As if further proof were needed Orwell’s dystopia is now upon us, China has now gamified obedience to the State. Though that is every bit as creepily terrifying as it sounds, citizens may still choose whether or not they wish to opt-in — that is, until the program becomes compulsory in 2020. “Going under the innocuous name of ‘Sesame Credit,’ China has created a score for how good a citizen you are,” explains Extra Credits’ video about the program. “The owners of China’s largest social networks have partnered with the government to create something akin to the U.S. credit score — but, instead of measuring how regularly you pay your bills, it measures how obediently you follow the party line.”
In the works for years, China’s ‘social credit system’ aims to create a docile, compliant citizenry who are fiscally and morally responsible by employing a game-like format to create self-imposed, group social control. In other words, China gamified peer pressure to control its citizenry; and, though the scheme hasn’t been fully implemented yet, it’s already working — insidiously well.
Zheping Huang, a reporter for Quartz, chronicled his own experience with the social control tool in October, saying that “in the past few weeks I began to notice a mysterious new trend. Numbers were popping up on my social media feeds as my friends and strangers on Weibo [the Chinese equivalent to Twitter] and WeChat began to share their ‘Sesame Credit scores.’ The score is created by Ant Financial, an Alibaba-affiliated company that also runs Alipay, China’s popular third-party payment app with over 350 million users. Ant Financial claims that it evaluates one’s purchasing and spending habits in order to derive a figure that shows how creditworthy someone is.”
However, according to a translation of the “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System,” posted online by Oxford University’s China expert, Rogier Creemers, it’s nightmarishly clear the program is far more than just a credit-tracking method. As he described it, “The government wants to build a platform that leverages things like big data, mobile internet, and cloud computing to measure and evaluate different levels of people’s lives in order to create a gamified nudging for people to behave better.”
While Sesame Credit’s roll-out in January has been downplayed by many, the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, urges caution, saying:
“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 Tiananmen 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.” And, in what appears likely the goal of the entire program, added, “Imagine the social pressure against disobedience or dissent that this will create.”
Social pressure, of course, can be highly effective given the right circumstances. China seems to have found exactly that in the intricate linking of people’s scores to their contacts, which can be seen publicly by anyone — and then upping the ante through score-based incentives and rewards. Rick Falkvinge pointed out a startling comparison:
“The KGB and the Stasi’s method of preventing dissent from taking hold was to plant so-called agents provocateurs in the general population, people who tried to make people agree with dissent, but who actually were arresting them as soon as they agreed with such dissent. As a result, nobody would dare agree that the government did anything bad, and this was very effective in preventing any large-scale resistance from taking hold. The Chinese way here is much more subtle, but probably more effective still.”
As Creemers described to Dutch news outlet, de Volkskrant, “With the help of the latest internet technologies, the government wants to exercise individual surveillance. The Chinese aim […] is clearly an attempt to create a new citizen.”
Chinese internet specialist at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Johan Lagerkvist, said the system is“very ambitious in scope, including scrutinizing individual behavior and what books people read. It’s Amazon’s consumer tracking with an Orwellian political twist.”
James Corbett has been tracking the implementation of Sesame Credit for some time. Introducing the ubiquitous tracking system for a recent episode of the Corbett Report, he mused:
“Coming soon to a New World Order near you: social credit! Earn points by behaving like the government wants you to behave! Get penalized if you don’t act like a doubleplusgood citizen! What could be more fun?”
Indeed, because mandatory enrollment in Sesame Credit is still a few years away, its true effectiveness won’t be measurable for some time. But even a reporter’s usual wariness appears knocked off-kilter, as Zheping Huang summarized his personal experience: “Even if my crappy credit score doesn’t mean much now, it’s in my best interest I suppose to make sure it doesn’t go too low.”
And that, of course, is precisely why gamifying State obedience is so terrifying.