It was a few years ago when China announced their plan to introduce a National Social Credit system for all of its 1.5 billion citizens. Recently, it made waves again as the authoritarian communist country announced an official implementation date in 2020. But what is it exactly? Is it evil as everybody not from mainland China paints it to be? Was this all part of Red China’s dictatorship plans?
What is the National Social Credit System?
The National Social Credit system is a way of measuring an individual’s goodness factor. In China’s implementation, an individual’s credit can go as high as 800 or as low as 0 which they can check through their mobile phones. In a way it is a “trust score” but it goes beyond “trust”. If an individual contributes to the society or buy locally made products, their National Social Credit goes up. Attack the government, it goes down.
The higher an individual’s Social Credit is, the more benefits and privileges he or she will enjoy. The lower an individual’s Social Credit, the less he or she can do, can buy, or access. We break this down in the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly sections.
Opinions outside of mainland China painted the National Social Credit system as “evil”. Is it? Is there no good that may come out of it? There are of course, otherwise why would most of the 1.5 billion citizens of China accept it? Here are some examples.
Imagine a store without any cashier staff. Any person can get items and leave without paying for it. Most people would wait or just leave their payment if they’re in a hurry. But those who does not have a conscience or justifies their deed by “you don’t have a staff and I need this item now, so it’s not my problem” will get away. The owner may or may not go after the customer in court, and this action is itself stressful, time consuming, and scandalous (and we might make unwanted enemies).
In a society with a National Social Credit system, theoretically, people will think thrice not paying for anything because their National Social Credit will be hit hard. Remember, the lower it gets, the less an individual can access and do. This creates a sense of “honesty” in an individual.
This scenario is actually live in China today.
For rent items
Ever thought of opening up a business where you rent out mobile phones for a week? Or rent out your priceless, well-loved bike? How about those times when you badly needed something temporarily, maybe one time use, and your only choice was to buy the product? Or borrow emergency money for whatever reason?
This reality is now possible and is actually in existence in China for quite some time already. Thanks to the National Social Credit system, borrowers do take care of the items they borrow, return it and pay for it on time.
No deposits, plenty of discounts, and privilege access!
With a very good National Social Credit, an individual can also enjoy no deposit for services like hotels, plenty of discounts when buying goods, and even access and treatment normally given to the rich and wealthy. Yes, access and treatment normally given to the rich and wealthy!
Let’s stop with the good and start with the bad. We know we are getting all goody-goody with the kind of future the National Social Credit system can bring but let us not forget to discuss the bad effects, and here are some of it.
The National Social Credit system will not teach us to be good citizens or a contributing individual to the society. What it creates is a false of everything. False honesty. False trust. False security. An individual is being forced to do the good thing because he or she has a need for a good National Social Credit. Remove the system, the individual no longer have any reason to be good.
Think of it this way. A person involved in the security of their town does so mainly because of his love for the people of his town and his own family. The salary the town gives him is only an addition, a “thank you”. His decision to help in securing their town is genuine even if you remove the salary, he will still do it.
It is no different from what we have today. Most people do pay for things they buy. Why? Because they were taught that it is the right thing to do. They understand why they have to do it. Not because of some punishment that may befell them one day (although it is true) but because they know that the staff or business owner will suffer for it. They empathize.
There is no need for empathy in a society with a National Social Credit system.
The system never forgets
Don’t be fooled. This system is digital. Unless the world is hit by an EMP, the system will never forget your National Social Credit history. An individual that used to have a very low National Social Credit will forever have a bad mark in his or her profile.
Maybe the individual made a mistake, was jailed for it, paid for it, and turned his or her life around after. The system will always take that into consideration. There is no doubt that demerits cost more than merits. It means that to recover a single demerit you need 2 to 5 merits. The computation of a National Social Credit will surely work this way, otherwise, there is no incentive in keeping a consistent high National Social Credit.
The system can also advise an employer of the applicant’s history. The system may not necessarily have to give a detailed info but it is enough to plant a seed of doubt to a person. The hiring manager might not be able to decline the applicant as it may affect their company’s National Social Credit (and the hiring manager’s too), especially if the system advised to hire the applicant, the human factor is still at play.
