Is the American Freakout Over a Chinese Social Monitoring Project Justified?

Our credit score is one of the more controlling elements of American life. It disproportionately affects people of color and serves as a means of social control, sometimes benign, sometimes not. But what if the logic of the credit score—an opaque algorithm designed to promote "good" behavior in an effort to encourage easier lending—was combined with social media and social circles? What if our credit score was used to punish us for our political views?


According to some civil libertarians, this is precisely what the Chinese government, in concert with two major Chinese corporations, is rolling out over the next five years. It's the logical end of a credit-based economy and ubiquity of surveillance and social media, dovetailing in what the ACLU refers to as a “nightmarish... warning for Americans.” 

The viral argument

Allegedly the broader plan, put forth by the Chinese government, unfolds over a half-decade and is designed to create a citizenship rating system that encourages behavior the state deems desirable. According to International Business Times, the government hopes that by 2020 every citizen will have a credit code score and a government-issued ID card. The opt-in version is already up and running by two companies, Alibaba and Tencent, which run all the social networks in China and have a large portion of the retail and payment processing. Combined, the two companies have a vast amount of personal data on those opting in and are already handing out scores to those wanting to participate.

The system, according to the ACLU, will feed into the government’s program set to roll out in 2020, to create an unholy corporate-state partnership of virtually omnipotent surveillance. While paying bills on time might seem benign, what about questioning the government’s official history or passing along subversive material? The ACLU cites this report by privateinternetaccess.com:

Things that will make your score deteriorate include posting political opinions without prior permission, talking about or describing a different history than the official one, or even publishing accurate up-to-date news from the Shanghai stock market collapse (which was and is embarrassing to the Chinese regime).

But the kicker is that if any of your friends do this — publish opinions without prior permission, or report accurate but embarrassing news — your score will also deteriorate. And this will have a direct impact on your quality of life.

What they claim will happen, in effect, is a mandatory, real-time monitoring device that “gamifies” obedience by creating a positive reward system based on social cues and constant surveillance. Such systems already exist to a large degree in the United States and elsewhere. Edward Snowden leaks over the past two and a half years reveal a sophisticated web of spying by the NSA on Americans and foreigners alike which, as experts note, has its own chilling effect on dissent. What makes the Chinese policy unique is that now such a system will be integrated, normalized and inextricably tethered to one's human connections.

It’s one thing if an analyst at Fort Meade knows you have poor eating habits and slack off at work, but what about your friends? Employer? These claims made by the ACLU, along with others, fed into a viral video by Extra Credits, a gaming video series, and an article in libertarian website Anti-Media, both of which have recently gone viral.

Not as bad as critics say

Much of the story originates from an ACLU post from October that has since been updated with substantive clarifications. While many aspects of the new credit systems are deeply problematic, three central claims remain in dispute:

  1. The private efforts for a credit score system and the government’s 2020 attempt to do so are entirely separate, and often in tension with one another. The claim that the private, opt-in version is simply a prototype for a mandatory one down the road is not borne out by the Chinese government’s report or any corporate statements by the two companies in question. Indeed, Alibaba’s credit score system “Sesame Credit” has riled the Chinese government and been rebuked by the Chinese central bank. Ecommerce-focused Alibaba’s public credit score feature is based on payment history (which is tethered to its Alipay system and incentivizes frequent usage) and is more of a marketing gimmick than an Orwellian tool of control. While skeptics of the ACLU on this matter, such as techinasia.com’s C.Custer insist the story is being blown out of proportion, they are quick to note that the “ACLU’s fears might eventually come true.” But as of now there’s nothing to connect the private and public efforts.

  1. There’s no evidence the credit scoring system planned by the Chinese government for 2020 will use people’s social networks to affect the scores. The ACLU claims, “It will hurt your score not only if you do [bad] things, but if any of your friends do them. Imagine the social pressure against disobedience or dissent that this will create.” (Extra Credits viral video makes similar claims.) But this is misleading. While Tencent’s credit score system does mine users' social networks in order to determine their credit (as a lot credit companies do) there’s no indication such a feature will be funneled into the government’s system or used as a scarlet letter-esque score for life. Quartz's Zheping Huang in his report clarifies, “when more friends join Sesame Credit, your score will go up. A score will not go up or down based on the scores or personal information of your friend group, though.” Some seem to have conflated the idea of your score going up when you recruit friends for the payment system with one’s score going down based on these friend's behavior.

  1. Probably the most ominous claim made by the ACLU and Extra Credits is that the government’s credit score system will punish citizens for buying politically subversive items or sharing information the state doesn’t approve of. Of all the shocking claims this one probably has the most substance. According to a recent report by Freedom House, a “pro-democracy” group, China ranks last in Internet freedom out of 65 countries. Censorship on China’s Internet is not exactly a secret; the government routinely shuts down websites that “publish news without a permit,” feature pornography, or advance historical narratives counter to the government’s. There is little reason to assume that if political content can be tracked it won’t be used in a nationwide credit system. Indeed, the government’s report is clear that it won’t just be about finances, it also wants to reward “serenity,” which can fairly be interpreted as "obedience to the state."

Should the ACLU and other civil libertarians keep an eye on such a system? Absolutely. Many of the building blocks are there both in China and in the United States, but many of the key elements that made this story viral have yet to come to fruition and many of the dot connecting appears to rely on the assumption that Chinese society is a monolith. Time will tell if these separately creepy features —using social connections to effect credit, political censorship and promoting obedience—will all by brought under one dystopian roof. For now it's important to note the needs of large corporations like Alibaba and the Chinese government, much like in the United States, are not always in sync.

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