China's proposals for a "social credit system" don't seem that radical when you read the dry, official plan posted by the government last year. As befits circulars from a socialist regime, the language is aggrandizing but unspecific:
Accelerating the construction of a social credit system is an important basis for comprehensively implementing the scientific development view and building a harmonious Socialist society; it is an important method to perfect the Socialist market economy system, accelerating and innovating social governance, and it has an important significance for strengthening the sincerity consciousness of the members of society, forging a desirable credit environment, raising the overall competitiveness of the country and stimulating the development of society and the progress of civilization.
Within all that verbiage, however, is something very radical. China is proposing to assess its citizens' behavior over a totality of commercial and social activities, creating an uber-scoring system. When completed, the model could encompass everything from a person's chat-room comments to their performance at work, while the score could be used to determine eligibility for jobs, mortgages, and social services.
"They've been working on the credit system for the financial industry for a while now," says Rogier Creemers, a China expert at Oxford University. "But, in recent years, the idea started growing that if you're going to assess people's financial status, you should equally be able to do that with other modes of trustworthiness."
The document talks about the "construction of credibility"—the ability to give and take away credits—across more than 30 areas of life, from energy saving to advertising. "It's like Yelp reviews with the nanny state watching over your shoulder, plus finance, plus all of these other things," says Creemers, who translated the plan.
The system, overseen by the State Council, is made possible by two factors. One, it's now possible to gather information about behavior as never before. As we use the Internet and different devices, we're leaving behind a huge footprint of data. Second, the Chinese government sees no reason to safeguard its citizens' data rights if it thinks that data can benefit them, says Creemers.
"In Europe and the U.S., there's a notion that the state should be constrained, that it's not right to intervene in people's lives, unless for justified reasons. In China, the state has no qualms about that. It says 'data allows us to make society for better, so we're going to use it,'" he says.
Looked at from a certain perspective, you can see the value of a social credit system. It encourages people to act honestly in commercial situations, to be neighborly, and to evolve to a point of suzhi, or self-accomplishment. It makes sense to have a system of neutral accounting if you're looking to discourage corruption and improve the level of trust among people. In a sense, a social credit system is just a glorified version of the up and down votes on Reddit, or the reputation system on eBay. It's a way to deal with liars, cheats, and loudmouths.
The problem is such systems can quickly become coercive or directive—a way for the government to introduce norms of behavior and then punish people who don't follow along. The document discusses the possibility of punishing bad behavior, for example, by restricting access to social housing.
"On the one hand, this credit system is the institution of commonsensical rules for market behavior. On the other hand, it's a control tool," says Creemers. "The Party sets out a way of behaving, then it makes that way of behavior rational. You take away the ability for people to decide on what they think is good and you take away their choice of living a different lifestyle."
For that reason, we may want aspects of social scoring in liberal societies. But, unless we want to be China, we don't want the full state-controlled version.