If you think the previous section was already ugly, there are far worse things than those. Check these out.
Over time, the whole Nation will turn into a police state. It’s beyond dictatorship. A police state is a State in a state of continuous surveillance. A simple emotion can be turned for or against an individual. A simple whisper can be used for or against a person. The people will live in fear, in fear of their National Social Credit getting lower. We might soon see a new type of psychological problem.
Those with low and very low National Social Credit might resort to violent ways. Imagine, they have no access and/or privileges because of their low National Social Credit. They can not travel, they can not book online, they have to pay ridiculous fees, show hundreds of paper documents to prove their identities and credibility, and no Internet access.
Then the physical police force comes into play. Time to eliminate the useless eaters. People who can not or refused to “join” the system. Probably the psychologists will have a new mental health terminology for those in the low National Social Credit to make it easy for the rest of the population to justify the action of the Police State.
The government is absolute
Who controls the National Social Credit system? The government. Who keep backups of the digital data? The government. Who adjusts the criteria, formula, metrics, of determining what constitutes an addition or subtraction in a person’s National Social Credit? The government. Who has access to the system? Still the government!
The government then is absolute. With this kind of power and status there is ultimate control of the people. The sad reality is that most people will obey the government because they just want to live a good life even if they hate it.
With a government that is absolute, dissidents in such a Police State no longer have any safety. They either seek asylum abroad or run forever within their own country. Or, they can play a game with the government, after all, life is a game, right?
Life is a game
Life is a game becomes a very real thing in a society running on a National Social Credit. But life is not a game! We go back to everything that we have discussed earlier,
this system will not teach people good values. What it teaches us is that life is only but ones and zeros. Take this quest, you get this reward. Fail this quest, you get an unhealthy demerit. Correct, military style.
The National Social Credit system sounds good in paper. The whole idea is a very good theory. Yes, current testing of the system is showing very good results but these tests are short-term no matter what. Once it becomes the norm in a society, that is when we will start to see the other side of the coin. Which in turn will be fixed by attempting to upgrade the AI, the program, and who knows what else an absolute government can think they can do.
Am I in favor of the National Social Credit system? As much as I want to say “yes”, the answer is “no”. We have not even talked about hacking the system, or some individual in the government was ordered to destroy a person’s National Social Credit. Or how a criminal person can game the system by increasing his National Social Credit to get access to services the criminal normally would not have been given.
It’s hard to bring a faulty system down once it has taken root in society. Haven’t we learned from our past mistakes?
The only alternative is to split society into two. A society running on the National Social Credit system and a society running on traditional values taught through education and by empowering families, not weakening it. This alternative will eventually build tensions between these two groups. But a pure National Social Credit society will do the same anyway, so why not cater for both? Give people the choice?
If you have nothing to hide, if you are good person, then there is nothing to fear. This is the most common argument in favor of surveillance systems and against anonymity, privacy, and security. Well,
if you have nothing to hide, if you are a good person, then there is nothing to fear, I totally agree, so why are they locking their homes down when leaving? Why are they locking their drawers? Why do they cry foul when you read their phones and mails? Why do they? Why do YOU?
I love the idea of a National Social Credit. Being able to rent the latest phone or camera. Being able to reserve hotels without a deposit because they know you will not back out. Being able to walk around a store without the establishment’s staff following you around quietly because you look like a shoplifter from their discriminating eyes. Are those not good? Are those not our utopia society? Who doesn’t want to live in a “perfect world”?
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Is a self-confessed bibliophile and technophile other than being an early adopter, an avid gamer, a geek, nerd, role-player, anime otaku, and trekker.
His first online project was in 1998 when he launched the unofficial website for Ansalon MUD (a text-based, telnet online game) and his own community forums Laibcoms.Community. By 2003 he created his work blog GM-Yukino which grew into gameshogun™, Snoworld™, and techmagus™ over the years.
Yuki’s latest project is Verses.Space™, a Free Culture / Creative Commons, collaborative, and shared-world, worldbuilding and writing project.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the National Social Credit by Yuki (雪亮) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Legal Notice.