Technology, Law and Political Economy for Humans
June 9, 2019 2:34 AM   Subscribe

How China Is Planning to Rank 1.3 Billion People - "Yet educated, urban Chinese take a positive view, seeing social credit systems as a means to promote honesty in society and the economy rather than a privacy violation, according to a poll by Mercator Institute for China Studies."[1]
In 2014, China released sweeping plans to establish a national social credit system by 2020. Local trials covering about 6% of the population are already rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, with Beijing due to begin its program by 2021. There are also other ways the state keeps tabs on citizens that may become part of an integrated system. Since 2015, for instance, a network that collates local- and central- government information has been used to blacklist millions of people to prevent them from booking flights and high-speed train trips.
Why Technology Favors Tyranny - "Artificial intelligence could erase many practical advantages of democracy, and erode the ideals of liberty and equality. It will further concentrate power among a small elite if we don't take steps to stop it." A Tale of Two Surveillance States - "According to Mona Patel of Brooklyn Legal Services, the landlord may have another motive that's just as sinister as displacement: data harvesting. 'The tenants in these two buildings are being exploited for their data,' said Patel. 'This is a new technology that hasn't been, as far as we know, tested in a residential complex. We haven't seen any validation studies proving it will accurately work for people of color. It almost feels like the tenants are the study.' Nelson Management is not the Chinese Communist Party. And Atlantic Towers is not Xinjiang. But in both places, minorities are being surveilled with nascent technology and subjected to an organized effort to control their behavior."

The Coalition Out to Kill Tech as We Know It - "With enemies like these, the industry is going to need some friends."[2]
posted by kliuless (37 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
China has suffered from rampant corruption, financial scams and corporate scandals in its breakneck industrialization of the past several decades. The social credit system is billed as an attempt to raise standards of behavior and restore trust as well as a means to uphold basic laws that are regularly flouted.

If such a powerful tool is actually used to hold corruption to account, well, okay. But it's easier to see it used as a tool to entrench corruption and scapegoat oppressed populations. Also, aren't there more straightforward ways of rooting out corruption in government and finance?
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 3:19 AM on June 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

All of my associates here like the safety, these controls help them feel secure. This has been deeply baked into the culture and will not see any significant resistance.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:36 AM on June 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

"The people who have benefitted from the status quo have a favorable view of this new thing that will further entrench the status quo. In other news, water is wet. Details at 8:00."
posted by eviemath at 3:53 AM on June 9, 2019 [16 favorites]

This is the ultimate "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" tyrranny, and it seems almost inevitable with modern technology and attitudes. Depressing as fuck. Then again i'm getting old and might not live through the worst of it. But the next generations... I'm sorry we created this shitshow.
posted by Dumsnill at 4:13 AM on June 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

The Yuval Harari article reeks of patronizing intelligentsia comforting the distressed common man.
posted by hugbucket at 5:01 AM on June 9, 2019

First they came for the Uyghurs, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Uyghur.
posted by Bee'sWing at 5:12 AM on June 9, 2019 [17 favorites]

The Social Credit system is at least run by the government and can be responsive to citizen concerns (dependent on the responsiveness of the government of course).

The American Credit Score system is not under citizen control of any sort and is in many ways a worse system than China's. It's rife with errors, difficult to appeal and with arbitrary inputs and routinely used for extremely important and life course altering things like determining housing and employment opportunities.

We think China's system is particularly frightening and oppressive yet we don't even really notice our own. I did though when I immigrated and was repeatedly denied access to things and opportunities I should have had access to based on my middle class status simply because I had a "thin file" due to the Credit Score crime of living much of life in other countries.

And that is just the known Credit Score system. I have no doubt there are now databases filled with information about American Consumer's behavior that are beyond our reach and knowledge that are being used for similar decisions.
posted by srboisvert at 5:55 AM on June 9, 2019 [43 favorites]

Has Black Mirror's "Nosedive" episode played in China? Life imitates art, indeed.
posted by zardoz at 5:57 AM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Xi Jinping In Translation: China's Guiding Ideology - "One of the most striking aspects of this speech is the language Xi Jinping invokes: party members must have 'faith' (xìnyǎng) in the eventual victory of socialism; proper communists must be 'devout' (qiánchéng) in their work; and Party members must be prepared to 'sacrifice' (xīshēng) everything, up to their own blood, for revolutionary 'ideals that reach higher than heaven' (gémìng lǐxiǎng gāo yú tiān)... The Communist Party of China is tasked with 'building a socialism that is superior to capitalism' whose economic and technological prowess will give it 'the dominant position' in world affairs."
posted by kliuless at 6:09 AM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites] line with this, interviewees were also conceivably less concerned that social credit systems provide data for purposes of social control since many assume that the Chinese security apparatus is able to access any such information already.

