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Big Government, Big Data, Big Brother

Early this month, the Politburo drafted China’s 13th Five-Year Plan.  In it, the government announced a nationwide “social credit system” that will supposedly “strengthen the establishment of a national population-based information repository and improve the social credit system.”  It sounds fairly benign on the surface, and thus far details on it are scant, but experts predict that its implications go beyond a “financial credit system like the ones used in the U.S. and other developed countries.”  While someone’s credit rating will have a bearing on their business prospects, it will also affect their access to social institutions and privileges.  And besides just compiling one’s credit rating, the system taps into their social life as well. 

At an individual level, according to Wall Street Journal reporting “based on government blueprints, state-media reports and interviews with architects of the plan,” not only will the algorithm take into account one’s financial behavior, it will also consider social factors such as shopping habits, filial piety and volunteer activity.  Further, whether one is fit to access luxury hotels, travel abroad, attend schools, will also be determined by their rating.  Meanwhile, at the government level, the State Council explains that the system will help stamp out corruption among Party officials, be useful in tax collection, determine individuals’ creditworthiness, etc. 

If carried out, the government will use Big Data to compile profiles for 1.4 billion citizens.  Big Data refers to “extremely large data sets that are analyzed by computers to reveal patterns and trends, especially in human behavior.”  Such a system will certainly be unprecedented.  But in the government’s attempt to create model citizens out of everyone and punish delinquent behavior at an all-encompassing national level, it has raised concerns about the invasion of privacy and the ethics behind the government monopolizing the right to define morality.  It is important to point out that Big Brother is not a foreign concept in China.  Extensive public records of citizens used to be kept under the Maoist regime; profiling as a means of screening workers operated in conjunction with the hukou system.  As the country has veered further from a planned economy, however, such a draconian measure no longer seems necessary. 

The government’s insistence on mass surveillance is trickling down to the provincial level; there are several pilot cities that have been rolling out surveillance schemes.  In Yangjiang, Guangdong, for instance, officials addressed food safety issues by seeking data “on the behavior of businesses to analyze and show the results to consumers.”  The data will then be made accessible to customers.  While many in the food industry have supported the system as it provides transparency, they want to make sure the systems are foolproof before officially implemented.  A vegetarian restaurant’s health rating was “erroneously downgraded” by the system and it immediately saw a drop-off in customers.  The reliability of the system will be another consideration.  China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, announced last year that developing the system would require the services of the country’s largest e-commerce and social media firms.  But if not properly executed, innocent citizens could suffer drastic consequences. 

Unlike in the United States, any negative public reaction towards nontransparent profiling can be effectively tamed by the government.  It is unlikely that a social-credit system will engender as much internal dispute as the United States federal government’s No Fly List, which has long been deemed unconstitutional by the ACLU due to the lack of due process for U.S. citizens.  The issue, though, is the increasing encroachment on civil freedoms by the Chinese government.  The effort to clamp down on corruption and social ills has come at the expense of personal liberties.  The government will have to consider if such a trade-off is truly worth the pursuit.

Written by: Adrian Lo