Before the electronic digital age, there was George Orwell. In 1949, British publishers Secker and Warburg published a futuristic novel, titled “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (often published as “1984”), that was set in the super state of Oceania, a society of perpetual war, omnipresent surveillance, and government manipulation. “Thought Police” guarded against independent thinking, individualism, and other “thought crimes.”
During the good times of post-World War II in America and Western Europe, it was almost impossible to identify with Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, whose job at Oceania’s Ministry of Truth (Minitrue, in Newspeak) involved rewriting old newspaper articles so that the historical record supported whatever the ruling party wanted the public to believe. The people were persuaded that Minitrue’s mission was to correct misquotations. But Winston’s job was really to write false information (i.e., “fake news”) in place of fact.
In everyday life, an amorphous being, known as Big Brother, watched over everything that people did. The Ministry of Plenty rationed scarce food and goods, while Minitrue altered records to show how production had increased. People who challenged the system attracted the attention of the Ministry of Love, which arrested and tortured dissidents. A system of reward and punishment, similar to what one might find in a psychology rat laboratory, assured that society ran smoothly.
As absurd as “1984” may seem. China is in the process of implementing the very essence of Orwell’s dystopia. Writing for the Washington Post, Simon Denyer, the bureau chief in Beijing, asks us to imagine “a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how ‘trustworthy’ you are.” It’s as if Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” meets “1984” in some bizarre “Brave New World.”
That “single score,” according the The Week, is used as a substitute for the FICO score that U.S. lenders depend upon to assess consumer credit risks. However, the data that are gathered by Sesame Credit, part of the giant Alibaba e-commence company which is the world’s largest online platform, go well beyond the assessment of financial credit, according to Denyer.
The Week elaborates: “Take care of your parents, pay your bills on time, and give to charity and you’ll be rewarded with a high rating, which can get you access to travel abroad and good schools for your children.” These qualities result in a high “Sesame Credit” score. But, “run a red light, criticize the government on social media, or sell tainted food to consumers and you could lose access to bank loans, government jobs, and automobile rentals.”
With pilot versions of Sesame Credit already underway in about 30 cities, Beijing hopes to have the program covering most of its 1.4 billion people in place by 2020. Chinese social critic Nurong Xuecum says, “This is like Big Brother who has all your information and can harm you in any way he wants.” Denyer agrees, adding: “This is not just about regulating the economy, but also about creating a new socialist utopia under the Communist Party’s benevolent guidance.”
The whole system is made possible by harnessing the power of “big data” and the ubiquity of smart phones, e-commerce, and social media in a “society where 700 million people live large parts of their lives online.” Denyer states that Sesame Credit will also vacuum up court, police, banking, tax, and employment records, as well as monitor the practices of physicians, teachers, businesses, and local government leaders.
All of this is possible because Chinese citizens use their smart phones to pay for about $5.5 trillion worth of goods and services each year, compared to the $112 billion charged by Americans. The Week points out that “these so-called super-apps have built-in social networks and can be used to hail a cab, order food, schedule a doctor’s appointment, or check into a hotel.”
Rewards and punishments
The ultimate surveillance state is already up and running in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, according to The Week. The newsmagazine states, “An algorithm assigns a score between 350 and 950. The higher the number, the more perks you get.” People with a low score may be shut out of seats on planes and trains, denied superior rooms at hotels, or even excluded from friendship groups. “If your rating drops, your friends have an incentive to shun you, lest their scores dip too.”
According to Lucy Peng, CEO of Sesame Credit, the system “will ensure that the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction.”
Video surveillance will track everybody through facial recognition. The Week points out that security cameras, ubiquitous in stores and on street corners, “will be integrated into the surveillance platform, and artificial intelligence will analyze the mountain of video data.”
Anything that seems suspicious will be flagged, and that can potentially affect a person’s social credit. Li Xiafend, of the facial-recognition company Cloudwalk, cautions, “If you know that gambling takes place in a location, and someone goes there frequently, they (sic) become suspicious.”
In Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, nearly every aspect of life is under surveillance. Cameras capture the characters on license plates and compare them to a database. Police are notified if the cars are from some other region. Police can also approach anyone and use a hand-held device to check smart phones for illegally encrypted information or banned videos. Machines scan ID cards and faces.
Anybody who is evaluated as being suspicious can be detained for questioning. Talking to a reporter for The Week, lawyer Zhu Shengwu warns, “What happens in Xinjiang has bearing on the fate of all Chinese people.”
Washington Post bureau chief Simon Denyer believes that Sesame Credit compares to the “good citizen cards” that were introduced by Japan’s occupying army in China during the 1930s. Today, on social media, residents are protesting that “this was ‘society turned upside down,’ and it (is) citizens who should be grading government officials and ‘not the other way around.’”
Of course, this leads to speculation as to how long it will be before a similar system arises in America. My hunch is that it won’t be long.
• • •
Jim Glynn may be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.