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China’s Social Credit System: When Did Fiction Become Reality?
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Imagine you wake up, go to the kitchen, make yourself your usual cup of coffee, get ready, and head to work. On your way there, driving as you usually do, you end up running a red light. “Ops,” you think, “there goes my social credit score!” Or maybe everything goes fine, and you arrive safely at work. After hours of frying your brain there, you decide to head out for a well-deserved smoke break. But you cannot smoke near the building, as a big sign near the door clearly stipulates it. “Why not? It is only once,” the little devil on your right shoulder says in your ear. So, you do exactly that, you go downstairs, stay close to the building, and light a cigarette. “Oh no!” you angrily say, “my social credit!” All of this sounds like it might have been taken straight out of George Orwell’s famous 1984 book, right? Or maybe from the world-renowned Black Mirror series? Well, no. It is just 21st-century China.

China’s Social Credit System, as Canales and Mok show, is the result of many years of work from the Chinese Communist Party, being defined as a “moral ranking system… that will monitor the behavior of its enormous population,” summarizing it in a “social credit” score.[1] Even though planned to be fully operational by 2020, it is now functioning with the help of “information gathers,” people who walk around and document the good deeds of residents, and other unknown methods to gather information.[2] But the plan, however, is for it to be working nationwide with a high-tech system that tracks people in real time.[3] This, undeniably, heavily restricts many aspects of the life of the common citizen, who already suffers drastic consequences if deviating from what the party deems “appropriate.”

With certain parts already in place, mainly in local governments, a citizen can be deemed untrustworthy if they are “caught jaywalking, don’t pay a court bill, play your music too loud on the train,” and many others already exemplified above.[4] Depending on the infraction, one would then find themselves in a “blacklist,” making it extremely difficult for one to get a train or airplane ticket, find a job, get good internet access, buy property, take out a loan, etc.[5] And to be removed from said blacklist, one would either have to pay their bills or appeal to the court, but as Kobie shows, Chinese law has much to be desired.[6] In an interview with Samantha Hoffman, a non-resident fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the former explains:

“In China there is no such thing as the rule of law. Regulations that can be largely apolitical on the surface can be political when the Communist Party of China (CCP) decides to use them for political purposes.”

To escape the hands of the government, then, is no easy feat for the backlisted. And in many cases, your face and ID card number will be broadcasted for all to see.[7]

What is at stake here, however, is a much bigger issue. If China indeed follows up with its plan and implements it soon, what message will it send to the international community? Living in a system of anarchy, where cooperation is sometimes essential for our survival, how will nations view such a system? I by no means believe that Americans will ever need to worry about a so-called “social credit,” especially coming from a nation that aggrandizes themselves on their freedom. What worries me, nonetheless, is how other countries might respond. With an increasing wave of nationalistic and far-right movements across the planet, it should not be a stretch to imagine that such groups, unfortunately, would support a program that – in theory – is designed to separate the “common,” “trustworthy” citizen from the “rest.” In a world where everything is interconnected, such an event might teach us more about ourselves than we think.

Iuri M. Piovezan is a graduate student at Villanova University studying Political Science. He has also received a Bachelor of Arts in Global Studies from Temple University in 2022.

 


[1] Katie Canales, and Aaron Mok. “China’s ‘Social Credit’ System Ranks Citizens and Punishes Them with Throttled Internet Speeds and Flight Bans if the Communist Party Deems Them Untrustworthy.” Insider, November 28, 2022. https://www.businessinsider.com/china-social-credit-system-punishments-and-rewards-explained-2018-4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nicole Kobie. “The Complicated Truth About China’s Social Credit System.” Wired, July 6, 2019. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-social-credit-system-explained

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stacey Vanek Smith. “What It’s Like to Be on the Blacklist in China’s New Social Credit System.” NPR, October 31, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/10/31/662696776/what-its-like-to-be-on-the-blacklist-in-chinas-new-social-credit-system

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