaking a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at Concordia University. Over the summer, he completed an internship in the field of Communications working closely on the recent Ontario Provincial Election Campaign. His interests include issues revolving around income inequality, the environment and education. He eventually hopes to pursue a masters degree in International Affairs before embarking on a professional career.