Wired recently posted a video about how the West got China’s social credit system wrong. It was interesting to find out the true facts behind China’s social credit system and get the real story. When the idea of a social credit system first hit the Western media, a collective gasp elicited from major media outlets, especially with the prospect that perhaps one day, social credit would come to the West.
China’s social credit system was described in Western outlets as a way for the Chinese government to track the behavior of its citizens, assign it a score and then allow or disallow certain privileges based on that score. Taxi service, air travel, and train travel could all be restricted by credit score. If a Chinese person didn’t have a high enough social credit, then they could be restricted from certain activities in their lives making it hard to travel, get housing, move across the country or even get to work. It sounded like a Soviet fever dream come true. But the reality isn’t quite as dystopian as the Western media made it sound.
What the Western Press Got Wrong
According to Wired, China’s social credit system isn’t as widespread as they made it sound. Instead, its a collection of pilot projects, provincial tests and other programs designed to see if such a thing could be deployed or if it would even work. Reporting on China and how things work in China is hard. If reporters don’t intimately understand China’s unique authoritarian capitalist system with its communist-in-name-only veneer, things like this can be misinterpreted. There’s also a language barrier between Mandarin and English/French/German. What is really a test program to see if such a dystopian system could work was billed as China’s latest attempt to control every aspect of its citizen’s lives.
But Isn’t it Dystopian to Even Try It?
There is something to be said about China even trying to attempt to make this happen. The idea that a person’s basic freedoms could be truncated by the quality of their social credit score seems like a 1984-esque nightmare. However, the West, particularly the United States, isn’t exactly free and clear of such defacto systems. When applying for employment, people must expose their past criminal records, they can make getting a job difficult. In housing, landlords frequently run background checks on their tenants revealing a complete financial and criminal past. Landlords can, in many states, decide to rent or not to someone based upon this information. Credit scores are used in a variety of ways as a de facto social credit score. If your credit score is high you can finance a car, buy a house, often with just a signature and a job with few questions asked. Employers will often use this information in background checks to decide to employ someone. If someone doesn’t have a good credit score or can’t pass a background check, they are often completely shut out of society. Doesn’t that sound rather dystopian too? The West has a similar system, it’s just not centralized.
Freedoms and Scores
It might seem far-fetched to have a system where people’s behavior is regulated by a score, the reality is that there is a system underneath that is already doing this. China is merely trying to take that system to its logical conclusion. Both systems are scary and both systems restrict freedom and the ability of free persons to work together freely based on their own terms. A society that doesn’t have rules will fall apart quickly but a scoring system, regardless of how its constructed, disadvantages people, especially the poor or those from poor backgrounds. The worst part is that is very hard for someone to bounce back from a mistake or rebuild their life. Although China’s Social Score is not quite the all-powerful number it was billed as it is still a step on the path to restricted who can do what in society. The reality is that both China and the West are guilty of the same thing. One of them is just being far more honest about it.