Firstly, let me assure the reader that I will vow not to subject you to the repeated use the of the clichéd phrase ‘Orwellian’ in this article. Such a grossly overused phrase simply lacks the pungency to describe the totalitarian system of ‘Sesame Credit’ that exists in China. This form of credit is set to become mandatory in 2020.
It’s a testament to the strength of The Great Firewall Of China that you will have never heard of Sesame Credit. Such is the indebtedness and servility of Western governments to China now that so few politicians or media outlets have yet complained about it. So allow me to take you into the world of Sesame Credit – a ‘social credit’ scoring system that will soon rank 1.3 billion Chinese citizens based on their political conformity.
By 2020, every Chinese citizen will have a ‘social score’ attached to their name. This score will determine how free one is to travel out of the country, how easy it is to obtain a loan or house, what kind of government entitlements one will receive and even who you are allowed to ‘match’ with on online dating sites.
A useful comparison is with our system of credit scores. Our Government accesses data from a small number of interactions relevant to the borrowing and paying of money, then ranks citizens on their suitability for a loan.
Sesame Credit has taken this idea and expanded it to every aspect of a citizen’s life. Every electronic interaction one has will be recorded, analysed and used to determine the political conformity of that citizen. Which magazines are subscribed to, which products are bought online, what is tweeted, posted, texted, emailed, shared or liked will all affect a person’s Sesame Credit score.
For example, purchasing a pair of work shoes, tweeting your support for the government or sharing a link from the state-sponsored news organisation will increase your score. Whereas buying imported goods, criticising the economy or tweeting anything negative about the government will decrease your score.
This is in itself a genuinely heartbreaking destruction of the few remaining shreds of individual liberty and freedom left in China, but one key feature of this social scoring system may well condemn the Chinese to indefinite serfdom the likes of which even the Nazis could not impose.
Scores are not only affected by what you say to your friends, but by who your friends are.
Being friends or interacting with people with low scores will in turn lower your score until interactions with that person cease. In effect, the system aims to link political conformity with social status – rendering anyone who disagrees with the party line an outcast from their friends and family.
Users are not only shown their own score, but are shown a ‘map’ of all of their friends’ scores. This enables people to identify which friend is dragging their score down and to either encourage him/her to conform or end that friendship.
Imagine the frenzied clicks of the ‘unfriend’ button by a student hoping to be allowed to study in England when a childhood pal posts a picture of a Japanese cartoon. Maybe they will tweet about disliking their job, or blog something that references the economy unfavourably. It’s easy to see how effectively those the government disagrees with will be socially outcasted.
Sesame Credit has been conceived with the knowledge that every totalitarian dictatorship in history has collapsed under the weight of a huge number of state employees needed to comb through people’s private lives. So it has been designed to operate with minimal human interference. Scores are determined not by row upon row of uniformed state employees, but by an algorithm housed in a computer no bigger than a garden shed.
Sesame Credit takes into account the way in which, historically, people in fear who feel they have nothing to lose by revolting will inevitably revolt. Almost every country on the planet, from Russia to Libya, has experienced a revolution at the hands of people who simply had nothing to lose by doing so.
However, the difference here is that the Chinese Government are using positive reinforcement rather than scaremongering to prevent revolution. Citizens have something to gain from being mindless party conformists rather than merely fearing the consequences of not doing so.
So what does Sesame Credit mean for China’s future? A bleak one. Dystopian novels and films tended to predict a world in which ‘Big Brother’ watched and controlled every aspect of our lives with millions of miserable serfs groaning under the weight of repression.
Yet the emergence of Sesame Credit suggests that the real dystopian future we have to look forward to is one in which millions actively take part in the system that represses them.
We won’t be forced at gunpoint to pledge an allegiance to the state, we’ll do it voluntarily to get a nicer car. We won’t have a limited choice of what to read, but we’ll choose to buy the books that teach us the least. And uniformed officials won’t drag our loved ones away from us, but we’ll drag ourselves away from them.