Critics call Beijing’s new social credit system 'Orwellian'

Chinese state media has reported Beijing’s municipal government will assign citizens and firms “personal trustworthiness points” by 2021, implementing China’s controversial plan for a “social credit” system for the first time to monitor citizens and businesses. The social credit system, which is being built on the principle of “once untrustworthy, always restricted” will encourage government bodies to share more information about individual and business misdeeds in order to coordinate punishments and rewards.

Critics say it could massively heighten the Chinese Communist Party’s already strict control over society and made comparisons to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Human rights groups are concerned that as the system is fully implemented it may widen its use of apps and citizens’ social media behaviour to rate them, including using information about political allegiances.

In a roadmap plan released by Beijing’s municipal government in 2014, China said it would create a “social credit system” to reward or punish individuals and corporations using technology to record various measures of financial credit, personal behavior, and corporate misdeeds. Lists of data, actions, and measures would be used to create a trial system of “personal trustworthiness points” for residents and companies in the Chinese capital; the term used can also be translated as “creditworthiness” or “integrity”. People in certain professions will face particular scrutiny, including teachers, accountants, journalists, medical doctors, veterinarians, and tour guides.

However, in a new plan released on Monday to improve the city’s business environment, there was no mention of using points, nor detail of how the point system would work. Rather, it said information from the system could impact market access, public services, travel, employment, and the ability to start businesses, with trustworthy individuals being provided a “green channel” and those who are blacklisted being “unable to move a step”.

China’s Xinhua news agency said the plan should serve as an example to the rest of the nation for how to improve the behavior of individuals and businesses. According to an unnamed municipal state planner, “This is an important novel approach by Beijing to assess individuals’ credit and tie it to their whole life.” A second system will also be set up to assess the trustworthiness of government officials and departments by measuring whether contracts and promises are honored, the results of which will be included in performance assessments.

Wen Quan, a Chinese blogger who writes about technology and finance, said the following when the plan was first announced: “Many people don't own houses, cars or credit cards in China, so that kind of information isn't available to measure. "The central bank has the financial data from 800 million people, but only 320 million have a traditional credit history. Without a system, a conman can commit a crime in one place and then do the same thing again in another place. But a credit system puts people's past history on the record. It'll build a better and fairer society.

The Chinese government is watching the progress of Sesame Credit, a private credit system run by Ant Financial, which is owned by the world's biggest online shopping platform, Alibaba, with its 400 million users. Its unique database of consumer information compiles individual "social credit" scores, where users are encouraged to flaunt their good credit scores to friends, and even potential mates. China's biggest matchmaking service, Baihe, has teamed up with Sesame to promote clients with good credit scores, giving them prominent spots on the company's website.

Johan Lagerkvist, Chinese internet specialist at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, told Wired: "It is very ambitious in both depth and scope, including scrutinising individual behaviour and what books people are reading. It's Amazon's consumer tracking with an Orwellian political twist.”