Morals as Seen Through CCTV – China’s Social Credit System and the Western Systems of Social Regulation

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[Written by Ilia Ryzhenko]

[Image Credit: Pixabay//StockSnap]

China’s Social Credit System (SCS)—an algorithm-based system of social and economic stratification first officially proposed in 2014—has become catalytic to the production of such a large number of technophobic articles by the Western media outlets, that at this point to write that ‘comparing the system to an episode of Black Mirror is banal’ would be banal in itself. This is somewhat surprising, since at the boiling point of our post-WikiLeaks era, we should be used to the daily dosage of news about the many unsolicited manipulations occurring with our data. And yet, the general Western public’s reaction towards the SCS is rather unique. Instead of protesting the perversity of the totalitarian data-surveillance, many are quick to dismiss the concept and instead label it trivially as a natural consequence of the political developments within China. It is almost as if there is no hope left for that doomed state and its 1.3-billion population.

Nonetheless, questions arise: for instance, don’t such issues appear in the Western countries (albeit in the private sector), or are they always the results of the greedy billionaires’ misdeeds? When Mark Zuckerberg awkwardly dodges questions asked by the US Congress, it is easy to assume that it is just him—as much of an ill-minded automaton as he appears to be—who is rightfully caught red-handed for the misuse of our data. That line of thought, subconscious as it may be, not only expressly trivialises the issue at hand, but also contributes to our growing tolerance towards and patience for situations in which our credentials, thoughts, and preferences serve as yet another object of trade. In the case of the SCS, it is equally easy to paint the Communist Party of China (CPC) as the scapegoat of the situation, especially considering how influential the party is on the Chinese nation, both economically and socially. And yet, I want to suggest, despite their more covert intrusion in our lives, the Western data-surveying capitalist entities (businesses, governments, law enforcement organisation, and so on) already contribute to social regulation as much as China’s SCS. Or do they?

In an attempt to ponder on the topic productively, we should briefly remind ourselves of the structure and functionality of the SCS. The SCS was prototypically planned in 2014 (and should be enforced by 2020); the original intention of the project was to create an all-encompassing system of social control to combat China’s corruption and fraud crises. The idea is based, in part, on the usual commercial credit systems that exist both in China and abroad. One of the prominent local credit systems is Alibaba’s Sesame Credit, which, in an admittedly dystopian fashion, compiles a user’s score from both their own history of transactions and debt payments, and the records of their peers. This score then serves as a foundation for various decisions regarding purchases, loans, and advertising.

Although it is not yet known how the centralised SCS will function, it will likely follow a similar model expanded to the Chinese society as a whole; monitoring the citizens’ actions and rewarding or punishing them according to the governmentally produced algorithms.

It is speculated that in the future, each citizen will be awarded with a certain amount of points, or a grade; if one will not have a sufficient score, they can be penalised in a variety of ways, from being denied high-speed train tickets to getting their name shamed publicly through the local media. This practice, referred to as ‘blacklisting’, has already been piloted in China. It is unclear whether people could be removed from blacklists by doing “good” things; under some SCS pilot schemes, people can increase their social credit by deeds such as donating money to charities and volunteering, but it is still unclear how a centralised blacklist system would work.

The media coverage of the SCS has significantly sensationalised the system, implying its early implementation throughout China as well as hinting at the existence of a centralised ‘morality algorithm’. However, the SCS is still at the pilot stage; as is common with implementing new policies in China, different regions are experimenting with different forms of the system, allowing for a comparative analysis to conclude which form would be the most effective. This means nobody knows exactly what the final, centralised SCS will be like. Moreover, despite the Western media’s fear of the gazing eye of the CPC, many ‘participants’ of the programme who live in the cities where it’s being piloted claim that they have already noticed a positive change in the overall social order. After all, they say, the point system forces them to do good while disciplining the ill-behaved neighbours.

