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The Chinese “social credit system”: The real Big Brother of the future?

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An enormous database will collect data on the activities of Chinese citizens, allowing authorities to evaluate their “trustworthiness.” This could come to pass in the rest of the world, thanks to the new giants of the tech industry.

In Western countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, there is the credit score, which shows a person’s estimated creditworthiness (the probability that they will repay a debt) and allows financial institutions to evaluate the risk of a client becoming insolvent.

The project being developed by China isn’t only much bigger—let’s not forget that the Asian colossus currently has approximately 1.4 billion inhabitants—but it is also much more encompassing. Beijing is working on a “social credit” system that is scheduled to become obligatory starting in 2020.

The ambitious project, announced in 2014 by the State Council, will create an enormous database that will contain data on a wide range of activities of individual citizens, allowing authorities to then evaluate their “trustworthiness” and to discriminate between those who are more or less “virtuous.”

The project was given a first push last May 1, Chinese Labor Day. From that day on, whoever receives a low score on the social credit scale will be blacklisted, making it impossible to purchase airplane or train tickets for a period of up to one year, according to French newspaper Le Figaro, which mentions two press releases published last March by the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission.

Once in place, the social credit scoring system won’t be limited to individual citizens, but will also evaluate all legal persons, including companies and organizations. According to Wired.it, the goal is to reinforce “sincerity in government, commercial, and social affairs, and to built judicial credibility.”

The Sesame Credit model

The social scoring mechanism already exists in China on a commercial level. In 2015, Beijing authorized eight private companies to develop systems of social evaluation. Among these, one that stands out is Ant Financial Services (AFSG, a company affiliated with the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba), which that same year launched its Sesame Credit rating system.

The social credit system created by the Alibaba group takes into consideration various factors, including the punctuality with which bills are paid and other online activities. “For example, someone who plays videogames for ten hours a day, wouldn’t be judged favorably,” says Li Yingyun, technology director for Sesame, quoted by Wired Italy.

Receiving a higher score can be very advantageous for the approximately 400 million users of the Alibaba platform.

In an attempt to shorten the long waiting lists, a university hospital in Shanghai offers Alibaba users with a score greater than 650 a bonus of 1,000 yuan (about $150 USD), which allows them to see a doctor without standing in line to pay, reports Wired UK.

In order to register to play the highly popular multiplayer first-person shooter video game “Counter Strike: Global Offensive,” potential Chinese users must provide, in addition to their identity card, their Sesame Credit score. The website Zhenai.com—which, with approximately 140 million users, is the most important Chinese online dating site—offers its users with a high Sesame score higher visibility on its web page.

Who loses

In 2015, the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China began to coordinate with Sesame Credit, which deducts points from users who don’t pay their fines or legal bills. “We should reward those who keep their word and punish those who break their promises,” said Ant Financial representative Chen Wenjin to China Daily.

Ending up on the blacklist and receiving a poor Sesame rating is a serious blow for many Chinese who are behind on their payments. China Daily cites the example of a man who called the People’s Court in Songyang County (in the Zhejiang Province of China) with the desperate request to be removed from that blacklist as soon as possible, because he had finally paid the medical bill he had owed.

It was last August when the People’s Court of the Shunquing (Sichuan) district exposed the indebted citizens. If people try to phone the people on the blacklist, before they can speak with the person in question they must listen to a recorded message explaining that the person they are calling has been put on the blacklist by the Court because they haven’t paid their debts.

“The debtors’ relatives and friends are reminded of their lack of credibility, which puts debtors under increased pressure,” said Xi Tao from Shunqing District Court to China Daily. The news site reports that courts in the provinces of Hubei, Henan, and Jiangsu have taken similar measures.

According to the calculations of the Business Insider website, “The social credit system in China has blocked people from taking more than 11 million flights and 4 million train trips.” People who end up on the blacklist published on the website of the Supreme People’s Court “can’t stay at four and five star hotels, send their children to expensive schools, book cheap hire cars, or make luxury purchases online,” Business Insider reports.

A model for the rest of the world?

According to Flora Sapio, member of the board of the Foundation for Law and International Affairs (FLIA) in Washington, DC (quoted on the Italian website Pagina99), “If correctly applied, the system will contribute to a better functioning of markets, by placing a check on unlawful conducts by citizens and enterprises.” The president and founder of FLIA, Zhu Shaoming, is also confident. “Once the new model of social credit is well accepted, it might in turn affect business models throughout the rest of the world,” the same article quotes her as saying.

According to Rogier Creemers, Belgian researcher and sinologist at Leida University in Holland, who spoke to Wired magazine, the main objective of the system isn’t to repress dissent; the Chinese government already has many other instruments to achieve that. Rather, social credit is designed for “better managing social order while leaving the Party firmly in charge.”

At the same time, “there’s legitimate concern the system will end up creating an ‘IT-backed authoritarianism’ unlike any other,” says Charles Rollet in the same Wired article. Rollet cites the example of an independent journalist who was barred from buying an airplane ticket.

According to the author, the social credit system is being abused by the government to crack down on what the Chinese government considers “illegal social organizations.” Rollet reports that the Ministry of Civil Affairs has announced its intention to place people involved in such organizations on the blacklist.

As pointed out by Attanasio Ghezzi and Gennari Santori in their article on Pagina99, in the end the social credit system isn’t a real novelty “for a totalitarian State obsessed with lists.” They mention as an example the dang’an, the dossier with which the Communist Party has always kept track of the behavior of its citizens. Nor should we forget that the Chinese police force uses glasses equipped with facial recognition technology.

All of this is happening now in China, but the West isn’t immune to this kind of development, warns sinologist Katika Kühnreich, quoted by French paper Le Figaro. All we need to think of is the way Amazon.com monitors its users’ activity, or the information collection by America’s National Security Agency (NSA).

Google is no less aggressive According to the Pagina99 article, the Mountain View colossus has signed agreements with external companies so as to monitor offline purchases made with nearly 70 percent of the credit cards in use on American soil.

The ultimate goal of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley—Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook—is omniscience, the article warns. “To achieve it, they must be omnipresent in our lives, and monopolize the processes that take place on the web,” the article continues. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes.

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