Digital Maoism

This Wednesday, Xi Jinping sat before the body of the nation’s ruling Communist Party. Reading slowly off of the paper in front of him, he asked the room if anyone objected to his reelection as General Secretary. A silence filled the room.

“There isn’t,” shouted members from each section of the room.

He asked if anyone wished to abstain.

“There isn’t,” rang out once again.

And with that, Xi Jinping was guaranteed another five year term as President of China. With his name and personal philosophy etched into the nation’s constitution, he joined Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong as one of the most powerful leaders in the nation’s history.
As he delivered his speech to his loyal government, millions of Chinese citizens applauded him in a viral app released by media giant Tencent. Players across the nation tapped their screens as fast as possible while Xi’s speech played in the background – each tap representing a round of applause for the president’s speech on the Communist party’s mission to ensure the happiness of the Chinese people. After finishing the game, they could share their score on public leaderboards, inviting their friends to compete against them to see who can praise the country’s leader the fastest.

Screenshot of the applause app that has gone viral in China. / https://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-app-clap-tencent

Behind the scenes, Chinese billionaires and CEOs have been disappearing. Some turn up later, found dead by ‘suicide’. Some are released from police custody years later. Some are never seen again. The Panchen Lama, the boy named by the Dalai Lama as his successor, has been missing for 22 years.

Recently, the government has been sampling speech from tens of thousands of individuals in the nation in order to create a national database of voices purported to help stop crime. They intend for the automated system to identify persons of interest on telephone calls and in public areas.

In the modern world, it has become a tendency of almost anyone who has finished high school English to immediately cry “Big Brother” in the face of any form of government overreach. But concerns raised in recent months should not be dismissed as Orwellian fantasy.

Fans of the Netflix show Black Mirror sometimes draw real-life parallels to the stories of dystopian horror and technology run rampant that are often addressed within it. One episode, Nosedive, presents a premise in which individuals rate each other based on their interactions both in person and on social media, likely in an attempt by the government to create a more respectful and happy society. They must maintain a constant facade of a perfect, model life, covering their true personalities with a mask in each and every interaction in order to receive a higher score. Should they fail to do so, they will be permanently handicapped by artificial boundaries set in this new societies – your ability to rent an apartment, buy an airline ticket, attend events, and even the way people treat you are all determined by the score you possess in this digital caste system. Of course, it is ridiculous to think that such a system could ever exist in the real world, right?

But where there is an authoritarian government, there is a way.

China’s government has recently announced its intention to fully implement a mandatory “social credit system” by the year 2020. The ambitious project would serve to track the behaviors of all of the nation’s citizens, separating each and every action, thought, quirk, and choice into positive and negative categories. Those lucky enough to have their lives monitored will be granted a “citizen score.” This would determine the education you and your children receive, your chance of receiving a loan or a mortgage, your internet speed, your right to travel, your ability to find employment – a simple number that decides your worth in society. The government claims the system is meant to build a community of trust, strengthening “sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity, and the construction of judicial credibility.”

The logistics of coordinating such a system across the most populous nation on earth may make the social credit system seem like little more than the pipe dream of a power-mad leader, but China is certainly trying to bring it into reality. Trial runs have already begun for those who have volunteered, and multiple private companies have been contracted to produce algorithms for calculation of citizen scores. One of these companies, Sesame Credit, is run by an affiliate company of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, and it is here that all of pieces fall perfectly into place.

A Chinese street shop allows customers to scan QR codes to pay. / http://static.atimes.com/uploads/2016/12/nudelst%C3%A5nd-med-QR-kod-DSC_7703.jpg

China’s urban regions have been undergoing a rapid shift away from the usage of cash and credit. Instead, citizens have been scanning QR codes linked to the wallet of various payment apps. This change is many degrees more dramatic than the United States’ recent turn towards methods such as Apple Pay and Venmo – at $5.5 trillion, the Chinese mobile payments market is almost 50 times as large as ours. It has become the default way of life. Even small markets and bike sharing stations accept mobile wallet payments (and sometimes nothing else). Street musicians can be seen playing next to boards with QR codes so those who walk past can tip them on the spot.
This cashless society may seem like a dream to some, but the implications for both corporations and the Chinese government are massive. Alibaba has already stated that individuals are judged based on their purchases – frequent diaper buyers, for example, are generally thought to be parents and noted as more responsible, whereas those who buy video games and luxury items may be considered idle and lazy. These often baseless assumptions will be reflected in the social credit score, as China attempts to shift its citizens away from behaviors it considers unwelcome. What makes the bias blatantly obvious is the tracking of an individual’s communications with their friends. Sharing messages with “positive energy”, or phrases praising the government and economy, will cause a rise in your Sesame Credit score. The unfortunate reality is that those who haven’t opted into the system are already being left behind, missing out on the low-interest loans and fast tracks to receive visas given to those with higher scores. What is perhaps more terrifying is the actions of other human beings within this system – in a world where so many already judge their value based on follower count, can you imagine one where the government encourages their citizens to ostracize others based on a number that legally decides their worth in society? Will your friends avoid you when your score falls, afraid of being seen with a second-class citizen? Will strangers shun you where they were once happy to help?

Screenshots of Sesame Credit’s current system. / https://static.independent.co.uk/s3fs-public/thumbnails/image/2015/12/22/23/Sesame-Credit.jpg

The lack of objectivity in this system is a serious problem that the government seems to be ignoring – current algorithms don’t take into consideration the thousands of factors that can affect “negative actions.” Missing a payment because you’re in the hospital? Tough luck. Buying painkillers for your sick grandparent? You might just be labeled a junkie. Reporters have already shown that the system is full of exploits – Zheping Huang raised his credit score by almost 100 points simply by becoming a more loyal customer of Alibaba.

When the mandatory social credit finally dawns in 2020, it is almost certain that China’s government will begin to monitor social media activity to create more accurate social profiles of their citizens. The vice grip that Xi Jinping has over the internet has granted China the prestigious title of the nation with the least online freedom on Earth, edging out even Syria and Cuba. The famous Great Firewall greatly limits the access Chinese internet users have to the world wide web. They are forced to use Chinese alternatives which filter out results the government judges to be inappropriate, and are subject to an army of  “social media influencers” who post hundreds of millions of pro-government comments per year. Users may even have their accounts suspended after searching for phrases such as “Tiananmen Square incident” or “Tibetan independence.” The social credit system is only the final piece of the puzzle.

With Xi Jinping attempted to push China to the forefront of world technology, the arrival of social credit system might just signal a paradigm shift. Success in a nation where it would theoretically be impossible to implement may lead to attempts at replication in other nations across the world. The United States, a country dominated by social media and technology and a home to agencies such as the NSA with broad abilities to monitor the population, may just be the perfect subject for a peer review.

Perhaps this is all just fear mongering. For now, we’ll just continue staring into our black mirrors, wondering if they are staring back.

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