Why China’s New Dystopian Social Credit Score is So Popular

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You know you’re a good person, right? You adopted a dog from the shelter! You check in on your grandmother in the old folks’ home once a month! You’ve funded 11 of your friends’ kickstarters!

Wouldn’t it be nice if you were rewarded for all the little good things you do? For instance, maybe you could get a small discount on your groceries, or you could use a faster line at airport security. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

And wouldn’t it also be nice if, say, that guy who cut you off in traffic without using his blinker had to pay a little extra for his groceries? Or if your neighbor who uses the leaf blower at 6am on a Saturday had to wait a little longer in line at the airport?

Those things sound great to me, and they probably sound great to most people. And that’s the danger behind China’s “social credit” score.

Despite what outlets like Business Insider would have you believe, this isn’t a new idea for China, but it is one that’s rapidly gaining traction and becoming a national (and therefore an international) issue. As early as the Song Dynasty, though, China’s government has been finding ways to encourage self-policing. It really took off during the reign of Mao Zedong, resulting in a disastrous class struggle. Up until fairly recently the self-policing was on a communal scale, as opposed to an individual scale. With new technology comes the ability to keep better track of each person’s behavior, and with that China is basically ushering in an episode of Black Mirror.

For many years there have been smaller, private “social credit” agencies. This recent effort is an attempt to form a nationwide, governmentally controlled version, though it still won’t be one easy-to-access national credit agency that gives you a score like when you go to Equifax to find out if you can get a car loan. It’s much more complex and strung across various levels of government, and even including government institutions like schools and libraries.

Because of that spread, you can gain or lose points for a really bizarre number of things. Taking care of your aging parents, for instance, can earn you points, as can receiving an award at work. For the most part in the pilot program, you can only lose points from actual illegal acts, like speeding or driving drunk.

Still, there are many, many people who have already been hurt by this system. For instance, a journalist wrote a critical article about a man and was sued for defamation. He paid the resulting fine but still mistakenly ended up on a blacklist, telling Foreign Policy that he couldn’t purchase plane tickets and was unable to figure out how to remove himself from the list. The system is also used to punish dissidents, since speaking critically about the Chinese government is the ultimate social no-no.

Having poor social credit can make your life pretty difficult in a number of weird ways, like by slowing down your Internet, rejecting you from schools, and even making your dating profile difficult to find.

It all sounds pretty Orwellian, right? But remember at the start of this video, where I basically described the same thing but it sounded quite nice? That’s the trouble. In at least one major Chinese city, the new, refined social credit system is getting high marks from citizens, who are enjoying things like people suddenly stopping at crosswalks to let pedestrians pass, whereas before they’d be run over.

It’s one of the things that people who aren’t well-read in dystopian fiction may not realize about dystopias: they don’t necessarily just happen because there’s a zombie virus outbreak or a meteor that wipes out half of humanity, and they don’t happen because an evil dictator suddenly seizes power one day against the will of the people and everyone just goes along with it. They happen because people want them to happen. They happen because many people want to give up a little liberty to get a little safety. They want a president who seems like he’d be fun to have a beer with, or a guy who “tells it like it is.” And they want people to be nice. They want cars to use their turn signals and stop for pedestrians. They want people to take care of their aging parents and to do heroic acts. And if a government policy is making those things happen, they’re less likely to complain about the nasty side effects, like a journalist being inconvenienced. Or, say, journalists being even less likely to say anything critical of the government, or for all people to stop doing any actions the government considers distasteful, like being openly homosexual, or advocating for women’s equality. And slowly but surely, we ease into that dystopia.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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