Digital Totalitarianism: China’s Social Credit System

Several years ago, the Beijing government announced the introduction of a new system that will affect the entire country. This system, called the social credit system, is similar to the modern dystopia, in which the government controls everyone and the citizens, along with institutions and organizations get “scores” as per these controls. Despite intense criticism, China improves this system and expands its field of activity. Although Beijing does not share details about the system with the rest of the world, it seems that the system contributes to the pressure of the authoritarian Beijing government. In line with this, the Beijing administration has established a digital totalitarianism in which the government in the country is almost everywhere, watching everything, and the government decides who is good or bad.

  1. History

In the late 18th century, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed a system called Panopticon. This system can be compared to some kind of prison, where there are several layers of prison cells that surround the central tower. There is a guard in the central tower. He uses a large lamp in the tower to see the prisoners in the cells, while the prisoners cannot see the guard. For this reason, people in the cells always live under the suspicion that they are under surveillance.[1] The social credit system, put forward by the Beijing government, is trying to spread even a stricter version of this project through technology and spread it across the country.

Table 1: Example of a Panopticon

Source: “Icon 13 Things: Internalized Authority and the Prison of the Mind: Bentham and Foucault’s Panopticon”, Brown University, https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/13things/7121.html, (Date of Accession: 21.12.2018).

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), fully controls the country as a long-standing party in China. Accordingly, even if the social credit system is new, “the supervision“ of Beijing citizens is not a new phenomenon. For decades, the government collected information about millions of people, recorded their performance at work and at school in files called “dang“. Not only the performances are mentioned in this Dangs, but also the political views of the Chinese people. Additionally, “those who have foreign friends“ or “read the books of a certain section“ are marked by the government. While these files could be accessed by any employer to hire or help a person, ordinary people were never able to see their own files in a business unit assigned by the state.[2] In fact, China has made it more efficient by expanding this system with another system that it has already begun to implement. In other words, despite the fact that the system is new, the idea of this system is old.

The first experiments of the social security system were launched in 2010 in Jiangsu Province, which was officially announced by CCP in 2014, will be completed by 2020. The Communist Party explained that the goal of the plan was “to create a society based on trust and sincerity, and to keep those who violate rules”. In this case, it’s noteworthy that the one who needs to trust is the government whereas the one to be trusted is the people. This system applies not only to individuals, but also to institutions and organizations. In other words, state’s trust in institutions and organizations is mandatory. This plan began in 2015 and is still being developed, is being implemented in more than 30 cities in China as of October 2018. However, it doesn’t spread at the speed desired by the Communist Party. The reasons for this situation are that the fact that technology is not easily accessible (technological barriers) in China to move to the system, and some people of the highest rank including members of CCP and intellectual population of China opposes this plan.[3]

  1. Implementation of the Social Credit System

According to this system, one earns or loses credit scores as a result of various actions. For example, people participating in voluntary projects, who donate blood are “rewarded”, and those who smoke in a non-smoking area, buy “too many” video games, share unreasonable news and do not obey the traffic lights will be “punished”. The behaviours of people are monitored by the government through the cameras. In addition, government controls internet user accounts and mobile phones. Images from cameras, mobile and internet accounts of people are assessed by artificial intelligence, and their ratings are evaluated. People with low grades at school are blacklisted by the government. Although the government does not officially announce what the punishment will be, it is known that it consists of many stages. For example, in order to punish an individual with a low score, the internet can be slowed down, also he/she may not enroll in good schools, may not apply for some jobs, may not accommodate in luxury hotels, may not buy certain things on the internet, or even he/she may lose the right to adopt a pet. Moreover, these penalties are valid not only for this individual, but also for his/her children. An individual with a low score may not be able to send his/her child to the school of his/her choice, or that the child will not be able to buy the desired train or plane ticket.[4]

The implementation of the system of social crediting on institutions and organizations is slightly different. For example, if the authorities in the kitchen of a restaurant prove that the hygienic rules are not followed sufficiently, the rating of the restaurant will decrease, and the reputation of the restaurant will be damaged. On the one hand the defenders claim that the restaurants will be more hygienic and safer, but on the other hand there are a lot of people against this idea.[5] Companies are also scored like restaurants. Accordingly, a company that pays its debts on time, adheres to the rules of the government, supplies goods produced on time, does not sell goods at exorbitant prices has a good social credit rating, pays less taxes and has more opportunities for investments, while a company with a bad score pays more taxes, its investments are limited, and it is less likely to be accepted in publicly funded projects. In addition, since these companies are monitored by cameras, the system also affects the social environment in the workplace.[6]

