As a digital iron curtain descends with the balkanization of internet regimes globally, the ability of connectivity and digital literacy to grant or restrict freedoms has never been more apparent.
In China, this is visible in the introduction of the Social Credit System (SCS), expected to be fully operational by 2020, which is Beijing’s latest attempt to socially engineer the behaviour of its citizens through an ambitious national system, scoring China’s 1.4 billion citizens on a graded system in an effort to target the “untrustworthy and disobedient”.
Viewed in line with China’s ‘retraining schools’ which seek to eliminate extremist thoughts among predominantly Uyghurs in prison like camp systems, this pre-emptive social plan works to indoctrinate individual social behaviour every day. Although the approach is currently piecemeal, the city of Suzhou has already begun to practise a point system between 0 and 200 for all of its citizens.
According to the Communist Party’s statement introducing the SCS, the system is a reflection of Chinese ideals that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful”. The ‘credit scores’ would not only list whether a person is untrustworthy or obedient but would also grant benefits such as VIP treatment at hotels and airports to high scorers. Likewise, a low score can form the basis of punishment. Places like Shenzen are already online shaming for small crimes such as jaywalking.
Although the Party’s official claim is that the system will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”, key issues arise regarding the grounds for ‘poor scores’ and the wider impacts of ‘untrustworthiness’. Not only is spending deemed ‘frivolous’ punished with reduced scores, but refusal to join the military would bare access to education for yourself and even your children. As stated by the Human Rights Watch, this would enforce a fundamental abuse of the human right to education. Likewise, the right to free movement may also be restricted through travel bans imposed on low scoring citizens.
Although there are claims that Chinese values prioritize community benefit over individual rights and that a social credit system would provide a safer, more stable society, there remain valid concerns for privacy and freedom with the roll out of what A.B.C. terms “the world’s first digital dictatorship”. In combination with an expansive surveillance system and facial recognition, a social credit system would enable the Chinese government to use the system against its citizens. As the Human Rights Watch stated: “Chinese government authorities clearly hope to create a reality in which bureaucratic pettiness could significantly limit people’s rights…as President Xi Jinping’s power grows, and as the system approaches full implementation, more abuses will come”.
The key issue is the limitation of legitimate and accessible avenues to challenge China’s authoritarian system by its citizens. It is true that in all political systems there is some negotiation between the public and political elites, resulting in a compromise between freedom and security. However, with the intensification of social assimilation under Xi Jinping’s regime, the concern now lies in the grey area between benefiting society and controlling it, and whether there is any negotiation left at all.