Joe Hunt

By 2020 all citizens in China are to be enrolled into a database that compiles fiscal and government information to produce a single number: a rating of an individual’s trustworthiness. What an individual buys, who they know, where they go, how their pupils rate them, and the number of points on their driving licence will all be taken into account in the determination of their trustworthiness score.

The Chinese government is currently watching developments at eight companies that have issued their own social credit scores, one of those being Sesame, a company that monitors financial transactions made using Alibaba’s payment system. Sesame’s technology director, Li Yingyun, told Caixin, a Chinese magazine, “Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.” Tough luck for all those childless Starcraft addicts out there.

Scores are planned to be used for employment, the disbursing of credit, and the determination of eligibility for social benefits, but they could also have an impact on an individual’s love life. Baihe, China’s largest matchmaking service, boasting 90m clients, encourages clients to share their credit scores, and has even teamed up with Sesame to promote clients with strong credit scores with prime placements on their website. Baihe Vice-president Zhuan Yirong states that that while a person’s appearance is important, “it’s more important to be able to make a living. Your partner’s fortune guarantees a comfortable life.”

The potential impact of a trustworthiness score on a man’s dating life should not be underestimated given that by 2020, when the social credit database is expected to be established, 30m more men than women will reach adulthood and enter China’s “mating market” as a consequence of the widespread abortion of female foetuses driven by China’s one child policy.

Supposing the state is able to credibly distil a citizen’s trustworthiness into a single number, this could spawn a black market in social credit score manipulation, undermining the endeavour completely. However, it could also be that the initiative promotes pro-social behaviour to such an extent that it drives a virtuous cycle, whereby people’s individual fears of a reduced social credit score leads to new norms of “trustworthy” behaviour. While this may seem like a desirable outcome, the fierce competition it would engender would be a significant departure from China’s socialist roots, with citizens’ actions being measured in purely market terms.

A planning document from China’s State Council states that social credit will “forge a public opinion environment that trust-keeping is glorious” and that the “new system will reward those who report acts of breach of trust.” What this means exactly remains to be seen. Some fear that breaches of trust could include violations of the “social order”, which could include all actions online and all actions that question the state.

Ultimately, however, the devil is in the detail. The democracies of the western world are based on ideals of individual liberty, often enshrined in law, and a disproportionate number of representatives of the people have received legal training; a majority of US senators, for example, are lawyers. In contrast, China’s government is made up of engineering graduates; accurate as of 16 April 2009, eight out of nine members of China’s Politburo’s standing committee were engineers. A social credit system is a rational extension of the principles of engineering, and while it may seem unpalatable, such a system, if implemented by a truly benevolent state, could engineer a positive outcome. China’s plans for a social credit system are ultimately of concern because there is no guarantee that such an expansion of state power will not be abused.