Another critical point of this system is the public disclosure of information about institutions and people with low scores. Therefore, when someone wants to apply for a job in China, an employer will be able to see his/her social credit rating. When a person wants to buy a ticket for a trip, the person’s score can prevent this. In fact, millions of people can no longer buy tickets for planes and fast trains, because of they have low scores. As of May 2017, 11.14 million people were banned from buying plane and 4.25 million people from fast-train tickets by the government in China and because of their low credit scores. 3 million people are also prohibited from receiving business class tickets. The main reason to this scheme is that the Communist Party would like its opponents to bankrupt.[7]

While the people with low scores are punished, ones with high scores have different privileges. For instance, someone with a high social score can pass faster through the security system at Beijing airport and rent cars and bicycles without a deposit. In addition, a bank can simplify lending process to those who have a high rating, they can also find jobs easier and solve bureaucratic tasks faster. After all, they are ‘‘exemplary citizens’’ that Beijing government can trust.[8]

As a result, the social credit system that China has put into practice continues to be implemented, even if it is unusual and far from democracy. The administration of Beijing does not intend to abandon this policy. The Communist Party is trying to cultivate “one type of people in government” through this system. The Chinese, who are monitored via the internet and cameras, have no hiding places. Individuals will have to depend only on the government, otherwise they will disappear. The question of who controls the Communist Party that controls everything, remains unknown to us. As the roman poet Juvenal once stated: “Who watch the watchers?”.


[1] Thomas McMullan, “What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance?”, The Guardian, 23.07.2015, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/23/panopticon-digital-surveillance-jeremy-bentham, (Date of Accession: 21.12.2018).

[2] “Big Brother is watching: how China is compiling computer ratings on all its citizens”, South China Morning Post, 24.11.2015, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1882533/big-brother-watching-how-china-compiling-computer, (Date of Accession: 20.12.2018).

[3] Christopher Udemans,” Blacklists and redlists: How China’s Social Credit System actually works”, Technode, 23.10.2018, https://technode.com/2018/10/23/china-social-credit/, (Date of Accession: 20.12.2018).

[4] Harry Cockburn, “China blacklists millions of people from booking flights as ‘social credit’ system introduced”, The Independent, 22.11.2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-social-credit-system-flight-booking-blacklisted-beijing-points-a8646316.html, (Date of Accession: 21.12.2018).

[5] Stanley Lubman, “China’s ‘Social Credit’ System: Turning Big Data Into Mass Surveillance”, The Wall Street Journal, 21.12.2016, https://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2016/12/21/chinas-social-credit-system-turning-big-data-into-mass-surveillance/, (Date of Accession: 21.12.2018).

[6] Mirjam Meissner, “China’s social credit system”, Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics), 24.05.2017, https://www.merics.org/sites/default/files/2017-09/China%20Monitor_39_SOCS_EN.pdf, (Date of Accession: 21.12.2018).

[7] Tara Francis Chan, “China’s social credit system has blocked people from taking 11 million flights and 4 million train trips”, Business İnsider, 21.03.2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/china-social-credit-system-blocked-people-taking-flights-train-trips-2018-5, (Date of Accession: 21.12.2018).

[8] Cockburn, Ibid.

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Hüseyin Pusat KILDİŞ
Hüseyin Pusat KILDİŞ
Hüseyin Pusat KILDİŞ, 1994 yılında Adana'da doğdu. İlköğretim ve lise eğitimini Osmaniye'de tamamladı. 2016 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünden mezun olan Kıldiş, yüksek lisans eğitimine 2017 yılından itibaren yine Gazi Üniversitesi’nde Ortadoğu ve Afrika Çalışmaları bölümünde devam etmekte ve ‘’Suriyeli Sığınmacılar ve Avrupa’da Yükselen Aşırı Sağ’’ üzerine tez yazmaktadır. Lisans döneminde İstanbul'da İktisadi Kalkınma Vakfı'nda staj yapan Kıldiş, yüksek lisans sırasında Brüksel'de TÜSİAD'da Erasmus stajı ve Ankara'da ANKASAM stratejik araştırmalar merkezinde staj yapmıştır. Yazar göç, İslamofobi, aşırı sağ ve Avrupa Birliği konularını çalışmaktadır.

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