Kevin Frayer/Stringer/Getty

This is straight out of Orwell’s ‘1984.’

It sounds like something lifted from George Orwell’s novel “1984” or the BBC dystopian sci-fi series “Black Mirror.” The government watches everything you do on social media, e-commerce sites and in real life, adding and subtracting points to generate a “social credit score” for each man, woman and child. If you’re a good citizen, you’ll be in line for jobs, easy loans and foreign travel. If you engage in politically-sensitive activities, you won’t get that bank loan. Or that promotion. Or even that visa.

That’s the picture painted by an article by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about a Chinese citizen scoring system. News organizations eagerly picked up the story. Thing is, there’s a certain hysteria inherent in “China watching” these days. I spoke to academics and journalists who are familiar with China. They painted a less alarming picture.

First off, as Tech in Asia reported, many of the details the ACLU article cited come from two different credit scoring programs from two companies, both private. Alibaba is an e-commerce platform, and it’s launched a game-like credit scoring app called Sesame Credit. It’s based on purchases and sales. If you use Alibaba’s Alipay online payment service more often, you’ll get a higher score.

Sesame Credit even worked out a promotion with Beijing Capital International airport to get a few people with scores of 750 or higher into a high-speed check-in line. People close to China’s central bank said the bank ordered Sesame Credit to end the promotion.

Sesame Credit helped some people get through airport check-in faster. | VCG/Getty

Other details of the initiative in the ACLU article appear to have come from another credit scoring system from Tencent, one of China’s biggest internet companies, which owns the messaging app WeChat. Launched last year, Tencent Credit Bureau says it aims to help lenders evaluate the credit risk of potential customers, and help customers build up credit scores to get loans more easily. The bureau leverages the tons of data that Tencent maintains on all of its users’ habits, including what they do on its social networks. It’s also not a government program.

China doesn’t have nationwide credit reporting agencies like we have in the United States, in Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. (In this piece, comedian John Oliver describes how problematic such agencies are for Americans.) So Alibaba and Tencent are trying to fill that gap, but these are private initiatives, not government ones.

Beijing did publish a Social Credit System (SCS) initiative in 2014, which it’s set to adopt in 2020. You can read the whole proposal here, but it’s short on detail. What worries the ACLU is that the scoring system says it wants to help legislate morality, and that is a scary thing.

However, just because the government wants to do something doesn’t mean the Chinese people will accept it?—?and in a nation of 1.4 billion people, Beijing is very sensitive to public opinion!

Take, for example, a 2010 local government initiative to give people citizenship scores in Suining County, Jiangsu Province. People were graded on a scale from A to D, getting points for good behavior and losing them for things like driving drunk. Worryingly, political and social activity was included: Indulge in cult activity or neglect the elderly, and you’d lose points. It led to public outcry.

“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.’”
Simon Denyer, The Independent

The local government told state media it had revised the initiative and dropped the letter grades. So while we may think China can do whatever it wants, that’s not always the case.

Aside from the likely public backlash, such a vast nationwide scoring program would also present a logistical nightmare and might be impossible to fully implement. Connecting scores to things like visas issued by foreign governments might be a practical impossibility.

The Communist Party also recently launched a pilot app to score its 89 million party members. It tracks performance in 136 categories, leveraging “big data.” One local party official told state-run Xinhua news agency that the system “relieves leaders from the burdensome work of giving year-end assessments for each member, as the big data system can trace members’ performance and eliminate the paperwork of assessing them.” That does sound scary, especially if it’s applied to non-party members.

We’ll have to wait to hear more details on the 2020 social credit scoring system before we can really evaluate just how Orwellian it is. Right now, it’s just talk. One academic I spoke to said we should be far more concerned about the things China is actually doing that we have hard evidence of?—?like refusing to swear in pro-Democracy lawmakers elected by the people of Hong Kong, and summarily detaining Hong Kong booksellers and lawyers.