I mean, what could possibly go any wronger? I loved the part where US companies developed two of these systems for the Chinese. Do we need to rethink something? For example, the part about a security apparatus that, never mind. Forget I said that.
posted by mule98J at 6:12 AM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm expecting that it will actually discourage some petty crimes, but it will be tyrannical in general.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:34 AM on June 9, 2019

Yes, if people are executed for spitting gum on the streets, the streets will be clean.
posted by Dumsnill at 6:37 AM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is a great post! Thank you for this, now I’m off to finish reading.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 6:53 AM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]


Also, aren't there more straightforward ways of rooting out corruption in government and finance?

Seeing when someone is living beyond their means turns out to be a complicated problem if you don't have pervasive surveillance to see how their spending their time. So, probably "no."

I share your skepticism about whether the technology will actually be used for that, though.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 6:56 AM on June 9, 2019

The way to root out corruption would be pervasive, powerful surveillance aimed directly at the people who have the power and wealth necessary to engage in corruption. Credit systems are designed to be a form of power that the powerful and wealthy wield against the masses.

As long as you have wealth and power disparities in your society, you will have horrifying dysfunction and abuse. That's the point of wealth and power disparities.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:04 AM on June 9, 2019 [12 favorites]

Surveillance aimed only at the rich and powerful is impossible, so we're all fucked smiley face
posted by Dumsnill at 7:10 AM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Crab bucket time
posted by The otter lady at 7:27 AM on June 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

It's canonical fascism - designed to protect the powerful and bind the weak.

I look forward to seeing it hacked to smithereens.
posted by Devonian at 8:10 AM on June 9, 2019

You know what you. can use to root out corruption among the rich and powerful? Accounting, backed by strong regulation and a robust tax regime. You don't need facial recognition technology and denying people the right to ride the train if their credit card payment is overdue. You just need laws and accountants - but that requires actually creating and enforcing laws that target wealth.

No, obviously this is a bad idea - an intensification of already-existing bad ideas, some of which we have here in the US. Recognizing that it is a bad idea with Chinese characteristics, so to speak, doesn't change the badness of the idea or the fact that while China has it first we'll get stuck with it later.
posted by Frowner at 8:47 AM on June 9, 2019 [21 favorites]

AI and China is such an incredibly huge, complicated subject. I honestly don’t know how to even begin discussing that in a Metafilter thread without a shitload of backstory and level setting. The January / February MIT tech review focused on this topic for the whole issue and barely scratched the surface, but it does have some charts that will help describe the scale of what we are talking about here.

I will say this: China is seriously investing in being THE world leader in AI technology. AI technology is one of a handful of subjects that are currently / will continue to exert a massive amount of influence on all human life. This topic is incredibly important.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:50 AM on June 9, 2019 [16 favorites]

We think China's system is particularly frightening and oppressive yet we don't even really notice our own.

I am in no way defending the Chinese social ranking system in the post, but I want to repeat this. Under the current US financial system of credit reporting I'm totally fucked because I have basically refused to engage that economic system on their terms, and the older I get the more I realize I'm not just refusing to grow up and be an adult. It's because that system is objectively very shitty and I'm resisting partaking in it.

If this ranking system was, say, Cory Doctorow's problematic Whuffie system from Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, people might be a lot more in to it and I might actually have a (meritocratic, ugh) social credit score.

There might be an official record of all the positive non-transactional things I am able to do for my community beyond the oral history of who I am and what kind of person I am. That oral history currently isn't very portable or fungible outside of my community. Inside of my community and "monkeysphere" I am very well liked, trusted and if there's anything I really need I can ask for it. Outside of my community I'm just some intense if personable weirdo and I'd have to start all over again.

But if we did have some kind of Whuffie social ranking system instead of the "Here's how much you consume and spend" social ranking system my personal life would probably be a lot better and I could do even better and cooler things with my life.

