The Reality of Black Mirror: China’s Social Credit System

Source: Twitter

By Alex Chiu

If a person needs proof that Charlie Booker’s dystopian television series Black Mirror is a glimpse into the future, look no further than third-season episode “Nosedive”. In “Nosedive”, actress Bryce Dallas Howard plays Lacie, a young woman overly-obsessed with her social credit rating. Desperately seeking the approval of her newlywed friend, Lacie jumps on the opportunity to purchase a luxurious home, but she is plagued by several mishaps along the way that cause her score to plummet.

In China, there is an an eerily similar program via the Alibaba Zhima Credit (or Sesame Credit) system. The program aims to track an individual’s behavior and interactions both online and offline to generate a score between 350 and 950, where those with higher scores are given more benefits than others with lower ones. While attempting to create a less intensive, invisibile authoritarian rule, the Chinese Communist Party hopes that the program will create model citizens and mold people’s behaviors to benefit Chinese society, whether it be conserving resources or exhibiting obedience to the Party.

The active pilot program is currently facilitated through Ant Financial’s popular mobile payment app Alipay. Thanks to the vast data-collecting power of Alipay, the app is able to calculate a credit score based on the individual’s daily activities, though the exact scoring system is ultimately unknown. The company has been collaborating with the Chinese government, already creating a blacklist of over 6 million people who have defaulted on court fines. Reports have noted that the system has already prevented over 11 million people from boarding flights and over 5 million from riding trains due to their low scores.

The government has no plans to stop there. By 2020, the Communist Party hopes to register all 1.4 billion citizens and be fully operational. In doing so, a network of nearly 200 million surveillance cameras powered by advanced geo-tracking, facial recognition, and body scanning technologies will be set up to monitor people around the clock. The surveillance tapes will be paired with an individual’s government records, financial history, and web browsing data. Scores will fluctuate constantly based on the person’s behavior, and even based on whom they interact with.

For those with good scores, they are in luck. They are able to stay in luxurious hotels, are offered favorable loans, and even given priority access on certain dating apps. However, for the millions that are already affected by low scores, they will continue to face struggles in their daily lives. People with low scores are banned from certain modes of transportation, subject to slower internet speeds, and ruled ineligible for the desirable jobs. Even their families can be affected by their individual score; in the future, their children can be banned from attending China’s top schools.

The Zhima system will have large scale impacts on Chinese businesses. It is meant to serve as a market regulation mechanism that also solves the lack of trust in Chinese markets. The system aims to eliminate counterfeits, food safety issues, and corruption in business transactions. We could also see a drastic change in the way Chinese businesses operate as they will feel the pressure to fully cooperate with the government in order to receive lower corporate tax rates, increase investments, and avoid a low Zhima credit score.

There are several dangers to this chilling plan China is pushing to implement. If the plan ever succeeds in its development, we will have our first ever digital dictatorship. The human rights issues with the credit system are concerning. The system is a major violation of human privacy, as people are under constant surveillance and will lack fundamental personal freedoms. There is also the potential to destroy social interactions and relationships. People will be more inclined to keep to themselves in fear of lowering their own credit scores through supporting or socializing with people of lower scores or even saying something in conversation that will affect their scores.

Technology still needs to be developed in order for the social credit system to become fully functional. However, given China’s rapid growth in commerce and technology, there is little stopping the Communist Party from pushing over a billion of its citizens into living lives of constant fear and hesitation.

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