Last year, the world was unnerved by reports that China was implementing a social ranking system that would limit individual autonomy as a response to bad behavior. And now it’s becoming clear how that system affects everyday life in China. A report from China’s National Public Credit Information Centre confirmed that 23 million plane and train ticket purchases were blocked due to low social credit scores.
Though the travel ban aspect of the social ranking system was only implemented last May, it’s had a significant impact on Chinese society. In 2017, 6.15 million citizens were blocked from buying plane tickets due to their low social credit rankings. In 2018, 17.5 million plane ticket purchases were blocked for the same reason, as were 5.5 million train ticket purchases.
Once Discredited, Limited Everywhere
China’s social ranking system assigns different point values to different acts. For instance, doing things like not paying taxes, spreading false information, breaking traffic laws or taking drugs will lower an individual’s score.
But, the system goes far beyond penalizing criminality. Doing rude or irresponsible things like smoking on a train, walking a dog without a leash or playing loud music in public can also result in a hit to a person’s social credit ranking.
If a person’s social credit dips below a certain point, it will affect more than just their ability to take an out of town vacation. Landing on China’s “untrustworthy conduct” blacklist can prevent a person from buying insurance, make an investment or even purchasing real estate.
The ominous nature of the Chinese government’s social engineering scheme is made clear in a passage from the National Public Credit Information Centre’s annual report. It noted that once fully implemented, the social ranking system would “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
Presently, China’s social ranking program exists as a patchwork system that is administered at the municipal level. However, President Xi Jinping has ordered the creation of a social credit system that will rank all 1.4 billion Chinese citizens.
The Benefits of Living in a Dystopia
While China’s social improvement schemes might sound deeply disturbing for those living in democratic republics, their implementation has led to some positive results. It’s been reported that the social ranking system has been popular amongst residents of the coastal city of Rongcheng as it is viewed as an effective anti-corruption measure.
Similarly, some Chinese citizens were happy to see a crackdown on “seat-robbing,” the widespread practice of taking another person’s assigned seat on a train and then refusing to give it up. Previously, seat-robbing was punished by fines and temporary bans.
But viral videos of citizens flagrantly violating the rules in 2018 have led to calls for harsher punishments. And the social credit system has been responsible for prompting 3.5 million people and companies to pay overdue bills or taxes.
However, less corruption, improved public etiquette, and debt reduction are the results of a functioning system. When things go wrong like they did last year when a facial recombination system incorrectly identified and fined a CEO for being a jaywalker, the public suffers.
Losing the ability to commute to work or buy a house because someone who looked like you smoked on a train does not sound like life in a utopian society. It sounds like the setting for an episode of “Black Mirror.”