China’s Social Credit System And The Making Of Totalitarian Police State Under Xi Jinping

China’s Social Credit System And The Making Of Totalitarian Police State Under Xi Jinping

by Madhur Sharma - Sunday, May 13, 2018 11:15 AM IST
China’s Social Credit System And The Making Of Totalitarian Police State Under Xi JinpingChinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the 86th INTERPOL General Assembly at Beijing National Convention Centre, China.  (Lintao Zhang - Pool/Getty Images)
  • The pan-China Social Credit System is in line with President Xi Jinping’s plans. Now in his third term, Xi is on his way to create a totalitarian police state.

On 14 June 2014, State Council of China, under the premiership of Li Keqiang, published a document titled ‘Planning Outline for the Construction of Social Credit System’ with a stated aim to “provide the trustworthy with benefits and discipline the untrustworthy”. The document seeks to develop a pan-China Social Credit System (SCS) by 2020 that will assign every citizen a score based on their social behaviour. Pilots of the project have already been floated on a limited scale. Through this system, the Chinese state ostensibly seeks to develop a nationwide moral sincerity and trustworthiness amongst citizens, and also expand financial inclusion.

A critical study, however, reveals that this is just another tool of mass surveillance by the communist state and a giant leap towards creating a modern, technocratic police state, backed by an opaque technocratic regime. It should also be noted that this system is being enforced in Xi Jinping’s regime, which has seen an unprecedented consolidation of power and control over both the party and the government.

The system is quite similar to the premise of an episode of Netflix science-fiction series Black Mirror. In the first episode of the third season, Nosedive, people rate each other on a scale of one to five based on their deeds. The Chinese system thus gives a strong deja-vu.

The Chinese system ostensibly aims to nationally develop a culture of trust and sincerity. It also aims to increase financial inclusion to sections that have hitherto remained unserved and beyond the scope of financial services, such as migrant workers, college students, rural citizens, etc. The scale of financial exclusion is that only less than a third of China’s 800 million potential bank customers are registered with the Credit Registry Centre. The system thus, as per the state’s narrative, seeks to widen the consumption of credit, whose demand has been on a rise in recent years. This rise in demand for credit and the parallel rise of e-commerce and digital mediums have brought new systems to assess a person’s credit worthiness. It is these social conditions and new-age systems that the Chinese state is capitalising on to create its police state.

While the project is not going to be mandatory until 2020, more than 30 local governments have already run pilots of the system. Eight large private firms have already floated their systems and these pilot systems clarify intentions of the Chinese state. Most prominent of these systems are Sesame Credit, a subsidiary of Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial Services Group, which collects data through AliPay – Chinese version of PayPal, and China Rapid Finance, partner of Tencent, which runs WeChat, a popular messaging application. AliPay and WeChat both have access to a huge chest of data that they analyse to rate its users. The score is publicly visible on their social media profiles.

While their algorithms are not public, it is known that Sesame Credit rates its users on more than just their financial history. It also assesses its users on their credit fulfillment capacity, personal traits, and social behaviour and preferences. It is thus clear that implications of such ratings go well beyond the ambit of users’ personal finances.

Here it should be noted that neither credit scores are new, nor the collection and usage of our data. FICO score has been there for several decades and tech giants like Google already have a lot of data on us, through which they know us better than our closest friends. There have also been firms for a while now that assess a person’s credit worthiness by unconventional means, such as by assessing their lifestyle, which includes their public records and social media behaviour. Sun Valley-based Affirm does exactly this. There are other firms too, such as Zest Finance, InVenture and Branch, all of which function somewhat similarly and track a person’s everyday life to assess credit worthiness. A question may arise here that if all such things are already happening, then why is there such fuss about the Chinese doing something similar?

The fuss is about how the Chinese state is going to implement it. Even though the system might increase financial inclusion, one should keep in mind the primary aims of the project – to develop a trustworthy citizenry. According to the officials, the system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”. This further clarifies the state’s intentions. While those with higher scores will have a range of benefits such as quick loans, VIP check-ins at airports, foreign travel without documents, etc, low scores will get you barred from holding public office, booking train or plane tickets, or sending your children to better schools. You will also be subjected to stricter checks at airports and hotels.

Even as the system is not yet fully into effect, the Chinese apex court, in September 2017, announced that over 6 million Chinese citizens have been barred from taking flights over the course of last four years for social misdeeds. Such repercussions are just a mere trailer of the horror film that the full implementation of the system may produce, and the trailer makes it clear that the system is a state’s tool to exclude those who do not cast themselves into the mould that the state would create for them, for it shall be the state that shall decide what shall make one trustworthy and what shall be a socially acceptable behaviour.

As for the culture of trust and sincerity, one may fall back on Black Mirror. In the episode, rather than becoming sincere as per the Chinese state’s belief, people became insincere and disingenuous. The system is going to turn society into a ‘number game’, in which people merely act in a certain manner to get a high score.

Such a system will allow the Chinese state to both create a citizenry that lives by its norms and also a mechanism to monitor every aspect of their lives. Such a system will also create a personalised surveillance and intelligence collection of over a billion people and turn private firms into government’s spy agencies.

All of this is in line with Pesident Xi Jinping’s plans. Now in his third term, Xi is on his way to create a totalitarian police state. Over the course of his two terms, he has already amassed power on an unprecedented scale, and now with SCS, he is set to bring the billion-plus citizenly too under his iron fist. Much like Xi, who has a host of yes-men around him, yes-men throughout history and the globe have applauded while the leader removed the limit of presidential terms with overwhelming majority and practically made himself/herself the president for life.

With a host of yes-men and policies set to govern the lives of a billion-plus people, the making of a police state under Xi is now fast underway, and if history tells us anything, it is that such developments are not healthy, not for the billion-plus people, and certainly not for their neighbours.

Madhur Sharma is a post-graduate student of journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, and a history graduate from Delhi University. He tweets at @madhur_mrt.

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