China’s chilling new ‘Social Credit System’ surveillance system laid bare

Beijing Skyline

In a compelling article for the Wall Street Journal, Mirjam Meissner, a researcher with the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), which is Europe’s largest China-focused think-tank, has painted a chilling picture of the Communist state’s surveillance ambitions.

It also lays bare how the surveillance system in China impacts the lives of ordinary citizens, as well foreigners who visit the country, however fleetingly, and even those who have links to people there.

Cyber-surveillance

She explains that the Communist Party is working towards the creation of an “all-encompassing system of cyber-surveillance” which brings together data from both public and private sources to give an astonishing detailed picture of every citizen’s online profile.

At present, China operates a ‘so-called Social Credit System’. This takes data from financial institutions, the police, and intelligence services, but also other sources as diverse as social media activities, online shopping interests, and workplace reports and evaluations.

This data will be brought together to give everyone a social credit score after your activities are put up against definitions on socially responsible behavior and complying with the law and rules which are of course designed by the Communist Party.
Astonishingly, this rating will be made publicly available and will be published online for anyone to access. Its impact on individual lives will be broadly similar to a credit score in the UK or the USA. If you score is low, you are likely to find yourself being blacklisted from various economic services.

But it is likely to go a lot further than that. It could impact your chances of finding work, your ability to use public services, and even your social life. The system will penalise by association, so if you have a low score, you are likely to see your social media links dropping and people less willing to be seen in public with you.

This system will be used for every individual and company in China. And that is expected to include those foreigners living or working in the country. For them, business opportunities are likely to depend on having a good Social Credit Score. This will mean being required to open up your entire business to the scrutiny and surveillance of the Chinese Communist Party, or facing the consequences.

Support

It might surprise some that the Chinese public, far from taking to the streets in outrage at such a system, is actually, for the most part, welcoming it. They have been sold a vision of a system where China can return to the ‘civilised society’ which existed before their economic miracle, and this vision appears to be a popular one to a people already more than accustomed to living under constant surveillance.

Chinese tech companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent, are also not only supportive but actively helping the government to set up the technological background to operate such an intensive system. These same companies are also being actively encouraged to expand their operations overseas as well.

The article argues that this new system poses a potential risk to anyone accepting investment or cooperation with Chinese companies (hopefully the UK Government is taking note as they consider the Chinese investment in their proposed new Nuclear Power Plant) and suggests contractual safeguards should be included in any contract with a Chinese business.

This system is likely to hugely resource-intensive, and only remotely feasible in a country with the economic weight of China. But that doesn’t mean that it will not be attractive to other authoritarian regimes across the globe. The risks of such programmes spreading are significant, and something that Western Governments should not only be aware of but be actively trying to oppose.

For individuals, a VPN is likely to offer a route to leading a surveillance-free life online, but with the new system likely to invade every aspect of their life, acceptance and compliance seem to be the only option until the Communist Party’s grip on China eventually starts to weaken.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *