Social Credit System in China: A Dystopia of Social Engineering

Updated on June 23, 2020
JC Scull profile image

JC Scull has lived in different countries and taught International Business Relations and Strategies at a Chinese University.

In the 1930s series Flash Gordon, he removes a “thought control” helmet used by Mingo in the Planet Mongo.
In the 1930s series Flash Gordon, he removes a “thought control” helmet used by Mingo in the Planet Mongo. | Source

China has taken surveillance and oppression to the next level with the establishment of the National Credit System. Conceptualized in 2012 by the incoming fifth generation of Communist leaders, which was headed by Xi Jinping, it is a way to create a system of oppression some have called analogous to Orwell's 1984.

This article takes a look at the National Credit System in China and attempts to show not only how it works but also the implications of what it will bring. The article also tries to put into perspective the cultural underpinnings which allow this phenomenon to take place in the Middle Kingdom.

Liberties and Freedom

For the last few hundred years and until recent history, most authoritarian regimes demanding obedience from their citizens could only do so through brute force. However, organizations such as the Inquisition, Hitler’s SS, East Germany’s Stasi, Russia’s OGPU, or DINA under Chile’s dictator Pinochet, were never able to maintain long-term control. The human desire for freedom, independence, and the exercise of free will is too strong.

Notwithstanding, could freedom, personal liberties, and self-determination be notions that are experienced differently at a cultural level? Could Western societies see these ideas as inalienable rights while Oriental cultures do not place such importance on them?

Imagine living in a country where personal freedoms have in effect been slowly eroding for thousands of years. Where individual choices and personal aspirations have been sacrificed to an obscure notion of cultural unity, harmony, and obedience to those in positions of authority. Where obedience is inextricably tied to a hierarchical system of social, familial and governmental edicts and normative demands forcing members into strict behavioral mandates.

A country where this notion of compliance and acquiescence is actually viewed as a source of cultural unity and even as a national strength. A place in which members of society enter into a social contract with those in power whereby loyalty and obedience is traded for benevolence from the ruling class.

Most would think that an authoritarian regime ruling over a society so willing to surrender its voting rights and individual freedoms and expressing such willing external locus of control would be satisfied with those they govern. How much more could such a government want from its people? Could they create mind control helmets similar to the one featured in the old Flash Gordon television series used by the evil Ming in the planet Mongo as shown in the picture above? Perhaps not yet. Technology is not quite that advanced, thankfully.

From article: How China Is Using “Social Credit Scores” to Reward and Punish Its Citizens. By Charlie Campbell Facial recognition is one of the many methods China is using to monitor its citizens.
From article: How China Is Using “Social Credit Scores” to Reward and Punish Its Citizens. By Charlie Campbell Facial recognition is one of the many methods China is using to monitor its citizens. | Source

Social Credit System

However, in today’s China, the government has embarked on a social engineering experiment that, if proven successful, will make George Orwell’s groundbreaking novel 1984 seem a reality. The innocuously named Social Credit System program, also known as Credit System in China, could perhaps deliver similar results.

The program was conceived and began to take shape in 2013 with the incoming administration of Xi Jinping. While it is already affecting millions of Chinese citizens, it is not expected to be fully operational until sometime in 2020 or 2021. Considering that the Communist party central committee has eliminated term limits and Xi is sure to rule China for life, we can all be assured that this system of mass surveillance and oppression will become a reality to more than a billion people.

The Social Credit System, while being declared by the Chinese government as merely a national reputation system, is in reality a lot more than that. The underlying purpose is to create a system of innocent-sounding rewards and punishments that will be leveraged on social behavior the government views unseemly or inappropriate, the ultimate aim being obedience and control over China’s people.

The program intends to assign a “social credit” rating to every citizen based on government data regarding economic and social status as well as social behavior. The government will use advanced technology to conduct big data analysis in order to assign a point system to every citizen. This process will be handled by a group strangely named The Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission (中央全面深化改革委员会).

