“Black Mirror” of big data in China: “yellow patches” for a new socialist utopia

By Slava Solodkiy, Managing partner of Life.SREDA,

Last week NETFLIX released six new episodes of the hit show Black Mirror. “Nosedive” is the first episode of the third series of Black Mirror.

Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) lives in a world where anyone can rate your popularity out of five stars from both friends and strangers due to technology inside phones and standard smart lenses that display everyone’s name and current rating.

Obsessed with being received well, she currently has an approval rating around 4.2. She lives with her brother Ryan (James Norton), who has a lower approval rating than her because he doesn’t worry as much about it, and she is eager to move out. She learns that in order to be able to afford to live in an exclusive estate, she must have a rating of 4.5 or above, and is advised that the best way to improve her own rating is to socialise with highly-ranked people because their ratings carry more weight. Her old friend Naomi (Alice Eve) contacts her and asks her to be her maid of honour, which Lacie delightedly accepts. Naomi, who has a rating of 4.8, has many upper class friends and lives on an exclusive and idyllic island. Lacie believes if she nails a perfect maid of honour speech, she will be flooded with enough 5 star ratings to pull her approval up to the 4.5 she needs.

And now imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how “trustworthy” you are. In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticising the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points. And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are – determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant – or even just get a date.

As Independent wrote, it could be China by 2020. It is the scenario contained in China’s ambitious plans to develop a far-reaching social credit system, a plan that the Communist Party hopes will build a culture of “sincerity” and a “harmonious socialist society” where “keeping trust is glorious.”

A high-level policy document released in September listed the sanctions that could be imposed on any person or company deemed to have fallen short. The overriding principle: “If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.” A whole range of privileges would be denied, while people and companies breaking social trust would also be subject to expanded daily supervision and random inspections.

The ambition is to collect every scrap of information available online about China’s companies and citizens in a single place – and then assign each of them a score based on their political, commercial, social and legal “credit.”

Harnessing the power of big data and the ubiquity of smartphones, ecommerce and social media in a society where 700 million people live large parts of their lives online, the plan will also vacuum up court, police, banking, tax and employment records. Doctors, teachers, local governments and businesses could additionally be scored by citizens for their professionalism and probity.

“China is moving towards a totalitarian society, where the government controls and affects individuals’ private lives,” said Beijing-based novelist and social commentator Murong Xuecun.

At the heart of the social credit system is an attempt to control China’s vast, anarchic and poorly regulated market economy, to punish companies selling poisoned food or phony medicine, to expose doctors taking bribes and uncover con men preying on the vulnerable.

Yet in Communist China, the plans inevitably take on an authoritarian aspect: this is not just about regulating the economy, but also about creating a new socialist utopia under the Communist Party’s benevolent guidance.

The Communist Party may be obsessed with control but it is also sensitive to public opinion, and authorities were forced to backtrack after a pilot project in southern China in 2010 provoked a backlash. That project, launched in Jiangu province’s Suining County in 2010, gave citizens points for good behaviour, up to a maximum of 1,000. But a minor violation of traffic rules would cost someone 20 points, and running a red light, driving while drunk or paying a bribe would cost 50.

The Baihe online dating site encourages users to display their Sesame Credit scores to attract potential partners; 15 per cent of its users do so. (Here you can find more examples of “unusual fintech” in China.)

Some of the penalties showed the party’s desire to regulate its citizens’ private lives – participating in anything deemed to be a cult or failing to care for elderly relatives incurred a 50-point penalty. Other penalties reflected the party’s obsession with maintaining public order and crushing any challenge to its authority – causing a “disturbance” that blocks party or government offices meant 50 points off; using the internet to falsely accuse others resulted in a 100-point deduction. Winning a “national honour” – such as being classified as a model citizen or worker – added 100 points to someone’s score.

On this basis, citizens were classified into four levels: those given an “A” grade qualified for government support when starting a business and preferential treatment when applying to join the party, government or army; or applying for a promotion. People with “D” grades were excluded from official support or employment.

The project provoked comparisons with the “good citizen cards” introduced by Japan’s occupying army in China in the 1930s. On social media, residents protested that this was “society turned upside down,” and it was citizens who should be grading government officials “and not the other way around”. Or with the yellow badge (or yellow patch), also referred to as a Jewish badge, was a cloth patch that Jews were ordered to sew on their outer garments to mark them as Jews in public at certain times in certain countries, serving as a badge of shame.

The Suining government later told state media that it had revised the project, still recording social credit scores but abandoning the A-to-D classifications.

Despite the outcry in Suining, the central government seems determined to press ahead with its plans. Part of the reason is economic. With few people in China owning credit cards or borrowing money from banks, credit information is scarce. There is no national equivalent of the FICO score widely used in the United States, say, to evaluate consumer credit risks.

At the same time the central government aims to police the sort of corporate malfeasance that saw tens of thousands of babies hospitalised after drinking tainted milk and infant formula in 2008, and millions of children given compromised vaccines this year. Yet it is also an attempt to use the data to enforce a moral authority as designed by the Communist Party.

The Cyberspace Administration of China wants anyone demonstrating “dishonest” online behaviour blacklisted, while a leading academic has argued that a media blacklist of “irresponsible reporting” would encourage greater self-discipline and morality in journalism.

Under the social credit plan, the punishments are less severe – prohibitions on riding in “soft sleeper” class on trains or going first class in planes, for example, or on staying at the finer hotels, travelling abroad, or sending children to the best schools – but nonetheless far-reaching.

Under government-approved pilot projects, eight private companies have set up credit databases that compile a wide range of online, financial and legal information. One of the most popular is Sesame Credit, part of the giant Alibaba ecommerce company that runs the world’s largest online shopping platform. Tens of millions of users with high scores have been able to rent cars and bicycles without leaving deposits, company officials say, and can avoid long lines at hospitals by paying fees after leaving with a few taps on a smartphone.

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