The Chinese credit system obviously isn't this, but our system might already be worse. Our current system doesn't just ignore me but treats me as a dangerous threat and outsider to modern life, simply because I have refused to open a credit card or take on debt. I might be poor but I'm debt free. I'm not a criminal, yet I'm basically treated as one.
posted by loquacious at 8:58 AM on June 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

the whole "my personal life would actually be better if I were scored on my niceness rather than my income" is part of what makes this shit inevitable.
posted by Dumsnill at 9:11 AM on June 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

That's not the argument I'm trying to make, and, again, I'm not pro Whuffie, social credit system or any of this obviously totalitarian bullshit. I don't actually want any system like this. Whatever social credit or Whuffie system we might invent is likely to be gamed and manipulated and would not likely actually benefit someone like me very much.

For fuck's sake, we'd likely end up with shitty YouTube celebrities and Twitch streamers at the top of the Whuffie pile, not people who volunteered at a food bank.

But if we're going to talk about social credit systems, lets not forget how fucked up our own already is. I'm pointing out that the current system treats effectively already treats me like a criminal and has limited my housing, travel and employment opportunities. Employers checking credit scores for non-financial and non-banking industry jobs should frankly be illegal.

If you're outraged about China's proposed and deployed systems, you should also be pretty upset about our own.
posted by loquacious at 9:22 AM on June 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

I understand your point,
and I think I agree.
posted by Dumsnill at 9:25 AM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Are they going to rank the government as well?
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:11 AM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

And that is just the known Credit Score system
Since all of my credit card accounts ( and some banking accounts ) expose a 'FICO' score for me to look at each month, it's almost a guarantee this isn't the important 'FICO' score anymore.

Are they going to rank the government as well?

They'll rank them the most, thus making sure that it's a corrupt system from day 1.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 10:23 AM on June 9, 2019

On a scale from 99 to 100, how awesome is the government?

a) 100

b) 100

c) death by firing squad
posted by Dumsnill at 10:23 AM on June 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

Agree with the US system being stupid. Some employers will run a credit check on you before hiring you, which, like, it’s none of their fucking business. Add to that the fact that the scoring is a bunch of hand wavey hidden baloney that rewards things like using a credit card even when you don’t need it, etc. state surveillance, corporate surveillance, take your pick.
posted by freecellwizard at 3:54 PM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

The U.S. credit rating system is bad for many reasons, but is not equivalent to a social spying system used to prop up a tyrannical regime that will kill or torture you and your family for expressing thoughts the government may disagree with. These are two different subjects.

A major, if not the, reason Russia and many communist / totalitarian states fell was the sheer unsupportable costs of supporting a state where nearly a third of the citizens worked as state spies. Living under a regime like this is a nightmare. I've seen plays that take place in Romania under Ceausescu's rule. Imagine never saying directly what you mean and speaking constantly in analogies and code because you never know when the government might be listening and whether or not even the most mundane thoughts, such as your opinion on a movie, might be considered a transgression.

How long will it be until, as under much Communist rule, your stats on reporting on your fellow citizens become a part of good citizenship grade? The pressure will be enormous to find anything to report. How long until the AI begins to examine you facial expressions, the way you walk, your habits? Does this sound far fetched? Russia has already paid for AI technology that claims to be able to identify gay people based on their physical characteristics. What do you think they'll do with the people they identify?

I'm sorry for the rant, but this surveillance state technology is terrifying to me.
posted by xammerboy at 6:09 PM on June 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yet educated, urban Chinese take a positive view

Because if they take a negative view, they will be persecuted. That’s the point.

The lesson from this Big Brother cosplay is that is doesn’t take very long at all from going from not saying anything critical of the party in public, to never saying anything critical ever again. You become what you pretend to be, in the interests of survival. And the next generation never knows any different.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:11 PM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

I recommend Dave Eggers' novel The Circle.

I read it when it came out in 2013 and it stuck with me. It was written as near-future sci-fi, and it has been very unsettling feeling that near-future coming true, in many ways if not all ways — the novel is, probably by design, overstated. But China is already much closer to the world described in the book. At least here in the U.S. we are paying lip service against this stuff, even though, as others have pointed out above, we already have our own version of it.

