China’s Social Credit System

By: William Burnett 

 As a full-time missionary in Australia I had the privilege of serving with five companions from mainland China. We all became friends and often the topic of our conversations would drift to attitudes and policies the Chinese government has towards the church. My friends would talk about needing to travel to Hong Kong to get baptized, family members choosing between their government job or the church, and government officials that would often come to monitor the meetings for any anti sate rhetoric or foreign influence.  

China’s System

These nonchalant conversations made the Orwellian details of the Chinese social credit system unsurprising.  

Imagine you do any of the following:

    -Disobey minor traffic laws, such as jaywalking

    -Post anti-government messages on social media

    -Spread ‘rumors’ on the internet

    -Cheat in online games

    -Affiliate in any religion or social group disapproved by the state

A hybrid of facial recognition technology and digital activity spying will be used to monitor your actions and change your social credit score. Consequences of a low score can include: getting barred from public transport, having loans get denied, ineligibility for government jobs, and even public shaming. Getting a call from a friend? An authoritarian dial tone may first warn them they are about to communicate with a “dishonest debtor”.

On the flip side, the government will play God, raising your credit score when recording approved activities.

    -Donating blood

    -Visiting elderly family members

    -Helping the poor

    -Praising the government

Defenders of the system, and even many of my Chinese friends, will reason the good behavior encouraged by this system will outweigh the abuses of power which might arise. I respect that many Chinese citizens find comfort in a more authoritarian government. Contrasted with Americans, the Chinese view civil unrest much more cautiously given their history of internal conflicts and instability which is why one survey found 80% of Chinese citizens either somewhat or strongly approve of the system. However, even Chinese members of the church admit that under this system receiving a lower social credit score because of their religion is not a possibility but a likely probability.

Corporate Systems

I wish I could stop this article here and leave off on the note that we need to protect our brothers and sisters in countries that don’t guarantee religious freedoms but these social credit systems are entering even Americas through our corporations.  

I am personally not too worried about a life insurance company monitoring social media platforms and saying, “Hey look, John signed a contract that he wouldn’t rock climb or smoke but Facebook shows him halfway up a rock face in Yosemite posing with a lit cigar.” I think that such standards that are transparent in their contracts and punishments for certain behaviors are not the corporate social credit systems we should worry about. One of the problems with China’s social credit system and other corporate manifestations is when they are not transparent and can be subjective in how or why they issue demerits to people.

It’s easy to discriminate and bar people on the basis of race or culture because it’s visible. However on the flip side, if every visible minority from a certain group is barred from say Uber or WhatsApp, in societies where such discrimination is illegal, or at least very unpopular, the discrimination can be easily spotted and appropriate actions against such companies will be pursued. Unfortunately, what a social credit system can provide is a way to discriminate against non-visible minorities such as political or religious minorities, which in turn is less visible from the law or public outrage.

Uber drivers can give low scores to passengers they find out have political views they oppose. Enough low scores and they can be banned from the service. WhatsApp execs could find religious rhetoric they disagree with and bar them from their platform. Under current policies, this corporate discrimination could be happening today. Of course, these rankings are under the guise of preventing rude or problematic users but when they have the ability to flag actions that are not illegal but subjectively against their policies, and they can do so with complete anonymity, abuse should be expected.

Unlike a government institution when dealing with businesses many of us have the privilege of saying “well I don’t need to use Uber” or “What’s WhatsApp?” However, in many urban centers ride-sharing platforms are the most effective source of transportation and in many countries not having WhatsApp would be almost like not having cell service.  

What can we do?

As members of this church we should fight for the freedoms or religion for ourselves and as our 11th article of faith suggests “allow all men the same privilege, let[ting] them worship how, where, or what they may.” With governments like China we may avoid open criticism to protect the many members currently under their power, but corporations that want to use some form of social credit system we should demand that their policies for restricting customers use are reasonable, transparent and that they provide an appeals system for individuals to see exactly why they were punished then have a platform to make their case on. 

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