By Julie Makinen
Los Angeles Times.
Internet users in America voiced outrage this fall over the imminent launch of a Yelp-style app intended to let anyone post public reviews of their friends, acquaintances and yes, enemies, with no opt-out option.
The outbursts prompted the creators of the app, Peeple, to reconsider. But in China, government authorities are hard at work devising their own e-database to rate each and every one of the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens by 2020 using metrics including whether they pay their bills on time, plagiarize schoolwork, break traffic laws or adhere to birth control regulations. And there’s no opt-out option.
Proponents of the so-called Social Credit System say it will help China overcome a multitude of societal ills for which it has gained international ignominy, from food and drug safety scandals to flagrant corruption, counterfeiting, tax evasion, academic cheating and even public defecation.
The goals for the project are nothing if not lofty: “carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues,” “encouraging trust,” “raising the overall competitiveness of the country,” and last but not least, “stimulating … the progress of civilization,” according to a lengthy brief published by China’s State Council, or Cabinet.
But some fear that marrying FICO-style credit scores with school, employment, criminal and other records will create the ultimate Orwellian instrument of social control in a one-party state that in recent years has shown less and less tolerance for critical voices.
“The Chinese government already has a back door into everything on your phone and on the Internet, so this isn’t exactly a new way to control people’s lives,” said Hu Jia, a well-known political activist who has been imprisoned and held under house arrest for his activism around issues including the Tiananmen Square massacre, AIDS and environmental protection.
“What’s new is that Chinese authorities can systematically analyze all this data … and China doesn’t have an Edward Snowden to focus the public’s attention on these privacy issues,” Hu said.
Increased use of big data by central authorities, drawing on information from banks, mobile phone companies and e-commerce firms such as Alibaba, could in theory improve governance by serving as a check on corrupt officials who have long been able to do as they please.
Between individuals, sharing scores may help give strangers confidence to do business, or even go on a date. And in some ways, Chinese authorities’ desire to incentivize moral or healthy behaviors through data mining may be no different, some observers note, than American insurance companies giving discounts to customers who upload digital proof from their Fitbits that they exercise regularly.
“A lot of data capture is there to overcome horrible problems of bad government, ranging from pollution and food security to corruption in education and badly delivered healthcare,” said Rogier Creemers, a scholar of China and technology at the University of Oxford.
While acknowledging that there could be rampant opportunities for the state to abuse such data, he added, “the idea that the Communist Party wants to legitimize its rule by pleasing the people is (also) basic politics.”
Hu, however, says the increasing ability of authorities to tap technology to know more and more details about citizens is increasingly giving life in China a “Truman Show”-like quality.
“My friends and I joke that we are no longer in a police state,” Hu said, “but a police empire.”
Although many details remain unclear, the Social Credit System will essentially be a 21st-century update of China’s long-standing secret personnel file system.
For decades, the government kept these files, called dang’an, on hundreds of millions of urban residents, logging their performance at school and work, but also at times recording information that might raise questions about their political leanings, such as whether they had “foreign friends” or read certain books. Cadres could consult these files when hiring new workers and granting benefits, but no one was supposed to see his or her own file, which was typically housed in one’s state-assigned work unit.
With the rise of private enterprises and increasing mobility, the file system’s central role in the Communist Party’s web of social control has broken down over the last quarter-century. Many people who have migrated to cities like Beijing say their files remained in their hometowns; some from rural areas say they never had one to begin with.
For urban residents registering for social security benefits, or seeking to have a baby under China’s strict family-planning regulations, the dang’an remains a fact of life. Perhaps that’s why the idea of the state keeping secret files on them, on paper or in a computerized system, doesn’t provoke overwhelming concern.
Wang Xiao, 19, recently was at a file management office in Beijing’s Dongcheng district; he needed to pay into his Social Security-style insurance fund and have the payment registered into his dang’an.
“I’m not curious to open my file,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything bad in it. … I got the highest grade in my class so I’m not worried.”
Chen Chao, a 34-year-old vendor also waiting in line, agreed. “If you didn’t commit a crime, why do you need to look at your file?” he asked, adding that he’s looking forward to an e-system. “An electric file will be more convenient for me. I believe the workers here have professional ethics, so they won’t leak my information.”