Certainly, the SCS is an idea that seems to align with the current authoritarian direction of leadership in China (recently, for instance, the government removed the two-term limit on presidency, granting Xi Jinping an unending reign), but it would be wrong to dismiss the system as an attempt of the CPC to needlessly terrorise the Chinese people. As mentioned above, many citizens are not as repelled by the idea of the SCS as observers in the Western world tend to be, which can largely be explained by the cultural and political context of China. Many Chinese people truly believe that the ‘morality guidelines’ of the SCS—which echo the traditional Confucianist values already entrenched in Chinese society—will lead to an increase in benevolent activities in everyday life. The embrace of ‘traditional’ values is demonstrated by, for instance, the fact that being a parent would increase in one’s point count. As for any politics-based repressions that could be initiated by the system, China is already guilty of those. If anything, having a system that would outline the basis for political crimes transparently could improve the citizens’ understanding of the Party’s accountability processes.

Ideally, some speculate, the SCS would create an opportunity for financially struggling citizens to re-enter economic society through a non-monetary pathway of being a ‘good and trustworthy person’; however, one must not misinterpret this as China’s attempt to merely eliminate the negative side-effects of capitalism. Instead, the underlying aim of the SCS is to further redistribute the wealth within the country by measuring the citizens’ worth according to the ideological paradigms of the CPC, and to create an economy that would measure the economic rewards of the gradually less-regulated Chinese market against the ethics of the methods by which the profits were acquired. However, whether these governmentally imposed ethics would reduce white-collar crime in China, or primarily just torment the general population, is unclear.

It’s easy to imagine the ways in which the SCS could potentially harm the basic human rights of the Chinese people. To implement a functioning social credit system, the government would have to further increase the degree to which it currently monitors and controls its citizens through mass surveillance, thus destroying the population’s ability to separate their public and private lives. This would be less problematic if the ethical criteria of point accumulation at the core of the SCS were devised in an expressly transparent way; instead, they will be developed by the reigning party who, despite its tendency to leave the private lives of politically uninvolved citizens intact, will continue to trump any instances of political disagreement with CPC. Lastly, it is also important to acknowledge that at its core, the SCS will most likely serve as a negative system, and not a positive one; that is, it will function not as a reward mechanism, but as one that could punish.

But what about the positive ‘social credit systems’ existing in the Western societies? Instead of a top-to-bottom system devised by the ruling party of questionable practices, the societal guidelines of the West are governed primarily by the society itself and by the data-surveying practices of numerous giant online-based corporations. Obtrusive targeted advertisements of things you’ve discussed on a phone call to your friend might not feel too alarming, but the potential of a nameless company to use your data against you is almost too abhorrent to imagine. One may take a step further and mention that the same goes with the moral and social demands decided aggregately by the society you live in—if it is the anti-progressive worldview that is shared by the majority, then many innocent people will be caught in the crossfire. The latter particularly pertains to problems of racism, sexism, and xenophobia that develop as results of ill-minded thinking that categorises certain groups as ‘Others’. Ultimately, any social credit system is only as good as the entity that agrees upon the morality algorithms behind it.

Despite its obvious unsuitability to the liberal ideals of contemporary Western society, China’s Social Credit System will always have one positive over the Western systems of social order—its accountability. Following the same logic, in ‘Punishment and Discipline’, Michel Foucault asks the readers to consider the following: the gruesome medieval public executions are less harmful to society than the contemporary systems of imprisonment and mass surveillance. This is because the former makes the personality behind the punishment evident and accountable, whereas the latter presents the citizens of the state with a faceless, unaccountable network (rather than a person or a company) of power and disciplinary control. Just like that, the SCS, in its centralised and final form, will be a creation of the CPC, whereas the systems designed to improve product suggestions, targeted advertisements, and customised content will belong to no one giant Western company using them, but will nonetheless exist and manipulate with their users’ information. In the end, the CPC’s undeniable authorship of the Social Credit System will allow whoever shall be dissatisfied with it to point the finger at the right culprit, whereas in Western, capitalist society the systems of data surveillance will perpetuate themselves indefinitely, making its source obscure and invisible. Right now, Western online corporations use our information to make decisions that are almost exclusively commercial; however, there is no guarantee that at some point, Western governments will not turn to data-harvesting businesses to oversee the people, and impact their lives from behind an entire set of curtains.

[Image Description: A white security camera is in the centre of the image. Behind the camera, there are two strip lights at an angle which disappear out of the frame. The ceiling is dark grey and is made of a series of slats.]


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