Big data, meet Big Brother China invents the digital totalitarian state

The worrying implications of its social-credit project

DATE: 17/12/2016

A pilot scheme in Suining county, in Jiangsu province north of Shanghai, gives clues about what such a system might mean in practice. Starting in 2010, the local government awarded people points for good behaviour (such as winning a national honour of some kind) and deducted points for everything from minor traffic offences to “illegally petitioning higher authorities for help”. Those who scored highest were eligible for rewards such as fast-track promotion at work or jumping the queue for public housing.

The project was a failure. The data on which it was based were patchy. Amid a public backlash, a report in China Youth Daily, a state-owned newspaper, criticised the system. It said “political” data (such as petitions) should not have been included, declaring that “people should have rated government employees and instead the government has [rated] the people.” Another state-run newspaper, Beijing Times, even compared the scheme with the “good citizen” certificates issued by Japan during its wartime occupation of China.

But the party and government seem undaunted, issuing outline plans for the social-credit system in 2014 and more detailed guidelines this year. About 30 local governments are collecting data that would support it. The plan appears hugely ambitious, aiming explicitly to influence the behaviour of a whole society. By 2020, Chinese officials say, it will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”


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