Is China’s scary Social Credit System the future?

Posted on February 19, 2019


Any Brit who has ever applied for a credit card, mortgage or other loan will be familiar with the concept of credit scores, but a big data system set to come into force in China by next year takes the idea to a whole new and somewhat disconcerting level.

Called the Social Credit System, the initiative is designed to assess people’s all-round trustworthiness. Whereas the credit ratings we know in the UK are just used to determine how well people can manage their finances, the Chinese government wants to take the idea a step further and use big data to score citizens on a much wider scale. Details like minor traffic offences, items bought online and even the company people keep will be processed and distilled into a single rating to give a ranking of that person’s ‘social credit’. Those with a positive score are encouraged to flaunt it, almost as if it were a TripAdvisor score or food hygiene rating.

A BBC article analyses the system, and how some companies are already coming up with scores of their own.

Black Mirror comes true again?

To fans of Charlie Brooker’s addictive and somewhat dystopian series ‘Black Mirror’, this idea might seem strangely familiar. The Series 3 opener ‘Nosedive’ deals with a world in which everybody carries a visible ranking out of five to reflect their socioeconomic status. These ratings affect the houses people can buy, the weddings they can attend and the cars they can drive.

In the episode, scores are improved or worsened according to the interactions people have with each other. Five-star ratings from people who themselves have good scores are highly valuable, but upsetting certain authorities (as the protagonist in the above clip does with her rude airport outburst) can set off a downtrend trend.

Although in reality it’s much less transparent than this, the idea of a person’s socioeconomic status making life easier or harder for them is very true. For those at the bottom, it can be increasingly difficult to break free from a cycle of misfortune.

More pressingly, a system resembling this one being introduced by China is one of several examples of a Black Mirror prediction coming to life, along with David Cameron’s then unknown ‘Piggate’ scandal being alluded to in the very first episode, and the obnoxious and offensive cartoon character Waldo’s political campaign being likened by some viewers to that of Donald Trump.

Could it happen outside of China?

China is a country notorious for its levels of state surveillance, but it seems less likely that such an invasive system could take off in a developed European or North American country. Nevertheless, this sort of data harvesting is very much what the GDPR was brought in to combat, especially in the wake of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal.

For now, all we need to do is take care of our finances to keep our credit scores respectable, but China and Charlie Brooker are certainly showing us the dangers of sleepwalking into a world where every deed and misdeed we commit is at the fingertips of those who want to know about it.

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.
John Murray
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