1984 in 2020

Signs Promoting Sincerity on a road China 5

The Chinese government has recently decided that the Chinese people are in need of some form of formalized credit system for the purpose of evaluating individual trustworthiness. This in and of itself is not terribly noteworthy. Many countries already have such a system. The united states has a credit system which keeps track of how reliably individuals pay their bills and loan repayments. The Chinese government intends to take this system a little bit further.

A large percent of the Chinese population has never taken out a loan or used a credit card making a traditional system of credit very difficult to implement. The solution? China has decided that instead of using a traditional fiscal based system of credit it will create “social credit.” The idea is to use large scale data collection methods to analyze a person’s trustworthiness based off of many different aspects of their life. The specifics of the government’s intention at this point are somewhat unclear. How exactly they plan to collect and analyse the data and what factors they intend to consider has not been explicitly stated. What is clear is that the government intends to take a wide range of information from its citizens to “encourage sincerity and punish insincerity.”1

While the government is working on their social credit system, which will be implemented and become mandatory in 2020, it has permitted several companies to develop private versions of a similar system.2 These systems are currently optional and the most popular one is called Sesame credit. This system assigns each user a credit score based off of several factors then rewards users that have higher social credit scores. Employers are using credit scores to assess people for jobs, hotels are renting out rooms to people with higher scores without the need for a deposit, airports are providing expedited check in to people with high credit, people with high scores have access to Visas without certain paperwork, and certain dating sites are even encouraging users to post their score to evaluate the trustworthiness of potential partners.2,3,4

Though it is not certain the exact algorithm the company uses to calculate an individual’s credit score there are five things that are known to impact it. Firstly, the system keeps track of your fiscal credit history, whether you pay your bills and settle your debts.3 It also tracks the extent to which you fulfill your contractual obligations.3 Then it determines the accuracy of your personal online information.3 So far most of these are fairly innocuous but it is the last two that really start to get potentially insidious. The credit system takes into account not just how much you buy online and weather you settle your online debts but it tracks what you and factors that into your credit score.3 People who buy lots of video games are considered idle and probably less responsible while people that buy diapers are characterized as parents and assumed to be more responsible.2 Finally the system keeps track of your friends and monitors your interactions with them.3

Another system, separate from the Sesame credit system, in a neighborhood in Shanghai is already gathering information into a database about citizens behaviors from reports written by “residential committees” which monitor the behavior and a local office provides a weekly “red list of exemplary residents.”5 Meaning that your score is based off of how “good a citizen you are.

As long as this system remains optional and mostly in the hands of private companies the it remains mostly harmless, however, in 2020 when the program becomes mandatory the implications will be quite serious. If left unchecked the Chinese government will in a very real sense have the power to influence their population in a terrifying way. The level the surveillance that the government is capable of now is beyond precedent. What you buy, what you post online, who you associate with, how much you agree with the party line, all these things can be taken into account when determining a citizen’s social credit, and a citizen’s social credit can have real impact on their lives. If having a low score means it’s harder to rent hotels or get a visa or a loan or to even get a date then one is going to work hard to make sure that their score is as high as possible. It also means that if associating with people who have low scores might harm your social standing or make it harder for you to have nice things then you might stop associating with those people.

The social credit score has the potential to be a terrifyingly sinister and subtle means of controlling a population. While it is yet unclear what exactly the Chinese government will include in their social credit score system the potential for abuse is very high. If the means and criteria already being used by the private social credit score providers are any indication then this new program will be something to be feared, and it is certainly not beyond the scope of possibility that the government will chose to implement such criteria if not to go even further. Hopefully this Orwellian nightmare will never come to fruition, however, it seems likely that it may.


[1] “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020),” China Copyright and Media, 2015. [Online]. Available: https://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/planning-outline-for-the-construction-of-a-social-credit-system-2014-2020/. [Accessed: 07-Mar-2017].

[2] C. Hatton, “China ‘social credit’: Beijing sets up huge system,” BBC News, Beijing, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-34592186. [Accessed: 09-Mar-2017].

[3] B. Christie and T. Li, “Ant Financial Unveils China’s First Credit-Scoring System Using Online Data – ProQuest,” Business Wire, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://search.proquest.com.prx.library.gatech.edu/docview/1648436715?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo. [Accessed: 09-Mar-2017].

[4] C. Hua, “Mainland credit-rating network takes shape,” China Daily, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.chinadailyasia.com/business/2015-06/09/content_15274221.html. [Accessed: 07-Mar-2017].

[5] “China’s ‘Social Credit’ System: Turning Big Data Into Mass Surveillance,” The Wall Street Journal, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2016/12/21/chinas-social-credit-system-turning-big-data-into-mass-surveillance/. [Accessed: 09-Mar-2017].

Daniel Hoisington
Daniel is a fifth year senior at Georgia Tech about to graduate in the spring with a BS in Mechanical engineering. Aside from his interest in the physical science he also enjoys board games and science fiction.