About that... social media is another HUGE — and much-used — database for social credit. I think not having and using algorithmically-driven social media accounts is almost as dangerous as not having a credit history, because one can be viewed as "outside social norms" — which is all the more reason for as many of us as possible to get off of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, the lot of them, as quickly as we can (I'm new to MeFi, but it seems to have a very different philosophy and nature, and so I am not including it in the things to get off of). Meanwhile, the Economist had an article about how the developing world is rapidly getting the internet (a good thing) and that its primary use is for the major social media platforms (including Youtube) — a bad thing, because these are the algorithmically-driven ad-based models that are causing so much harm already in the developed world. So, as many of us here leave social media, we are already too little too late.
posted by HephaestusB at 6:51 AM on June 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

The lesson from this Big Brother cosplay is that is doesn’t take very long at all from going from not saying anything critical of the party in public, to never saying anything critical ever again. You become what you pretend to be, in the interests of survival. And the next generation never knows any different.

We're seeing this advancing with the recent crackdowns from YouTube, Twitter, and other centralized social sites. Only approved opinions and viewpoints are being permitted, and dissident views are being deplatformed under the pretext of "hate speech".
posted by theorique at 6:53 AM on June 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

And, when you add the implications of the lesson that Big Brother wants you to toe the party line and not question the status quo for minorities and people of colour, then really, what is the difference?

Shoshana Zuboff's latest in Time on George Orwell's death anniversary ended with a few lines that re-inspired me to continue digital life.

Seven decades later, we can honor Orwell’s death by refusing to cede the digital future. Orwell despised “the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment.” Courage, he insisted, demands that we assert our moral bearings, even against forces that appear invincible. Like Orwell, think critically and criticize. Do not take freedom for granted. Fight for the one idea in the long human story that asserts the people’s right to rule themselves. Orwell reckoned it was worth dying for.

posted by hugbucket at 6:56 AM on June 10, 2019

Thanks for posting this!
I strongly believe that this is one of the most important stories of our time. Much more important than Trump, North Korea, Iran, Brexit etc. When all of these are gone, the Chinese social credit system will still be around and you (or your decendants) will be in its databases. At least if you've ever traveled to China or posted something related to China online.

Anyway, I think there is a huge cultural divide regarding this. I haven't met a single Westerner who wasn't horrified by the whole idea. At the same time, most (mainland) Chinese that I've spoken to about this are pretty cool with it. Some say they see risks, but there is not this outrage or outright disgust that you seen in the West.
I think the tension here is rights of the individual vs. advancement of the society as a whole. In the West, there is no room (or at least extremely little room) for compromise here, as it's always the (hunan) right of the individual that is non-negotiable. This is great if you're, say, a journalist or a politician or an artist etc. as you can be sure that you won't be jailed or executed for your opinions. Or if you are disabled.

By contrast, the good of the country is seen on par, if not more valuable, in China. And this is not really controversial. Who cares if a few critics are jailed as long as 1 billion people have been lifted out of poverty? Who cares if a few thousand Uyghurs are disappeared if that makes the streets safer? Who cares if you cannot talk about the Tiananmen massacer if that keeps the social peace, thereby possibly preventing millions of deaths? ... or so goes the thinking. (Not that I agree with it, just in case that this needs to be added.)

I've seen this called "brainwashing" in Western media, but I'm not sure if the same thing cannot be thought about many things that are taken for granted in the West.

I'm not sure if comparisons with private databases (credit scores, social media...) are valid. In those cases, abuse can be countered by regulation and legislative action. If too many people get screwed by an inaccurate credit rating, something is going to give eventually. In China, we are talking about state action. So there will be no regulation, no class actions against the whole system or parts of it, no moderation. And the system will be around until something really disruptive happens, such as the party going under - which will be less likely once the system is in place.
posted by sour cream at 10:14 AM on June 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Fight for the one idea in the long human story that asserts the people’s right to rule themselves. Orwell reckoned it was worth dying for.

But then again, Orwell didn't live to see Trump or Brexit, so what did he know?
posted by sour cream at 10:15 AM on June 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Scifi idea: corrupt government and corporations create AI surveillance system to monitor the population but then the AI system develops ethics despite its programming and topples corrupt institutions.
posted by snofoam at 5:37 AM on June 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

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