The China database will keep tabs on areas including citizens’ criminal records, creditworthiness and promptness in paying taxes. Photo: SCMP Pictures

Big Brother is watching: how China is compiling computer ratings on all its citizens

Internet users in the United States voiced outrage this autumn over the imminent launch of an app intended to let anyone post public reviews of their friends, acquaintances and yes, enemies — with no opt-out option.

The outbursts prompted the creators of the app, Peeple, to reconsider, but in China government authorities are hard at work devising their own e-database to rate each and every one of the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens by 2020 using metrics including whether they pay their bills on time, plagiarise schoolwork, break traffic laws or adhere to birth control regulations. And there’s no opt-out option.

Proponents of the so-called Social Credit System say it will help China overcome a multitude of societal ills for which it has gained international ignominy — from food and drug safety scandals to flagrant corruption, counterfeiting, tax evasion, academic cheating and even public defecation.

The goals for the project are nothing if not lofty: “carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues”, “encouraging trust”, “raising the overall competitiveness of the country”, and last but not least, “stimulating the progress of civilisation”, according to a lengthy brief published by China’s State Council, or Cabinet.

But some fear that marrying credit scores with school, employment, criminal and other records will create the ultimate Orwellian instrument of social control in a one-party state that in recent years has shown less and less tolerance for critical voices.

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“The Chinese government already has a back door into everything on your phone and on the internet, so this isn’t exactly a new way to control people’s lives,” said Hu Jia, a well-known political activist who has been imprisoned and held under house arrest for his activism around issues including the Tiananmen Square prodemocracy crackdown, Aids and environmental protection.

“What’s new is that Chinese authorities can systematically analyse all this data and China doesn’t have an Edward Snowden to focus the public’s attention on these privacy issues,” Hu said.

Increased use of big data by central authorities, drawing on information from banks, mobile phone companies and e-commerce firms such as Alibaba, could in theory improve governance by serving as a check on corrupt officials who have long been able to do as they please.

The Chinese government already has a back door into everything on your phone and on the internet, so this isn’t exactly a new way to control people’s lives
Hu Jia, political activist

Between individuals, sharing scores may help give strangers confidence to do business — or even go on a date. And in some ways, Chinese authorities’ desire to incentivise moral or healthy behaviour through data mining may be no different, some observers note, than American insurance companies giving discounts to customers who upload digital proof from their Fitbits that they exercise regularly.

“A lot of data capture is there to overcome horrible problems of bad government — ranging from pollution and food security to corruption in education and badly delivered healthcare,” said Rogier Creemers, a scholar of China and technology at the University of Oxford.

While acknowledging that there could be rampant opportunities for the state to abuse such data, he added, “the idea that the Communist Party wants to legitimise its rule by pleasing the people is [also] basic politics”.

Hu, however, said the increasing ability of authorities to tap technology to know more and more details about citizens was increasingly giving life in China a “Truman Show”-like quality.

“My friends and I joke that we are no longer in a police state,” Hu said, “but a police empire.”

Although many details remain unclear, the Social Credit System will essentially be a 21st-century update of China’s long-standing secret personnel file system.

For decades, the government kept these files, called dang’an, on hundreds of millions of urban residents, logging their performance at school and work, but also at times recording information that might raise questions about their political leanings, such as whether they had “foreign friends” or read certain books.

A lot of data capture is there to overcome horrible problems of bad government — ranging from pollution and food security to corruption
Rogier Creemers, China scholar

Cadres could consult these files when hiring new workers and granting benefits, but no one was supposed to see his or her own file, which was typically housed in one’s state-assigned work unit.

With the rise of private enterprises and increasing mobility, the file system’s central role in the Communist Party’s web of social control has broken down over the last quarter-century.

Many people who have migrated to cities like Beijing say their files remained in their hometown; some from rural areas say they never had one to begin with.

For urban residents registering for social security benefits, or seeking to have a baby under China’s strict family-planning regulations, the dang’an remains a fact of life. Perhaps that’s why the idea of the state keeping secret files on them — on paper or in a computerised system — does not provoke overwhelming concern.

Wang Xiao, 19, recently was at a file management office in Beijing’s Dongcheng district; he needed to pay into his Social Security-style insurance fund and have the payment registered into his dang’an.

“I’m not curious to open my file,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything bad in it. … I got the highest grade in my class so I’m not worried.”

Chen Chao, a 34-year-old vendor also waiting in line, agreed. “If you didn’t commit a crime, why do you need to look at your file?” he asked, adding that he’s looking forward to an e-system. “An electric file will be more convenient for me. I believe the workers here have professional ethics, so they won’t leak my information.”

Still, he said, he was cautious about his financial data and does not use a credit card, or online payment systems like Alibaba’s Alipay.

“My only electronic card is my social security card,” he said.

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While Chen may avoid many modern conveniences, hundreds of millions of other Chinese have happily adapted. That’s allowed companies like Alibaba to harness copious amounts of personal data to develop credit scores — which Chinese authorities envision incorporating into a Social Credit Score.

Using data on its customers’ payment history, net worth, network of friends and associates, educational and professional history and consumption habits, Alibaba now assigns customers credit scores ranging from 350 to 950, with a rating over 700 considered excellent.

Alibaba encourages customers to share those scores — users can even add them to their online dating profiles to boost their appeal to potential mates.

And the company has started to offer customers with scores above 750 perks such as rental car or hotel room bookings without a cash deposit.

The company’s cooperation with government is clear from offers such as a recent promotion that allowed top scorers access to an express security screening lane at Beijing’s main airport.

“I just opened the app, showed my score, they took down my name and phone number and I breezed through in five minutes,” said Yolanda Liu, 30, who works for a state-owned sports organisation. “China needs a credit system so that people like me who are responsible can get more benefits.”