Still, he said, he’s cautious about his financial data and doesn’t use a credit card, or online payment systems like Alibaba’s Alipay. “My only electronic card is my social security card,” he said.
While Chen may avoid many modern conveniences, hundreds of millions of other Chinese have happily adapted. That’s allowed companies like Alibaba to harness copious amounts of personal data to develop credit scores, which Chinese authorities envision incorporating into a Social Credit Score.
Using data on its customers’ payment history, net worth, network of friends and associates, educational and professional history and consumption habits, Alibaba now assigns customers credit scores ranging from 350 to 950, with a rating over 700 considered excellent.
Alibaba encourages customers to share those scores, users can even add them to their online dating profiles to boost their appeal to potential mates. And the company has started to offer customers with scores above 750 perks such as rental car or hotel room bookings without a cash deposit. The company’s cooperation with government is clear from offers such as a recent promotion that allowed top scorers access to an express security screening lane at Beijing’s main airport.
“I just opened the app, showed my score, they took down my name and phone number and I breezed through in five minutes,” said Yolanda Liu, 30, who works for a state-owned sports organization. “China needs a credit system so that people like me who are responsible can get more benefits.”
China, largely atheist and lacking a strong civil society sector, has struggled for years to find a way to incentivize and reward moral and responsible behavior. It has launched appeals for citizens to uphold “traditional Chinese values” and plastered cities with propaganda posters promoting “socialist core values” (among which it includes “civility,” “friendship” and “integrity”). It has called on people to boost their personal moral “quality” or suzhi.
But the country continues to be shocked by incidents of callous, dishonest and immoral behavior, such as pedestrians refusing to help seniors who have fallen down (because they fear being sued by elderly extortionists), and motorists who accidentally strike pedestrians intentionally hitting them again to ensure they’re dead (otherwise, the motorist would have to pay lifelong compensation for injuries).
The Social Credit System, the State Council says, offers hope of addressing this. “Only if there is mutual sincere treatment between members of society, and only if sincerity is fundamental, will it be possible to create harmonious and amicable interpersonal relationships. … and realize social harmony, stability and a long period of peace and order.”
Haifeng Huang, an assistant professor of political science at UC Merced who has studied China’s emphasis on suzhi, said some kind of consumer or business credit rating system is needed in China, and “to the extent that the system can help discipline individuals or businesses’ commercial activities, it might have some downstream benefits of affecting people’s social behavior as well.”
But if the system overreaches into private life or social interactions, he said, it is unlikely to foster trust or a culture of sincerity. “In fact it might be counterproductive,” he said. “When you see an elderly person fallen on the ground, are you supposed to ask her social credit score before deciding whether or not to help her?”
In addition, he said, “being constantly surveilled and monitored (or just having a perception that this is going on) will likely increase people’s sense of atomization and breeds distrust too.”
Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of J Capital Research in Beijing, said Chinese financial and Internet companies are all but certain to cooperate with government efforts to tap into their databases on consumers, because they need government licenses to operate. How Chinese authorities ultimately will use all that information, though, remains to be seen.
It’s conceivable, she said, that the state may soon use credit scores and histories to determine whether an applicant for a government job or university position is sufficiently modest in their tastes, driving a Chinese-made Geely, for example, and not a Jaguar, living in a 1,000-square foot apartment and not a luxury villa.
“Do they own too much, trade too much, do they own things that are considered too luxurious?” she said. “These are all standards that have been appropriately directed at cadres (in the past) and we can expect the government will want to do that in the future.”
Ultimately, said Stevenson-Yang, whether China can carry off a comprehensive government-run Social Credit System may help answer one of the fundamental questions about the country’s political and economic future: Can China have a modern, dynamic, capitalist economy while simultaneously maintaining tight political control under a single-party system? And can cloud computing, data mining and other such tools help make that hybrid system a reality “or is it something fundamentally in contradiction to a open economy?”
The jury, she believes, is still out. “But certainly the hope of the Communist Party is that the systems of control with which they are most comfortable can be brought into modern economy, with only a few compromises for economic scale and growth.”
(Tommy Yang, Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang in the Los Angeles Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.)