China’s Social Credit System: The big experiment to turn real life into a video game

It affects whether you can catch the train, get visas and see a doctor quickly. We take a look at the Big Brother system’s exact mechanisms, from the rewards to the punishments

BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 18:  A Chinese woman uses her smartphone as she walks near the Drum Tower on September 18, 2014 in central Beijing, China. Many of the traditonal homes in the Chinese capital have been demolished, making way for large high rise projects.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
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Have you ever forced yourself to walk a little further so that you hit your step goal on your Apple Watch? Or have you ever picked a restaurant based on the number of stars it has on Google Maps? Sometimes it can feel like our entire lives are being gamified by technology, but only in China is this approaching reality. Over the past few years, China has been busy testing and building a system known as “social credit”.

The principle behind it is simple: everyone gets a score, and if you screw up one too many times, you automatically get punished. It’s similar to how you can get points on a driver’s licence for minor offences such as speeding or going through a red light – but in this instance, it’s applied to many other aspects of society. And punishment can also cut across different types of ­activities.

So that, for example, if you find yourself on China’s Supreme People’s Court’s blacklist of debtors, you could suddenly be unable take a bullet train or book plane tickets.

At the time of writing, the system is still being developed – and the government hopes to have a full national system up and running by 2020. At the moment, there are around 40 different local pilots taking place in different cities and regions across China, so there's no one score for each person, or no one set of rules. And this actually makes social credit more interesting, as different areas have been experimenting to find out what it can be used for.

According to research by professor Xin Dai from China's Ocean University, the province of Qingzhen uses more than 1,000 different metrics that can impact a citizen's score. If you hire a child worker for your business, you lose five points, and if you sell coal that doesn't meet regulatory guidelines, you lose 10 points. Professor Xin notes that this is a good example of a potentially massive problem with social credit: how completely arbitrarily points are awarded and deducted.

The province of Sichuan provides a good example of how being on one blacklist can impact other aspects of your life. It instituted a system whereby if you were on the debtor blacklist mentioned above, the phone system was set-up so that if anyone tried to call you, ­before connecting, the caller would hear a recorded ­message pointing out how untrustworthy you are. Yikes.

JIUJIANG, CHINA - JANUARY 22:  (CHINA OUT) Workers load coal onto railcars during a snowfall at a railway station on January 22, 2016 in Jiujiang, China. The National Meteorological Center (NMC) on Friday issued a yellow alert for blizzards that are expected to sweep China's northern, central and eastern regions.  (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

There are countless other examples, too. In Shenzhen, CCTV and facial recognition technology is being used to spot jaywalkers. Those who have a certain number of offences logged in the social credit system are being publicly shamed with their photos displayed on video screens around the city.

If you live in Zhejiang and don't sort your recycling properly, you could find yourself on a blacklist. And if you are a Jinan resident, you need to make sure your dog doesn't bark too much, because if it loses too many points, the authorities will take it away.

What's unique – and potentially insidious – about the social credit system, is that it doesn't just impact your relationship with the ­government and ­government- owned services. Social credit is also being trialled in the private sector by two of China's largest tech companies: Alibaba, which owns the Taobao and Tmall online shopping ­services and also founded a company called Ant Financial, and Tencent, which owns WeChat, the ubiquitous messaging app used by almost 900 million people in China. Both organisations treat their credit systems less as a tool through which to punish people, and more like a loyalty card, which can unlock different perks and bonuses for users judged to be in good standing.

For example, with Ant Financial's system, known as Sesame Credit, you're given a score between 350 and 950. This is based on factors such as how much money you've spent online, whether you've paid your bills on time, and also how many verified friends you have – the latter on the basis that if you have lots of real friends, then you're less likely to be a bot or a scam artist.

And this score can lead to some fun rewards: You might be able to rent the city bikes without paying a deposit, or use massage chairs for free. But why be forced to get around on a bike? Score high enough and you can use China's Uber-like service, Didi, and if you have more than 650 points, you can rent a car without paying a deposit. At one point, there was a promotion that let people with a score of more than 700 take a new Ford Explorer for a spin for a few days.

BEIJING - SEPTEMBER 28: Labourers adjust newly installed surveillance cameras at Tiananmen Square ahead of National Day on September 28, 2005 in Beijing, China. The capital city has tightened security as China prepares for its celebrations of the 56th anniversary of the founding of People's Republic of China on October 1.  (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)

Sesame Credit also integrates into China’s biggest dating app, Baihe. If you have a higher score, the app will boost your profile among potential suitors. Some of the other perks vividly illustrate how social credit scores can be used to separate the haves from the have nots: as part of one trial, high-scoring users were eligible to use the VIP check-in line at Beijing Capital International ­Airport. Travellers can also use their score to more easily obtain visas to visit Singapore and the Schengen Area in Europe – the thinking clearly being that a higher score is a strong indication that the person can support themselves.

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Startling is one perk in the city of Guangzhou, where Ant Financial’s Sesame Credit system could get you ahead at the hospital, giving you priority access to being examined by a doctor, as well as free wheelchair rental if you need it.

As you might imagine, critics of the system are nervous about how social credit could be misused to exert greater control over society, but social credit is actually popular with Chinese people. According to a study conducted by the Mercator Institute for China Studies, 80 per cent of survey respondents approved of the system, a further 19 per cent were neutral, and just one per cent viewed it negatively. So whatever the final system ends up looking like, the direction is clear: Chinese citizens are going to have to get used to playing their part in a video game, and they appear to be looking forward to doing so.