China is Implementing a Social Rating System

I loved her, on the spot. There was something in her stance, her walk, her voice. Hesitantly, I approached and opened a light chat. There was an immediate connection, a feeling of rapport between us. Finally, I dared pop the question – “Do you want to meet again tomorrow?”

She went quiet for a second, then asked to see my social credit rating. I tried to keep my face still while I took out my smartphone and showed it to her.

She went quiet for more than a few seconds…

 

This system – a social credit rating – is in the process of being created and implemented today in China. If it works out well, it’s going to have an impact that will spread far beyond the People’s Republic, and may become part of our lives everywhere. Because, you see, this system might actually be a good idea – as long as we use it wisely.

What is a social credit rating? In a way, it’s similar to the ordinary credit history rating being used in America and other countries. Every person in America, for example, has a credit history that speaks volumes about their past behavior, how soon they return their loans, and how they handle their money. When one applies for a new loan, a mortgage or even for a new credit card, the banks and financial institutes take a good hard look at the inquirer’s credit history to decide whether or not they can be safe giving him that loan.

Up until today, only 320 million individuals in China had any kind of credit history, out of 800 million people registered in China’s central bank. Things are about to change, though, since the Chinese government is authorizing several companies to collect and compare information about the citizens, thus creating an omnipotent, omniscient system that assigns a “social credit rating” to anyone who uses any kind of online services, including dating sites like Baihe, and commercial sites like Alibaba.

And the Chinese people are really gobbling it up.

While it’s obviously difficult to know how the common person in the street is responding, it looks like the Chinese companies (again, under close scrutiny and agreement by the government) really know how to sell the idea to their customers. In fact, they’re letting the customers ‘sell’ the idea themselves to their friends, by turning the social credit rating into a game. People are comparing their ratings to each other, and are showing their ratings on their smartphones and their profiles on dating services. For them, it has become a game.

But it is a game with very serious consequences.

Her face fell when she saw my rating. I talked quickly – “I-It’s not what it looks like. You gotta understand, I didn’t have the money to repay Big Joe last week, but now I’m getting all the wages I was owed. Seriously, it’s OK. I’m OK financially. I really am.”

 

There’s no denying that credit history ratings can serve a positive purpose. They alert individuals and companies to the past history of con artists, scammers and generally unscrupulous people whom you’d rather not have any dealings with. The mere presence of a credit history rating could cause people to trust each other better, and also to behave themselves in their financial dealings. People from market societies tend to deal more fairly with strangers because they know their actions are always counted for or against them. A credit history rating essentially makes sure that everyone knows they are monitored for best behavior – and that’s a powerful force that can help maintain civil order.

It is also a powerful tool in the hands of a government that wants to control its citizens.

She bit her bottom lip, and her brow furrowed. She kept my smartphone in her hand, scrolling down quickly and reading all the fine details. Suddenly she raised her head and stared at me.

“You played Assassin’s Creed for one hundred hours last month?” she demanded to know. I nodded dumbly, and watched as the smile spread slowly on her lips. “I love that game! I play it all the time myself!”

I felt butterflies swimming across my vision. She was obviously The One for me. Such a perfect fit could never happen by chance. And yet, I felt I needed to check one last thing.

“Can I see your social rating too?” I asked timidly, and waited an eternity for her answer.

It’s pretty easy to understand how one’s credit history rating in America is determined. You just need to pay your bills in time in order to maintain a good credit history. A social credit rating, however, is a different thing altogether. At least one of the companies in charge of calculating it, does not agree to expose how the rating is determined, except that the calculation is based on “complex algorithm”. Which essentially means that nobody knows exactly how they’re being judged and rated – except for the big companies and the government.

Does that make you feel like the Chinese are entering into an Orwelian totalitarian rule? It should. There are persistent rumors that the Chinese social credit will be determined according to the users’ online activities in social media. When the Chinese government is in total control, who do you think will get a better social rating: the citizens who support the government unconditionally, or the dissidents who oppose the government’s doings?

In short, a social rating could be a great way for any government to control the population and the opinions and points of view it advocates and stands for. And since the social rating could be a dynamic and constantly changing parameter, it could change rapidly according to every new action a person takes, every sentence and cussword they utter. The government only has to set the rating algorithms – and the automated monitoring and rating systems will do the rest.

I walked back and forth in my small room, silently cursing myself for my foolishness. So what if her social rating was so low? She must have been a supporter of the opposition for it to drop by so much, but what of it? I’m not a political activist anyway. Why should I care?

And yet, I had to admit to myself that I cared. How could I go out with someone with that kind of a low rating? All my friends will know. They’ll laugh at me behind my back. Worse still, my own social rating would go down immediately. I will not only be the laughing stock of my class in the University – I would not even be legible anymore for a scholarship, and all my dreams for a higher degree would end right there and then.

I sighed, and sat back on the squeaky bed. She just wasn’t right for me, in this time in life. Maybe when I have a better social rating, to balance her own. Maybe the algorithms would change their decision about her someday.

But that would probably be too late for us.

 

The social rating system is currently voluntary, but within five years China is planning to rank everyone within its borders. It’s going to be interesting to see how it’s working out for the Chinese. And who knows? Maybe we’ll get to have a taste of the system as well, probably sooner than later. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, is still up to grabs.

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