You know when we rate a hotel or restaurant we have visited with a score of one to five stars? China has been testing for seven years a similar system that judges not buildings and places, but people: it is called the social credit system (SCS), and in recent years it has been the target of numerous criticisms from the Western world. Even in Italy, RAI has told about this dystopian point game that so much resembles an episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror : the question, however, is more complicated than how the media have described it over the years. An article by Wiredhighlights the different nuances of this control system put in place by the Chinese government, which is not yet fully operational and is not uniform at national level.
THERE IS NO SINGLE SYSTEM
The objective of the system is to “incentivize good actions” (or those considered as such) through the assignment of credits, and to discourage bad ones by removing them. One of the main explanatory errors committed by the media in recent years is to confuse the corporate and private versions of the credit system with the official one of the government. “Some media have described the systems used by companies such as Sesame Credit , presenting them as the official SCS,” explains Mareike Ohlberg ( Mercator Institute for China Studies). In private projects such as that of Sesame Credit, which boasts 400 million users, the most disparate habits are judged (and rewarded with money): from using video games (which makes you lose credits) to being parents (which makes you earn ).
SCS was also used during the covid to identify and fine those who did not comply with the restrictive measures: in many cities, those who breached the quarantine and refused to have their body temperature measured were added to a blacklist. On the other hand, the system has also served to temporarily suspend the debts of companies and citizens during the health emergency, and to allow companies to delay employee payments without incurring fines.
Taking part in private or government social credit systems is technically voluntary, but there are incentives for those who decide to join, and disincentives for those who refuse to participate.
CENSORSHIP AND SOCIAL INEQUALITY
The idea is that the SCS will be extended nationwide one day, and that each Chinese citizen is associated with an identification number, connected to a personal register, to be used to check their “behavioral record” when buying a ticket. plane or take out a mortgage : those who owe the government, for example, will not be able to do either thing.
The risk, however, is that the SCS becomes the censorship and control tool of a government that is already sufficiently authoritarian and unwilling to freedom of thought: just think of the case of Liu Hu, a journalist who denounced government corruption and who for this has been arrested, fined and is now blacklisted; he cannot travel, buy a house or take out a mortgage. The solution? Pay the government or be tried in court.
Another fear is that SCS can exacerbate social inequalities, dividing society and creating classes of the marginalized. “Once a large part of the social credit has been lost, it is difficult to recover it,” explains Ohlberg: “I think it is easy to then fall into a negative spiral.”
ONE MORE TOOL
The SCS is only the latest of the control tools used by the Chinese government to monitor the behavior of its citizens: in a taxi, on the street, in the supermarket, one is always observed by the eye of the cameras (170 million throughout the country), that thanks to facial recognition are able to identify a person in just seven minutes wherever they are.
Rachel Maga is a technology journalist currently working at Globe Live Media agency. She has been in the Technology Journalism field for over 5 years now. Her life’s biggest milestone is the inside tour of Tesla Industries, which was gifted to her by the legend Elon Musk himself.