Ms. Sharanya Menon, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies
In 2016, lawyer Li Xiaolin was unable to book plane tickets for his impending journey. An enquiry revealed the cause to be the insincere apology submitted by him to the court. The apology, which had been ordered by the court, had been deemed insincere because it had been submitted on April Fool’s day. The result: Li Xiaolin was placed on a government blacklist that barred him from accessing services as per the bold, ambitious new governance system of China, the Social Credit System.
This incident has drawn comparisons to a recent episode from the British science fiction show, Black Mirror which depicted a society that rated people based on their social interactions with others. The Social Credit System is a Chinese Government initiative which aims to assign a score to all its citizens based on a myriad of factors. The Planning Outline of the system, which was released in 2014 by the State Council, threw light on this upcoming system which aims to “establish the idea of sincerity culture [using] encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust”. To achieve this, the system will monitor the individuals based on their internet activities, personal shopping habits and rather innocuous behavioural tendencies of its people. The system, by seeding all available data and information across databases, will create a comprehensive record on all citizens and it will showcase all the activities that the individual engages in. Thus, the record will be the basis for the assigned score and will determine citizens’ employment opportunities, their access to loans and even potential romantic partners. The system will not be restricted to citizens but will also include business enterprises and industries.
Eight private companies have been provided with licenses to start pilots and experimental phases in regions. The most notable of them is Sesame Credit which is a subsidiary of Chinese retail giant, Alibaba. The final system that will be instituted might draw on the pilots designed by the private companies or might be entirely different.
The Social Credit System has been presented as the panacea to the widespread issue of mistrust in society and the lack of “sincerity” among the Chinese. The promise of a good score and subsequent benefits would incentivise the citizens to work to attain and maintain a good score. The threat of a bad score will act as a check on undesirable behaviour. Thus, incentivised good behaviour and actions will ensure that the underlying issue of mistrust and insincerity will be tackled tactfully.
While the Social Credit System is soon becoming a reality in China, in India, the Aadhar system is attempting to achieve something similar and parallels between the two systems can be drawn. The Aadhar, a 12-digit unique number, functions as an identity proof for residents of the country and is being modelled by the government to be the solution for all issues related to identity fraud plaguing the country. This system acts as a platform for the government to access all records and information available on all its residents. Therefore, the implementation of Aadhar has incited debates on privacy and data security across the country.
The dominant narrative that is being woven by the governments in both countries revolves around national interest and security. The narrative builds on these themes by asserting that the entry into the digital era and digitization is what is required for the countries to finally assert themselves and reclaim their rightful positions in the world order.
The government in India, by introducing welfare schemes that include Aadhar, is creating a system that necessitates Aadhar be the foundation of welfare and governance. Further, like the Social Credit System in China, the Aadhar integrates all available information on the individuals and as a result the individual loses complete control over any form of information or data that is available on them. The Social Credit System in China has been designed as a surveillance apparatus designed to exert control over the citizens and to construct the “ideal citizen”.
Therefore, the Chinese government is very subtly weaving together the notion of an ‘ideal citizen’ and in the process also reworking the conception of what it is to be a citizen and the relationship they enjoy with the state. China has always maintained administrative control over her population through the Hukou system which has been used to actively determine and limit where a person can live. Therefore, the Hukou system predicted an individual’s opportunities and prospects and therefore could be seen as a precursor to the Social Credit System.
The Social Credit System might be straight out of an Orwellian nightmare, but it shows how a country like China, always known to assert control over her citizens is devising new mechanisms to continue doing so. The Social Credit System warrants several questions to be raised; does the implementation of the system signal a shift towards a Big Data driven governance backed by the state? How does this model aim to accommodate the rights of the citizens and negotiate with the state’s need to survey its citizens? At this point, only time will tell.