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By Patrick McAuliffe

By now, the Chinese government’s persecution and mass surveillance of its minority Uighur (Muslim) population should be old news to you. BBC estimates as late as August 4th of this year that, over the past few years, over one million Uighurs and other Muslim groups in China have been subject to relocation and forced internment in re-education camps, primarily in the western region of Xinjiang. China’s official stance is that these enrollments are voluntary; scarce evidence from inside the camps and stories from survivors tell of anything but. The human rights abuses committed by the Chinese government against the Uighurs, done these days nearly with impunity, show that with every passing year, the Chinese Communist Party’s stranglehold over its citizens grows stronger. In October 2019, The Independent reported that there are 170 million CCTV surveillance cameras across China, which equals one camera for every 12 citizens. To make matters worse for its citizens, in 2014, the CCP unveiled its plans for a “social credit system,” which may sound like something straight from a dystopian novel. Using two such works of fiction from television – one lighthearted on the surface, one deathly grim – the details of such a system may better come to light.

The potentially funny and absurd side of a social credit system may be a good starter to cleanse the palate. I finally got around to watching Community on Netflix during quarantine, which I would categorize as one of the Big Four NBC Powerhouse Comedies (alongside Parks and Rec, The Office, and 30 Rock). In season five, our cast of characters – minus Troy and Pierce – is given the task of beta-testing a new app called Meowmeowbeenz on Greendale Community College’s campus. It is pitched by its developers as a great idea, allowing anyone and everyone to rate each other with the aforementioned “meowmeowbeenz” (small cat icons with the same schtick as a star system). Jeff, the leader of the study group, is a cool, aloof loner on the outside and doesn’t like how, in Abed’s words, the app “takes everything subjective and unspoken about human interaction and reduces it to explicit, objective numbers.” The irony, in this case, is that plenty goes unspoken as people judge others through Meowmeowbeenz. Shirley, a housewife attending Greendale that often misses out on events that the other main characters plan, gains five meowmeowbeenz quickly due to her ability to charm and manipulate others into liking and supporting her. Jeff joins the app purely to dethrone Shirley; he eventually joins her and the few other Fives at the top as a caste system develops between the different numbers. The airheaded social activist Britta (now a Two because of her incessant proselytizing about the evils of Meowmeowbeenz) leads a mustard-faced revolution of the lower numbers as Jeff and Shirley argue about their battle for control and fall to One-ness together. Britta and the other Ones, Twos, and Threes downvote all higher classes to join them at the bottom. After everyone becomes a One, Jeff convinces the students and faculty to delete Meowmeowbeenz from their phones, claiming that the now-five-star app “judged them but exempt[ed] itself from judgment.” Realizing that it was now Saturday, everybody goes home and leaves Britta desperately wiping mustard on her face to get them to stay.

A much more far-reaching and sinister use of social credit is shown in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”. Lacie Pound spends every day desperately trying to increase her social rating, practicing her graces and giggles in front of her mirror and five-starring everyone she encounters. In this society, ocular implants allow one to view a person’s social media feed in real time, enabling one to bring up information in conversation to keep relations cordial and simulate personability. Her old friend Naomi (a 4.8) invites her to be the maid of honor at her upcoming wedding, which Lacie sees as the perfect opportunity for her to gain the upvotes of powerful people. 4.5 rated people and above live in the lap of luxury, and Lacie grinded hard for her 4.2, despite her not truly enjoying doing anything to get there. A few missteps on her way to the wedding cause her score to go on a downward spiral after she loses her cool at the airport (a nosedive, if you will), preventing her from getting a plane ticket or renting a decent car or even being well-rated enough to be picked up as a hitchhiker. After she falls to 2.8 and gets picked up by a truck driver (a 1.4), Lacie learns that the social scoring system denied the truck driver’s dying husband a hospital bed by a margin of 0.1. She learns that playing the rating game as it exists only fosters resentment and false kindness to one’s fellow humans; earlier, Lacie wouldn’t even boost a coworker’s score to let him into their building after he had fallen to 2.4 following a nasty breakup. Swigging whiskey and driving an ATV through the woods, Lacie crashes Naomi’s wedding (as she, a 2.8, was no longer invited and would no longer play well for Naomi’s audience). With all of the guests’ eyes on her, Lacie’s score plummets as she throws all of her feelings about the world into the open, talking about how Naomi simultaneously helped her with her eating disorder and had sex with her boyfriend back in high school. In prison, now near zero, her ocular implants are removed, and she gleefully trades unfiltered insults with a strange man in a cell across from hers. The harmonious “fuck you”s ring out as the screen fades to black, a small rebellion against a world that punishes a person’s honesty by robbing them of their lives.