The group’s main task is reported to determine guidelines for reforming the economic, social, ethical, and party-building systems in order to implement long-term reform initiatives. For those China watchers with a deep understanding of how China’s Communist leaders crave power and control, these are nothing more than code words for creating a long-term and durable method for shaping the Chinese populace into vast armies of well behaved, hard-working, and acquiescing people,

People have made comparisons between Black Mirror's Nose Dive and China's Social Credit System.  Also to Orwell's 1984
People have made comparisons between Black Mirror's Nose Dive and China's Social Credit System. Also to Orwell's 1984 | Source

Government Oppression

There is nothing new about China’s oppressive government using every means at its disposal to subjugate the masses in order to guarantee its continued existence. In fact, internet crackdowns and censorship are no longer news. In previous years Chinese netizens, expats, and foreign companies widely relied on VPNs to circumvent the infamous great Chinese firewall. However, in 2018, the government made all overseas VPNs illegal and began to block them, even jailing those caught using them.

Social media is limited to those approved or owned by the Chinese government, and foreign companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and others are banned. The immense army of minders and censors working for the government will instantaneously wipe clean any information, reference, or comment that is deemed anti-government. This could be unflattering comments about Xi Jinping, any government official, or any initiative the government takes domestically or abroad.

Black jails are often used to illegally and surreptitiously incarcerate trouble makers or outspoken critics of the government. International kidnappings and renditions have been carried out in order to forcefully repatriate those that have sought exile in other countries. Power, control, and an appetite for absolute obedience from the Chinese population is the driving force behind the Communist behemoth that runs the country.

Scene from the movie "1984"
Scene from the movie "1984" | Source

In 2020 or 2021, "1984" Will Fully Arrive

Now, the establishment of a social credit system seems to be the grand finale; the finishing touches of a hugely ambitious and comprehensive social engineering initiative that aims at molding Chinese denizens into flesh-and-blood automatons. But perhaps it is more elementary than that. Could it be the natural evolution of a culture that for thousands of years has known nothing other than top-down control?

By 2020 or 2021 China’s citizens can expect every action taken, whether in public or online, to be scrutinized, dissected, analyzed, and judged. Not only will financial credit information be taken into consideration when issuing a personal score, but good deeds such as filing taxes on time or volunteering to government-approved organizations have similar effects. On the other hand “uncivilized behavior,” people that “misbehave,” spread rumors, make negative comments about the government, refuse to visit elderly parents, or merely jaywalk could garnish negative points.

Most disturbing is that demerit points can be issued to someone for merely associating with a person deemed a recalcitrant by the authorities. This in effect is a way to completely isolate and ostracize those not having gained favor from the government.

The types of punishments that can be expected for merely negative credit scores could include but not be limited to blocking a person’s ID card number, which is required in China in order to board a flight or a train, or merely registering a social media account. Access to education, public healthcare, staying at luxury hotels, nightclubs, or buying real estate could be either limited or prohibited.

Sending a child to private school, going on vacation, or buying a car could face varying degrees of restriction. Access to high-speed internet could be denied—as could being banned from government jobs or from being hired by state enterprises.

For those who have unpaid debt, some cities have already begun to take corrective action by switching the person’s mobile ringtone to the wailing of a police siren followed by the message: “The person you are calling has been listed as a discredited person by the local court. Please urge this person to fulfill his or her legal obligations.” For those unfortunate enough to land on the National Tourism Administration’s list for “uncivilized behavior” could have their names made public for up to four years. Banks, travel agencies and airlines could bar the offender from receiving services. The police could put these people on a watch list.

