Since 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has been leading the fate of the Chinese Population. The Republic of China was firstly led by one of the bloodiest dictators the world has ever known, Mao Zedong, and it is currently under the power of President Xi Jinping. Many things have changed during 70 years of communist govern, but many argue that government undemocratic, oppressive and intrusive actions still take place. But how does the government manage to keep its influence near the population? What strategy has the government adopted to watch its inhabitants?
In 2010 the Chinese government started developing a nationwide social credit system that allowed the regime to closely monitor every move its community made. The System was first piloted in 2014.
How does it work?
Each citizen is initially assigned a total of 1000 points. The social credit score then varies according to the behaviour of the individual. Behaviour is monitored by government employees specifically hired to report the community members’ actions to local institutions. Monitoring is compounded by highly complex data analysis technology that, through street cameras, drones, AI – and even rumoured robotic birds – that aids in identifying not only each citizen, but instantly track, rate and record his or her actions. All of the technology required for the system has either been developed for it or was previously being used in private corporations to monitor its workers, despite there being no doubt the Chinese are still developing more capable supporting technologies.
A big portion of government surveillance is performed through collecting data on Wechat, an app largely used in China. It somewhat resembles a combination of Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp (since all of these are forbidden by the Chinese Government). Tencent Holdings, the founding and developer company of Wechat, operates under the Chinese Law, which means they apply strong censorship and they augur interception protocols. Wechat has the right to access and expose contact books, text messages and the location of its users.
In 2016, Tencent was awarded a score of zero out of 100 in an Amnesty International report ranking of technological companies. International Amnesty reported the absence of end-to-end encryption, a system that only allows the communicating users to read the messages. It also reported Tencent’s disclosure towards Government data request.
Foul conduct, extending from speeding tickets, to internal family arguments, to playing too many video games, even to recycling incorrectly, and criticizing national politics, either publicly or via Wechat, translates to credits deducted from the citizens’ scores.
Positive actions, such as donating money to charities, or buying diapers for an infant, correspond to an increase in scores. It is expected of every citizen, young or old, that they gain at least 2 points per year.
How has the System been received?
The legitimacy of the Chinese Social Credit System is divisive. A study led by Genia Kostka (Professor of Chinese politics at Freie Universität Berlin) concluded that “80 per cent of respondents either somewhat or strongly approve social credit systems, 19 per cent perceive the social credit systems in value-neutral terms (don’t disapprove or approve) while merely 1 per cent reported moderate to strong disapproval.” Respondents perceive the social credit system as an instrument that closes institutional and regulatory gaps, promoting honesty and law-abiding behaviours in society, and not strikingly as an instrument of surveillance. For instance, 72 per cent of survey respondents stated that their purchasing decisions were affected by the social credit assessment of the company offering the products or services. Hence, social credit systems are seen as a helpful means to making things work and improving quality of life.
The international community, nevertheless, does not recognize this Chinese program as a way of improving social habits, but rather as the greatest social experiment ever carried out. For many, it is a clear violation of human rights, with unconsented personal data being collected, and, thus, a serious threat to Chinese citizens.
China’s stance on undemocratic actions and its support for undemocratic regimes, such as the North Korean, reveals the existence of a still very weak democracy in the most populous and, certainly, in one of the most influential nations in the world. Might China be approaching a level of privacy invasion and mass control similar to that in Orwell’s dystopian 1984 novel?