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China’s citizen score is a dystopia waiting to happen

The Chinese Communist Party continues its plans to roll out an all-encompassing social credit score, which will determine the “trustworthiness” of its citizens based on a treasure trove of data mined from every aspect of their lives. According to sanctions outlined in policy documents last month, any social, legal or financial infractions identified in one part of your life (i.e. a late loan payment) will have negative consequences in other areas, such as limiting your access to public transport and therefore your freedom of movement.

If “Yelp for human beings” sounds like a scenario straight out of Black Mirror, that’s because it is. The new season of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series, which began streaming last week on Netflix, features a cautionary tale entitled “Nosedive” set in a world where every citizen is ranked from one to five. In this society, the influencers, or “high fours,” are given access to certain perks and privileges, while those with a rating of three or below are ostracised.

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While in the West this can be simply interpreted as an entertaining allegory for the Instagram generation’s quest for online popularity, in China, it could be a sobering glimpse of things to come.

The social credit programme began over a year ago, gathering financial data via Alibaba-owned commercial software to create a consumer profile. At the time, it was impossible not to draw comparisons with Peeple, the shortlived human ranking app, with critic Arthur Chu calling such a system “the internet’s logical end point.” Peeple has long since become a punchline, but that hasn’t stopped China from steaming ahead with its plans.

The motivations behind the social credit system do arguably stem from genuine concern for the nation’s wellbeing; in China’s unevenly regulated economy, fraud and corruption are rife. Enforceable penalties for selling fake pharmaceuticals or food unsuitable for consumption are, in theory, a good thing. “Yet in Communist China, the plans inevitably take on an authoritarian aspect,” writes The Independent’s Simon Denyer. “This is not just about regulating the economy, but also about creating a new socialist utopia under the Communist Party’s benevolent guidance.”

The Communist Party hopes that these extensive and far-reaching new sanctions will encourage “harmonious” living in China, where trust and transparency are valued above all else. While the precise ins and outs of how this score will be implemented remain to be seen, the system is already being described as a weapon with which the government will be able to act with impunity.

“China is moving towards a totalitarian society,” says Beijing novelist Murong Xuecan, “where the government controls and affects individuals’ private lives.”

Xuecan’s open criticism of the Communist Party has led to the government shutting down his social media accounts on multiple occasions, and he believes that a social credit system would facilitate further censorship and oppression. For example, if a government finds a reason to give you a negative rating for controversial behaviour, then it can subsequently shut down your access to money, or stop you from travelling.

There are also a number of other risks involved with any one organisation having access to all of a person’s data, especially if it is stored in a centralised digital system, and therefore vulnerable to cyber-attacks. If trust is the new coin of the realm, then considerable security measures will need to be taken by the government to get the public on board and avoid a catastrophic backlash.

That said, the social credit score may never fully materialise; after all, the Communist Party has stalled on similar projects in the past, and rollout on this scheme may ultimately prove too complicated or costly to go through with. Perhaps the Chinese government should invest in a Netflix account and see how such a system works out in Black Mirror — or look to the utter flop of Peeple, and learn from that mistake.

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