The Game of Life: China’s Social Credit System

In the popular television series The Good Place, Eleanor Shellstrop goes to heaven, aka the Good Place. She enters her utopic house, and finds a machine which has recorded every single action in her entire life, and assigned it positive or negative points. The total point value, she is told, has determined whether or not she ended up in heaven.

It was 2014 when the People’s Republic of China first announced that they would be implementing a novel type of class system: the social credit system. As expected, it functions fairly similarly to an ordinary credit score. Being responsible gains you a higher score; misbehaviour or being irresponsible reduces points (which is quite similar to its Good Place equivalent). Everyone starts off with one thousand points, and you can go down from there. If you go too low, you are denied certain privileges, such as free movement. But rather than being for the purpose of checking financial accountability, the social credit system encompasses all aspects of an individual’s life, from community engagement to compliance with law.

Basically, you can think of it as The Game of Life, but in real life China. Instead of life points on a colourful board game, though, they determine your access to freedoms and rights of citizenship through sharing of information throughout government agencies. They even lead in some part to social segregation.

In the words of the Chinese government, it aims to “strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and judicial credibility construction”, a seemingly agreeable goal. That said, its means of accomplishing this aren’t regarded as particularly effective or moral. Some of the punishments have just become a mechanism through which the government is able to unfairly punish specific individuals whom they don’t like, under the guise of social credit. The lack of transparency in this process makes this exponentially easier.

What characterizes the lack of transparency? For one, it’s still very unclear as to what exactly they factor into social credit. The publicly published planning outline made by the Chinese government talks a considerable amount about “openness” and “commitment” of the government, but they don’t seem to have provided their own citizens with a great deal of specific information about the process by which their lives are graded.

A major criticism of the social credit system is that it allows for mass data collection by the Chinese government. Indeed, social credit is reminiscent of a 1984-like scenario, where large government buildings sort through people’s private lives behind closed doors. Shouldn’t a factor like good shopping habits, while desirable, be the business of an individual? It creates an opportunity for exploitation because one singular government department has access to mass data that concerns every single thing a person does. It’s unclear what the long-term effects of that might be, but at the very least, it’s really creepy. The concept of mass surveillance has been challenged by some sources, who argue that it’s not yet as bad as it seems, although there’s evidence to suggest that it is. 

Moreover, there has been a widely-documented system of public humiliation those with low social credit scores. Some sources have described billboards on which individuals’ photos and names have been displayed, shaming them for “crimes”. Lists of people who disobeyed court orders have been published for all to see, and often prohibit job opportunity for individuals who weren’t even aware of these crimes: the Washington Post describes the story of a man who was banned from flying because his court-ordered apology note was “insincere”.

While having the government explicitly grade people’s lives on a point scale is unfair, some argue that it isn’t all that much worse than having other kinds of class systems.  Most countries, developing or developed, have some forms of social hierarchy, some worse than others. India is well-known for having a caste system. Capitalist countries like the U.S. often have strictly divided socioeconomic classes as well, which can be extremely difficult to move between. What’s the difference between these examples? In China, social hierarchy is enforced by the government, similar to medieval times in most countries. Conversely, in a country like India, the caste system is illegal and actively discouraged by the government (though it still exists). And because of mass surveillance, the social credit system is a lot worse in terms of people’s abilities to access rights. 

“Whoever violates the rules somewhere shall be punished everywhere,” is the slogan of China’s social credit system, and considering these rules are vague and unfair, this is extremely problematic and a human rights violation in the eyes of many. In The Good Place, we eventually come to the realization that no point system can properly decide whether someone’s really good or bad. How long will it take the Chinese government to realize the same thing?


January 13, 2019

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