The Chinese are experimenting with a social credit system. It’s as if you have to score brownie points with your future father-in-law so as to be allowed to marry his daughter, except in this case the father-in-law is the most powerful Chinese president since Mao Zedong, who – as if things weren’t quite bad enough yet – is colloquially known as ‘Uncle Xi’. Based on information stored online, Chinese citizens will be awarded points when they behave well, and docked points whenever they do something Uncle Xi does not approve of.
To gain a bit of an understanding of how the credit system works, just imagine that you will earn points by doing things the government allows you to do: getting a degree, socialising, watching TV shows approved by Xi. Who wouldn’t like that? On the other hand, you will lose points if you engage in questionable behaviour. Once you hit a certain number of docked points, you may be barred from, say, travelling by public transport, or from getting a mortgage. In other words, for Chinese people, data transparency and transparent behaviour are not something they have a say in. They are even being monitored when they fail to stop for a red light at a zebra crossing. That doesn’t sound quite so nice.
For this reason, the media’s articles about Xi Jinping’s plans are suspicious rather than neutral. However, at the same time, they make it sound like a distant problem – not something that will ever touch us. However, here in the Netherlands, we earn points, as well, albeit on a voluntary basis. For instance, we do so by ordering things we don’t really need from online shops. Without really noticing it, we give our data to shops, which store them and use them to manipulate our purchasing decisions the next time we visit their shop. Only by that point, we will have earned our points, which means we will get a five-euro discount on our next purchase!
In other words, we do have a choice in what we choose to share, and we don’t mind sharing things as long as we keep receiving likes for them. And when we realise our data can be abused, we will simply blame Facebook, even though we ourselves could have been slightly more reticent with regard to whom we give our data. After all, it is not as if Mark Zuckerberg ever hid the dark sides of his company. Back in 2004, he called Facebook’s first users stupid idiots for entrusting their information to him. Years after the fact, he proved to be right.
So we Dutch people are being monitored, just like the Chinese are. We don’t really seem to care, because it allows us to keep ordering things. So the next time the 8 o’clock news shows a feature on China’s credit system, get yourself some popcorn and don’t worry. While you watch the news, by all means go on using Facebook, apps and online shops. Just be aware there’s a good chance they get their stuff from China.
Marnix ‘t Hart studies Philosophy at the EUR