Reputation Economy Dystopia: China's new "Citizen Scores" will rate every person in the country

The Chinese government has announced a new universal reputation score, tied to every person in the country's nation ID number and based on such factors as political compliance, hobbies, shopping, and whether you play videogames.

It's a perfect storm of terrible: the program will be administered by Alibaba (China's answer to Amazon) and Tencent (the country's huge, government-compliant social network). Your score will be generated not only by your activities, but by the activities of the friends in your social graph -- the people you identify as friends on social media. Your score will be decremented for doing things like mentioning Tienanmen Square or speculating on official corruption, or for participating in activities that the state wishes to "nudge" you away from, like playing video-games.

All scores are public to everyone, and high-scoring individuals will get privileges denied to their less fortunate peers, such as permits to visit (or live) in Singapore (you can't make this shit up).

Already, some Chinese people are embracing their scores as bragworthy.

Paternalism, surveillance, social control, guilt by association, paternalistic application of behavioral economics and ideology-driven shunning and isolation -- it's like someone took all my novels and blended them together, and turned them into policy (with Chinese characteristics).

* Everybody is measured by a score between 350 and 950, which is linked to their national identity card. While currently supposedly voluntary, the government has announced that it will be mandatory by 2020.

* The system is run by two companies, Alibaba and Tencent, which run all the social networks in China and therefore have access to a vast amount of data about people’s social ties and activities and what they say.

* In addition to measuring your ability to pay, as in the United States, the scores serve as a measure of political compliance. Among the things that will hurt a citizen’s score are posting political opinions without prior permission, or posting information that the regime does not like, such as about the Tienanmen Square massacre that the government carried out to hold on to power, or the Shanghai stock market collapse.

* It will hurt your score not only if you do these things, but if any of your friends do them. Imagine the social pressure against disobedience or dissent that this will create. Anybody can check anyone else’s score online. Among other things, this lets people find out which of their friends may be hurting their scores.

* Also used to calculate scores is information about hobbies, lifestyle, and shopping. Buying certain goods will improve your score, while others (such as video games) will lower it.

* Those with higher scores are rewarded with concrete benefits. Those who reach 700, for example, get easy access to a Singapore travel permit, while those who hit 750 get an even more valued visa.

* Sadly, many Chinese appear to be embracing the score as a measure of social worth, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

China’s Nightmarish Citizen Scores Are a Warning For Americans [Jay Stanley/ACLU]

Notable Replies

  1. Wow, this seems ripe for attack. It seems like it would be relatively easy to impersonate someone and drive their score into the ground.

    That said, the idea though that people are flaunting how conformist they are is just alien to me.

  2. Raoul says:

    What an awful system.

    Imagine if here in the US, Canada, and UK, citizens were inextricably linked through their national ID (with no method of opting out) to a private company's arbitrary metric of "creditworthiness". That score would, of course - because we're not communists, be administered by three shadowy, private, profitable, and 100% unaccountable companies who would refuse to update or correct errors in their reports and scores and would have the gall to charge citizens to see what information is being held about them (against their will).

    Imagine if these completely arbitrary and often incorrect scores were used to determine whether people could get jobs, housing, insurance, etc. etc. - all things which have nothing at all to do with whether that person is a fan of revolving debt.

    That would be awful, wouldn't it?

  3. Now, I have to admit, I thought that I'd seen "lawful evil" before; but damn China, you just knocked it out of the park.

  4. My wife and I have barely ever used credit cards in our lives, and we were both fortunate enough to get through college debt-free. We both make good incomes and are pretty frugal with our spending. (Didn't buy a new car until age 32 when we had cash to pay for it, etc.). As a result, when we decided to finally buy a home a few years ago we found out that neither of us had a credit score at all. As a result, we couldn't get a loan from our bank or credit union despite having a very substantial down payment saved up. They only did FHA-backed loans. That really ticked me off. A government benefit (FHA backed loan) that's only available if some private entities assign you a magic number that's based on some proprietary formula that even the government doesn't know. And they'll only assign you a number once you borrow money, whether you need to or not.

    In the end, we worked out something with relatives instead. So happy ending for us; we managed to opt out of the whole system. But I'm well aware that most people aren't as fortunate as us. Avoiding credit cards and student loans just isn't an option for most people, frugal or not. Which really sucks.

  5. I'm saying that's a mistake starting from treating them all as a single "they". It's easy to wave off things by saying the Chinese have their own proven way, but that comes from treating them all as one amalgam, rolling it up as a "civilization" without different people or changes in it.

    The truth is that like any large society, people in China have tried different things, and they have worked for some people and not for others. Sure, let's not arrogantly presume "our way" is always the only one, but let's also not arrogantly overlook when something only works if you define that ignoring this second group.

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