China’s Social Credit System: Big Brother is watching

SCS may be understood as the ‘reset’ of China’s infamous yesteryears’ dossier. But what is the dossier? Indians may connect with China’s dossier with reference to the ration card, much needed (back then) for a telephone or gas connection—only imagine the ration card making judgements on you.

China’s Social Credit System: Big Brother is watching
Imagine a scenario where your Aadhaar card tracks what you do and rates your social behaviour.

Imagine a scenario where your Aadhaar card tracks what you do and rates your social behaviour. Haven’t paid your electricity bill? Minus points. Your social media post is anti-government? Minus points. You had a slanging fight with your next-door neighbour? Minus points. Haven’t visited your ageing parents in a while? Minus points. Drank and drove the last weekend? Minus points. Smoked a joint in college ages ago? Tut, tut, tut—you can’t board a flight, ensure enrolment for your child, get a gas connection or access NREGA subsidy.

Welcome to the reality version, playing out in China, via President Xi Jinping’s newly mooted Social Credit System (SCS)—an updated, rebooted version of ‘control with Chinese characteristics’ in Xi’s ‘new era’. What the Aadhaar cannot anticipate (yet), SCS does. It purports to rate individuals and organisations based on trustworthiness (xinyong)—a Chinese uptick of TripAdvisor and rebooted to individuals and organisations, where one is as good as one’s rating. Floated in 2014 (two years after Xi took office) to ‘strengthen the establishment of a national population-based information repository and improve the social credit system’ to ‘improve the mechanism for crisis intervention,’ it is deemed to be operational nationwide by 2020, covering China’s 1.4 billion people.

On its part, the Communist Party (CCP) says that the principle is, ‘once unworthy, always restricted,’ and that it is geared to award trustworthy citizens through points and keep a check on untrustworthy ones. From a certain baseline, points would be either deducted (for example, drunken driving, failure to visit ageing parents) or points will be assigned (voluntary work, donating blood or elderly care and, presumably, singing paeans to the CCP).
SCS comes across as a strange marriage—Confucianism with communism.

For sure, they make strange bedfellows. Confucianism comes wearing filial piety and discipline (visit ageing parents, abstaining from drugs); on the other hand, communist control lurks in the shadows (with information on individuals stacking up, from social to internet behaviour), likened by German political scientist Sebastian Heilmann as Digital Leninism. In recent weeks, media reports say that nine million people have been prevented from boarding flights and three million prevented from taking high-speed railway. How should SCS be understood? While it is complex to delineate all its dimensions, there are some sides to it that are debatable.

Pilot version already in play?

In the Xinjiang autonomous region, President Xi has committed to building a ‘great wall of iron’ against terrorism (2017). Southern Xinjiang (Tarim Basin) has remained impervious to Chinese control, unlike northern Xinjiang where the demography (Han Chinese outnumber Turkic Muslims) speaks for itself. Xinjiang has seen a jump in security spending, from 30.5 billion RMB ($4.7 billion) in 2016 to 57.95 billion RMB ($9.1 billion) in 2017. Xinjiang’s current Party Secretary Chen Quanguo (2016) is accused of ‘securitisation’ (Jamestown Foundation), what with ‘convenience police stations’ no more than 500 meters apart, and a ‘grid-style social management system’ with camera surveillance.

A video entitled ‘Life Inside China’s Total Surveillance State’ (Wall Street Journal, 2017) suggests that Xinjiang is the pilot zone, testing ground or laboratory of China’s futuristic surveillance system—spying technologies operational in Xinjiang include QR scan, cameras, facial recognition and scoring system based on copious collection of data. Imagine the scenario of Kashmir as a pilot zone for surveillance and the extension of the same to the rest of India!

‘Reset’ of yesteryears’ dossier?

SCS may be understood as the ‘reset’ of China’s infamous yesteryears’ dossier. But what is the dossier? Indians may connect with China’s dossier with reference to the ration card, much needed (back then) for a telephone or gas connection—only imagine the ration card making judgements on you. Back in the day, socialist China had the (notorious) dossier (dang’an). Each individual who entered the educational system had a dossier, regarded as an essential component to facilitate entry to a university or (urban) state-owned work-unit (danwei). The dossier involved intricate information such as family background (bourgeois, feudal, worker or peasant), parents (occupation) and stacked it with information (whether member of the Young Pioneers or the Communist Youth League, both stepping stones to enter the Party). One of the reasons why several students had to leave for America/overseas in the aftermath of June 1989 was that their dossier had been marked for life.

The dossier was supplemented by the maroon coloured household registration card (hukou), employment card and resident identity card. These cards were tied to entitlements—the ‘iron rice bowl’ and ‘cradle to grave’ welfare.
In the last few decades, the ration card has become less important to us. So is the case with the dossier in China, because many have ‘jumped into the sea’ (private sector or private enterprise), skirting the state sector. Also, the household registration card has lost some, if not all, of its bite. Deng Xiaoping’s relaxation of household registration unleashed the largest internal migration in history, which became basis of the success of reforms. SCS may be a mechanism to re-establish control.

Build trustworthy citizens

SCS seems inclined to ‘beautify’ people by making them disciplined and trustworthy citizens. It comes as a foil to the backlash of reforms—because money, consumerism and fashion have all diluted ‘socialist precepts’ and crashed the apple cart of equality. In recent months, Xi has made a conscious effort to resurrect Mao and Marx, saying that Marxism is ‘totally correct’ and is the ‘true path’. In the past, there have been hits and misses, such as efforts to increase the ‘quality’ of people and make them ‘civilised’. This included a campaign to prevent the Chinese from wearing nightwear in public and spitting. But with SCS, instead of running campaigns, the onus shifts to self-censorship.

Keep netizens in check

A recent report, ‘Forbidden Feeds: Government Controls on Social Media in China’ (PEN America, 2018), indicates that China’s ‘Great Firewall’ is getting taller. China has 750-800 million netizens and 900 million WeChat users, and ‘since 1991, there have been 171 regulations on the internet,’ but so far the state and netizens play a ‘cat versus mouse’ game. There are ‘red lines’ that netizens cannot cross. But despite this, a Beijing academic protested Xi’s two terms of office in a social media post. The post was taken down in 40 minutes. Sensitive words continue to be blocked. Netizens have sprung back, with homophonous words, fabricating dates such as ‘May 35’ (to refer to Tiananmen) and openly lampooning apps such as WeChat (lampooned by a cartoonist who goes by the pseudonym ‘Red Pepper’ as ‘Wecheck’).

In 2014, the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs was established, directly under Xi’s jurisdiction.
Today, China views internet data as a ‘strategic national resource’. There is a real possibility that China will tap into Alibaba’s Alipay (mobile payments), which has 500 million users, and Sesame Credit (Ant Financial Services, an affiliate of Alibaba), which has been operating a credit-scoring service based on data from Alibaba’s services. That the algorithms from internet and banking activity may enable the surveillance apparatus to ‘target’ is again very real.

In retrospect, SCS, yet again, explains why China has the largest budget for internal security. From 2011-13, China’s budget for internal security crossed its military budget. Since 2014, China has withheld releasing. But the WSJ recently estimated internal security accounted for 6.1% of government spending (2017), translating into $196 billion. In comparison, military budget is 1.02 trillion yuan (2017), or $160 billion. In India, there’s been public debate on the scope of Aadhaar, including scrutiny by the Supreme Court. Globally, Facebook is under fire. But in China, shockingly, but not surprisingly, SCS is a done deal.

Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal

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First published on: 12-05-2018 at 04:20 IST