n 2017, Xi Jinping sat before the body of the nation’s ruling Communist Party. Reading slowly from the paper in front of him, he asked the room if anyone objected to his reelection as General Secretary. Silence filled the room.
“There isn’t,” shouted members from each section of the room.
He asked if anyone wished to abstain.
“There isn’t,” rang out once again.
And with that, Xi Jinping was guaranteed another five-year term as President of China. With his name and personal philosophy etched into the nation’s constitution, he joined Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong as one of the most powerful leaders in the nation’s history.
As he delivered his speech to his loyal government, millions of Chinese citizens applauded him in a viral app released by media giant Tencent. Players across the nation tapped their screens as fast as possible while Xi’s speech played in the background—each tap representing a round of applause for the president’s speech on the CCP’s mission to ensure the happiness of the Chinese people. After finishing the game, they could share their score on public leaderboards, inviting their friends to compete against them to see who could praise the country’s leader the fastest.
Behind the scenes, the government has been using its power in a more worrying fashion. Chinese individuals across the globe, some of whom no longer possess citizenship, have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Some reemerge back in China, claiming to have suddenly turned themselves in for past crimes. Some turn up later, found dead by suicide. Some are released from police custody years later. Some are never seen again. In reality, those whom the state views as dissidents are being forcibly repatriated to answer for poorly defined political crimes. This has served as an expansion of the aggressive domestic persecution of dissidents, a practice which has resulted in the Panchen Lama, the boy named by the Dalai Lama as his successor, remaining missing for 22 years.
What is most striking about China’s development is the rapid supplementation of authoritarian rule within the digital realm. One recent development is the creation of a national database of voices from the sampled speech from tens of thousands of individuals in the nation—a system purported to help stop crime. The government intends for the automated system to identify persons of interest on telephone calls and in public areas, and has already been put into place to control the Uyghur population. But this is only a small piece of the CCP’s technological ambition.
China announced in 2014 its intention to fully implement a mandatory social credit system by the year 2020. The ambitious project would serve to track the behaviors of all of the nation’s citizens, separating each and every action, thought, quirk, and choice into positive and negative categories. Those lucky enough to have their lives monitored will be granted a “citizen score.” This would determine the education they and their children receive, their chance of receiving a loan or a mortgage, their internet speed, their right to travel, their ability to find employment—a simple number that entirely determines their worth to society. The CCP claims the system is meant to build a community of trust, strengthening “sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity, and the construction of judicial credibility.” But it is not exclusively a tool of population control—companies will be evaluated in the same way, and their adherence to these policies has already resulted in significant political consequences. Because an individual business’ credit rating will be influenced by its partners, conformity to Beijing’s rigorous standards will be demanded of foreign companies as well. In 2018, United, Delta, and American Airlines all folded to pressure from China’s Civil Aviation Administration by completely eliminating references to Taiwan from their website, signaling that the One China policy has found an avenue by which it can become internationally legitimized. This, alongside the recent NBA controversy, show that it is becoming increasingly costly for businesses across the world to operate in opposition to China’s standards—a cost that most of them are not willing to pay. Some have argued that this condition of corporate political obedience is the real mission of the social credit system, with population control being a convenient red herring.
The logistics of coordinating such a system across the most populous nation on earth may make social credit seem like little more than the pipe dream of a power-seeking leader, but China is certainly determined to bring it into reality. Portions of the system are already in practice, with various methods of score calculation being developed by Chinese tech companies, and a number of cities have been selected as pilot locations. As dystopian as it may seem, the developing power is actually the perfect breeding ground for this sort of innovation. China’s urban regions have been undergoing a rapid shift away from the usage of cash and credit. Instead, citizens have been scanning QR codes linked to the wallet of various payment apps. This change is many degrees more dramatic than the United States’ recent turn towards methods such as Apple Pay and Venmo—at $5.5 trillion, the Chinese mobile payments market is almost 50 times larger. It has become the default way of life. Even small markets and bike sharing stations accept mobile wallet payments (and sometimes nothing else). Street musicians can be seen playing next to boards with QR codes so those who walk past can tip them on the spot.
The lack of objectivity in this system is a serious problem that the government seems to be ignoring—current algorithms don’t take into consideration the thousands of factors that can affect “negative actions.” Missing a payment because you’re in the hospital? Tough luck. Buying painkillers for your sick grandparent? You might just be labeled a junkie. Reporters have already shown that the system is potentially exploitable—during a period of trial runs where private companies were given the opportunity to create their own social formulas, Zheping Huang raised his credit score by almost 100 points simply by becoming a more loyal customer of Alibaba. When the mandatory social credit finally dawns in 2020, it is almost certain that China’s government will begin to monitor social media activity to create more accurate social profiles of their citizens. The grip that Xi Jinping has over the internet has granted China the prestigious title of the nation with the least online freedom on Earth, edging out Syria and Cuba. The famous Great Firewall greatly limits the access Chinese internet users have to the world wide web.
These points, however, have been talked to death. It is clear that the social credit system is an unprecedented enterprise that will forever change the meaning of individuality in China. But it will not suffice for the rest of the world to look on and shake their heads. Social credit is now a means by which China can codify the international enforcement of their political agenda. By controlling the behaviors of individuals and corporations and leveraging its economic power as a threat, China is poised to creep its way into hegemony by simply making opposition too inconvenient. If a Chinese business is judged by the actions of their partners, these partners must abide by social credit standards lest they abandon some of their most crucial sources of investment. China’s technology-backed authoritarianism does not just challenge the future of privacy—it challenges the world’s economic order.