Are there already parallels to such social credit systems as these two in the West? Some could argue that, for example, Uber drivers who drop below a certain rating will be punished similarly to those low-numbered people in these two works of fiction, or that the entire purpose of sites like Yelp is to identify and weed out undesirable restaurant choices objectively through the market. Even credit scores are based on a person’s borrowing history and are used to predict how reliable that person will be in paying back a loan. However, Western countries’ methods of reducing aspects of a person to “explicit, objective numbers”, as Abed mentions, are far from as all-encompassing as the proposed Chinese system. In Western countries, the lowering of one’s particular score only limits one’s choices. The likelihood of a poorly-rated Uber driver getting regular riders is greatly reduced, but not impossible. A poorly-rated restaurant may still have the occasional customer or two that hasn’t done Internet research beforehand. People with low credit scores are unlikely to get generous credit terms, but a myriad of factors could play in their favor. Should any of these methods fail to result in equal treatment to higher-rated people or businesses, assuming that they have the means to do so, low-scoring people and businesses can always choose another course of action. This isn’t so in the Chinese system.

The following foundational facts of China’s social credit system will be drawing upon a Wired UK article from June 7th, 2019. The most important distinction about China’s system, originally with a deadline for full implementation in 2020, is that it isn’t one centrally-controlled system that allows the CCP to give every citizen a general score. There are both private and public systems; the former includes data on shopping habits and relationships between people and the latter focuses on each citizen’s fulfillment of government-mandated duties and compliance with government rule. For example, the privately-collected data (which its collectors swear is gathered by opting-in) covers everything from the amount of time and money spent on video games to parenting habits, and countless other credit transactions. This data collection is permitted by the Chinese government, but it is generally assumed by these companies that it can be seized by the government at any time to be implemented into a state program at a later date. This would be difficult to execute, however, since many different regions of China score their citizens based on different criteria. Eventually, in order to transform each regional social credit system into a national system, the CCP would have to declare top-down standards and adapt each citizen’s local rating into conformity with its national criteria. The end goal, as stated in the article, is that each citizen has a given ID number and searching any ID number would produce a record of that citizen’s credit transactions, both social and monetary.

This system is vastly different from a government blacklist, one aspect of the public social credit system. Liu Hu, a Chinese journalist focused on censorship and corruption, has been denied certain rights because of his work, such as buying a plane ticket, taking out a loan, or owning property. Public social credit scores afford certain rights or restrictions to citizens when dealing with the government; higher scores could make for smoother bureaucratic transactions, while lower scores can spark a “nosedive” in people’s livelihoods if they are saddled with extra paperwork or fees. Citizens desperate to get ahead in these avenues may become entirely focused on improving their scores, much like Lacie or Jeff. In a classless, communist society, like what China was meant to be at the time of its revolution, scores doling out certain rights and privileges to some and not others betray the foundation of the entire institutional ideology.

One cannot simply compare China’s social credit system to the system in Black Mirror or “Meowmeowbeenz”. Each system operates on a different enforcement mechanism. In the two works of fiction, users of the credit system took it upon themselves to divide each other based on number. “Nosedive” takes the Meowmeowbeenz culture of Greendale and expands it to all of society; one notable part about this episode of Black Mirror is that no government agents are playing a hand in its enforcement. However, it shares several key traits with China’s system in that, in order to participate in certain aspects of the market, one’s score must reach a certain threshold. It is never made clear whether this is a state mandate on businesses or a decision reached by the businesses privately. Still, since much of China’s market is nationalized or at least partly under government control, the denial of different rights to Lacie in “Nosedive” is a fair portrayal of the type of treatment citizens can expect when governments force them to play the numbers game. Western countries with comparatively freer markets can take solace in the fact that its citizens and businesses can grind to raise their own social ratings, but a bad score isn’t the end of their fair treatment under the law.

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