China is Creating a “Social Score” to Rate Citizens and it’s Terrifying

In the first episode of the most recent season of Charlie Brooker’s hit dystopian drama Black Mirror, he imagines a society in which every social interaction is rated and ranked like an Uber ride. If you’re pleasant and polite, you get a good rating. If you’re grumpy and rude, your ranking slips.

Each person, like each Uber driver and customer, has an overall score between one and five – and that score is used by employers to determine their employees, by banks to decide who gets a mortgage, and generally is used as a proxy for each individual’s social standing. But it’s just that – a dystopian drama. The prospect of having to keep a smile glued to your face in every trivial social interaction if you want to be able to earn above the minimum wage is, for the time being, confined to TV drama. Unless you live in China.

By 2020, every single Chinese citizen will be enrolled in an omnipotent and omniscient ‘social credit system’. It’s almost comic in its similarity to literary villainy – any novice dystopian author would be dismissed as derivative and trite for melding George Orwell’s 1984 and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. But what exactly is the ‘social credit system’? Is it really all that bad, or are you being suckered into thinking that some milquetoast social program is worse than it actually is? No, the truth is, it’s actually¬†really bad.

How it works

The Chinese government is co-operating with private mega-corporations, including the owners of online retailer Alibaba, to come up with a single number that represents each individual citizen’s ‘societal integrity’. People will be judged on everything from minor traffic law infractions to the number of hours wasted playing video games. If you think that the video games example might be the invention of this writer’s imagination, it isn’t. It’s the example given by Li Yingyun, the Technology Director of one of the corporations who are developing the social credit system: “Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person. Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility”.

“Rest Assured”

Alibaba has been explicit that its social credit system doesn’t take into account posts on social media as a factor in each person’s rating. There are two problems with this claim: first, they’ve made their algorithm completely secret, so nobody can check whether what they’re saying is true. Second, the fact that they’ve been shouting so loudly about how they don’t take social media posts into account kind of gives the impression that other companies involved in developing their own prototypes of the social credit system are taking social media posts into account. So, badmouthing your boss in a status update doesn’t just mean you could get fired from your current job; it means that your social ranking could take such a hit that you can’t get a new job after that.

In 1949, Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, sent a letter to George Orwell, claiming that his own dystopian novel was a more realistic prediction than Orwell’s. Huxley had written about a society in which people weren’t forced into subservience by a totalitarian government, but willingly accepted it. In China, the government is forcing a system onto citizens who are willingly accepting it. Somehow, both Orwell and Huxley’s predictions have come to fruition – China’s dystopian nightmare could be the worst of both worlds.


Photo credit: Keving Hong and Black Mirror.

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