Leave no dark corner
18th Sept 2018
China is building a digital dictatorship to exert control over its 1.4 billion citizens. For some, “social credit” will bring privileges — for others, punishment.
Dandan Fan is very much the modern Chinese woman. A marketing professional, she’s diligent and prosperous — in many ways she’s a model Chinese citizen.
But Dandan is being watched 24 hours a day. A vast network of 200 million CCTV cameras across China ensures there’s no dark corner in which to hide.
Every step she takes, every one of her actions big or small — even what she thinks — can be tracked and judged. And Dandan says that’s fine with her.
What may sound like a dystopian vision of the future is already happening in China. And it’s making and breaking lives. The Communist Party calls it “social credit” and says it will be fully operational by 2020.
Within years, an official Party outline claims, it will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.
Cameras monitor a busy street in Beijing, part of a network of 200 million CCTV cameras across China. Foreign Correspondent: Brant Cumming
Social credit is like a personal scorecard for each of China’s 1.4 billion citizens.
In one pilot program already in place, each citizen has been assigned a score out of 800. In other programs it’s 900. Those, like Dandan, with top “citizen scores” get VIP treatment at hotels and airports, cheap loans and a fast track to the best universities and jobs.
Those at the bottom can be locked out of society and banned from travel, or barred from getting credit or government jobs. The system will be enforced by the latest in high-tech surveillance systems as China pushes to become the world leader in artificial intelligence.
Surveillance cameras will be equipped with facial recognition, body scanning and geo-tracking to cast a constant gaze over every citizen. Smartphone apps will also be used to collect data and monitor online behaviour on a day-to-day basis.
Then, big data from more traditional sources like government records, including educational and medical, state security assessments and financial records, will be fed into individual scores.
Trial social credit systems are now in various stages of development in at least a dozen cities across China.
Several companies are working with the state to nationalise the system, co-ordinate and configure the technology, and finalise the algorithms that will determine the national citizen score.
It’s probably the largest social engineering project ever attempted, a way to control and coerce more than a billion people.
If successful, it will be the world’s first digital dictatorship.
At the supermarket, Dandan is browsing the aisles. Even this everyday task will not escape the Party’s penetrating gaze.
When social credit is fully implemented, what she puts into the trolley could impact her social score. Buying too much alcohol might suggest dependence; she’ll lose a couple of points.
But buying a pack of nappies might suggest responsibility; she’ll gain a few points. The system will be “live” so her score will update in real time.
Dandan doesn’t object to the prospect of life under the state’s all-seeing surveillance network.
The 36-year-old knows social credit is not a perfect system but believes it’s the best way to manage a complex country with the world’s biggest population. “I think people in every country want a stable and safe society,” she says.
“If, as our government says, every corner of public space is installed with cameras, I’ll feel safe.” She’s also likely to benefit from the system. Dandan’s financial behaviour will be an important measure for the national social credit score.
Under an existing financial credit scheme called Sesame Credit, Dandan has a very high score of 770 out of 800 — she is very much the loyal Chinese citizen.
The app for a pilot program shows Dandan’s social credit score is 773 out of 800. The perks of such a high score are only a few taps away. Foreign Correspondent: Brant Cumming
Thanks to her rating, Dandan is already able to partake in many of the rewards of China’s rapid development.
An app on her phone gives access to special privileges like renting a car, hotel room or a house without a deposit. But social credit will be affected by more than just internet browsing and shopping decisions.
Who your friends and family are will affect your score. If your best friend or your dad says something negative about the government, you’ll lose points too.
Who you date and ultimately partner with will also affect social credit.
Dandan says surveillance in China’s public spaces makes her feel safe, even if the government uses it to keep an eye on citizens. Foreign Correspondent: Brant Cumming
Dandan married for love but she chose the right husband — Xiaojing Zhang is likely to have an even higher score than her.
He’s a civil servant in the justice department, a loyal cadre to the party.
“We need a social credit system,” says Xiaojing.
“In the Chinese nation, we hope we can help each other, love each other, and help everyone become prosperous.
“As President Xi said, we will be rich and democratic, cultural, harmonious and beautiful.
“It is Xi’s hope for the country’s future. It is also the hope of the whole Chinese nation.”
As Dandan and Xiaojing are model parents, their son Ruibao, 2, will benefit from their social credit too. Foreign Correspondent: Brant Cumming
China has long been a surveillance state, so the citizenry is accustomed to the government taking a determining role in personal affairs.
For many in China, privacy doesn’t have the same premium as it does in the West.
The Chinese place a higher value on community good versus individual rights, so most feel that, if social credit will bring a safer, more secure, more stable society, then bring it on. But most don’t seem to comprehend the all-encompassing control social credit is likely to have, and there’s been no public debate about implementing the system inside China.
In private, there’s been some disquiet in the educated middle classes about the citizen score being the only criterion for character assessment. But that’s not going to stop the rollout.
The Party is using the system to win back some of the control it lost when China opened up to the world in the 1980s and rapid development followed.
It’s a way to silence dissent and ensure the Party’s absolute dominance. Already, about 10 million people have been punished in the trial areas of social credit. Liu Hu is just one of them.
In many societies, he would be celebrated. Not in China.
Liu Hu is an investigative journalist who has uncovered corruption at the top levels of the Party and solved serial murder cases. He says the government considers him an enemy.
Hu lost his social credit when he was charged with a speech crime and now finds himself locked out of society due to his low score.
In 2015, Hu lost a defamation case after he accused an official of extortion.
He was made to publish an apology and pay a fine but when the court demanded an additional fee, he refused.
Last year, the 43-year-old found himself blacklisted as “dishonest” under a pilot social credit scheme.
“There are a lot of people who are on the blacklist wrongly, but they can’t get off it,” says Hu.
It’s destroyed his career and isolated him, and he now fears for his family’s future.
The social credit system has closed down his travel options and kept him under effective house arrest in his hometown of Chongqing.
In an apartment above the streets of Chongqing city, Hu tries to use a phone app to book train tickets to Xi’an. The attempt is rejected.
“[The app] says it fails to make a booking and my access to high-speed rail is legally restricted,” he explains.
Hu’s social media accounts, where he published much of his investigative journalism, have also been shut down.
Hu claims his combined Wechat and Weibo accounts had two million followers at their peak but are now censored.
Chinese journalist Liu Hu lost his social credit and is effectively confined to house arrest. Foreign Correspondent: Brant Cumming
Hu believes his blacklisting is political and has tried to appeal to authorities. So far he has been met with silence.
Hu wants to warn the world of the nightmare of social credit.
Doing so could put his friends and family at risk of reprisals from the state, but Hu believes most Chinese don’t yet understand what’s to come under the digital totalitarian state.
“You can see from the Chinese people’s mental state,” says Hu.
“Their eyes are blinded and their ears are blocked. They know little about the world and live in an illusion.”
Dandan sees blue skies in her digital future. And for her, there’s another incentive to be optimistic about social credit.
It’s a way to ensure a happy and healthy future for her two-year-old son, Ruibao.
Thanks to his parents’ high citizen scores, Ruibao will get the best possible start in life — the best housing, schools and healthcare.
The provisions and protections of the Party will be bestowed upon him.
So long as mum and dad keep their credit up.
Foreign Correspondent’s ‘Leave no dark corner’ Tuesday 18th Sept 8pm on ABC TV.