Acton Institute Powerblog

China’s ‘Social Credit System’: When dystopian fiction becomes reality

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Growing up, I was fascinated with authors such as Ayn Rand, Aldous Huxley, Lois Lowry, George Orwell, and others who developed dystopian worlds through their writing. Reading their works was a fun way to explore the extremes that our society would never become.

According to a recent article in Wired by Rachel Botsman, some of those fictional worlds are coming ever closer to reality, with the Chinese government developing a new algorithm that will allow them to rank their citizens on a so-called “Social Credit System.” The goal of the system is to judge the “trustworthiness” of each of the 1.3 billion residents, ranking citizens based on everything from paying bills on time to consumer purchases to interpersonal relationships.

Not only is this entirely intrusive, but it also serves to diminish a series of personal freedoms. As just one example, citizens will likely begin to self-censor their posts on social media given that a negative post about the government may result in a lower score and subsequent negative impacts.

The system also distorts the free market by changing consumer behavior. “The system not only investigates behaviour – it shapes it,” writes Botsman. “It ‘nudges’ citizens away from purchases and behaviours the government does not like.” If consumers do not have the full freedom and power to choose for themselves, society will continually to drift from following economic law. There will be no supply and demand dictating the point of equilibrium. Demand will be artificial and prices will be arbitrary.

Such a system doesn’t just reduce freedom, but it contorts the human person to fit a certain mold. It reduces the human person to an algorithm. Totalitarian systems understand people to be malleable and seek to engineer “the perfect citizen.” The human person is seen as a hinge in the machine rather than a contributor to society. When producing a material object, imperfections are undesirable, but humans are not objects and therefore should not be treated as such. Algorithms cannot take into consideration context. The system does not know why you didn’t pay your bills. It just knows that you didn’t. It fails to see the citizen as a human person and instead sees him or her as a number.

The removal of these freedoms and the increasing treatment of human persons as objects isn’t unique to China. All over the world there are governments and systems that are heavily involved in the business of monitoring and rating citizens and consumers. There has to be a line drawn between defending our freedoms and removing our freedoms.

Image: Public Domain

Anna Kelly Anna Kelly, a graduate of Aquinas College, is a part of the Acton Institute's Programs & Education team where she works on program outreach and alumni initiatives.

Comments

  • Marc Vander Maas

    Last spring I found myself binge watching Black Mirror on Netflix. There’s an episode called “Nosedive” that explores the idea of a society where your social media ranking in large part determines your ability to rise in society. It’s quite chilling (as is the whole series, to be frank). To be honest, it was a factor in my decision last fall to greatly reduce my interaction with social media sites, which, I might add, has made me a happier person overall.