Number of People Affected in 2018 Alone

  • Passengers blocked from buying plane tickets: 175 million times
  • Passengers blocked from buying train tickets: 5.5 million times
  • Prohibited from leaving China due to unpaid taxes: 128 people
  • People blocked from taking senior management jobs: 290,000 times
  • Dogs confiscated from owners for not cleaning after them: 1,400 dog owners affected

(Source:Visual Capitalist - Katie Jones September 18, 2019)

The Frog in Boiling Water

As expected a large percentage of Chinese people are not well informed of the implications of China's social credit system. On the other hand, the Chinese government has been circumspect about publicizing details of the system with the exception of cryptic references in the government website under the title: “Guiding Opinions on Establishing and Perfecting the System of Joint Incentives for Trustworthiness and the Joint Discretionary system of Losing Trust to Accelerate the Construction of Social Credit”.

The fable of the frog in the boiling water seems to be quite appropriate in the Communist government’s attitude regarding the manipulation of the masses. Any frog that is suddenly put into boiling water will immediately jump out. However, if the frog is put into tepid water which is slowly brought to a boil will not perceive the danger and will eventually be cooked to death.

Long ago Chinese people relegated their freedoms and well-being to the whims of the government. While most Westerners possess an internal locus of control that says events can be influenced by them, the Chinese have a high degree of external locus of control that guides them in the opposite direction. To them, external forces dictate their destiny.

While a system such as this could yield some positive outcomes in preventing people from breaking traffic laws, encouraging some to perform good deeds to people outside of their social network, prevent financial scams, and unsanitary restaurants, the risk of misuse and abuse by those in power is great. Arbitrary use and manipulation of the data collected could lead to abuse by bureaucrats. Dissidents of varying degrees will most likely experience a multifaceted punishment as they are pushed further into social isolation.

The consequence will be that more and more people will become cautious about remarks made in any public or online forums. The social credit system in combination with the government’s increased usage of high tech monitoring of ordinary citizens will turn China into an absolute police state. It seems that Chinese people can look forward to living in an Orwellian state in which actions and perhaps even thoughts are controlled by a central committee.



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    • JC Scull profile imageAUTHOR

      JC Scull 

      6 months ago from Gainesville, Florida


    • justmesuzanne profile image


      6 months ago from Texas

      Fascinating and frightening!

    • JC Scull profile imageAUTHOR

      JC Scull 

      9 months ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Hello Lorna,

      Always a pleasure to hear from you. By the way, I have one of those Little Red Books. You can buy them in souvenir shops all over China.

      However, you pose an interesting question that cannot be answered in a couple of sentences. Let's say the short answer is "no."

      Yes, Xi would like to be considered as great or greater than Mao. However, he can only do this by going beyond China's borders and replacing the USA as the most powerful nation on the planet. This is how he wants to be remembered in the history books.

      In order to do this he needs an army of worker bees that can build an empire at home and take China's Socialism globally. In essence, mindless workers at home and fearless soldiers abroad. This requires absolute obedience. Zero dissension.

      No, he will not be taking China to the era of the infamous "Little Red Book" because this was an era driven by a very destructive personality cult; counterproductive to his desire of global dominance or at least great international hegemony.

      Firing up the masses in emotionally driven movements such as the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, Three-anti Campaigns, etc., would be devastating to the economy and to the social fabric of China. He is too smart for that. There are many other tools at his disposal, which I can assure you he will use.

    • Lorna Lamon profile image

      Lorna Lamon 

      9 months ago

      This really does not surprise me JC considering that they have locked up over one million people in concentration camps and are brain washing them. Could they be returning to the days of "the little Red Book". Horrifying and frightening - this is indeed a thought provoking article.

    • JC Scull profile imageAUTHOR

      JC Scull 

      9 months ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Hello Mary,

      Thank you for your comment.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      9 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Such an interesting article on what is going on in China today. With so many people, some form of control is deemed necessary by the authorities. It is sad.

    • JC Scull profile imageAUTHOR

      JC Scull 

      9 months ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Thank you Jason!! I am glad you enjoyed it.

    • Nicoartz profile image

      Jason Nicolosi 

      9 months ago from AZ

      Very nice article JC. Your a marvelous writer. Very easy to follow, interesting and informative article. An enjoyable read.


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