China has a problem.
No, not Donald Trump trying to savage it any time he comes within three feet of a microphone. It’s that enormous social shifts in recent years – like the forcible relocation of 250 million people from rural areas to urban environments – have transformed the country, in the words of its Academy of Social Sciences, from “a society of acquaintances into a society of strangers.”
And these strangers, it turns out, don’t think much of each other. Social trust is at miserable levels, leading to a shaky business environment in which half of all written contracts are blatantly breached.
Since part of the problem is the lack of a credit reporting system, the government has decided to establish one. But instead of only considering people’s ability to repay loans, this system will rank people based on their trustworthiness using all sorts of data.
This might sound exactly like the kind of thing you’d expect from an authoritarian regime. And as someone who has pondered the ways in which privacy is squeezed by an ever-expanding surveillance state, I was intrigued by this unholy alliance between Big Data and Big Brother.
But what really surprised me was not just the outlandish lengths to which the Chinese government will go to evaluate its citizens. It was that its tactics were surprisingly close to what is already happening here, as banks look for ways to lend money to – and collect fees from – people with no traditional credit history.
But first let’s look at what the Chinese are doing.
The glories of trust-keeping
Using an enormous range of information, from traffic violations to consumer patterns to social networks, China intends to give every one of its 1.3 billion citizens a “social credit” score by 2020.
A recently translated summary of the plan explains that the goal is nothing less than raising “the sincerity and quality of the entire nation.” That, it says, should help address everything from workplace accidents to food safety failures to tax evasion and production of counterfeit goods (putting Canal Street, every New York woman’s go-to source for knockoff Chanel handbags, rather under a cloud).
The plan includes recommendations for establishing “civil servant sincerity dossiers,” something I’d like to see applied to my local DMV, lots of talk about “professional ethics, household virtue and individual morality” and encouraging companies to conduct “client sincerity evaluations.”
I’m not sure what that means, but it conjures visions of online retailers diligently making entries like, “Disappointing customer. Returned item saying ‘It didn’t fit.’ Strongly suspect she’s lying about being a size 6.”
There’s also a large public relations component, with the use of news media to “forge a public opinion that trust-keeping is glorious” and a raft of proposed holidays, including “Sincere Trading Propaganda Week” and “Quality Month.”
The pains of trust-breaking
Before you start worrying about the caliber of the other 11 months of the year, you’ll be glad to hear that there’s also a strategy for enforcement. This includes informants, blacklists and the rather chilling promise that “those breaking trust will meet with difficulty at every step.”
Interestingly, the government is letting private companies, like Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that made US$1 billion in eight minutes the other day, take the lead in a series of pilot projects.
Alibaba’s finance arm, Sesame Credit, has been issuing customers with social credit scores based in part on their purchases and hobbies.
As Sesame’s technology director explained, someone who played hours of video games “would be considered an idle person,” so less creditworthy, while someone “who frequently buys diapers” is probably a parent, so “more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”
Suddenly that puts Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, running from the cops with a stocking mask over his head and a package of Huggies under his arm, in a whole new light.
Rank your friends!
Although it seems that someone’s score, rather shockingly, may rise and fall with the creditworthiness of their friends and relations, companies are focusing consumers on the positive.
Sesame has even launched a mobile phone game in which users can guess whether they have higher or lower scores than their friends. What could be more fun than seeing whether your friends are – literally – worth hanging out with?
This may all seem crazy, in ways both scary and silly. But before we get too smug about how it would be unthinkable here, consider the recent news about credit agencies “exploring new ways of assessing consumers’ ability to handle loans,” right here in the United States.
These include scouring “phone and utility bills, change-of-address records and information drawn from DVD clubs and suppliers of rent-to-own furniture.” And that’s just the well-known companies like TransUnion and FICO.
Start-up credit agencies and banks, reports The Economist, go even further, “piecing together scores by analyzing applicants’ online social networks,” monitoring their Facebook messages and determining whether they are spending prudently.
(Here we pause as I put down my phone, from which I was just about to order a gravy separator from Williams-Sonoma, in case I needed to separate gravy sometime. Suddenly, it just didn’t seem – what’s the word? – prudent.)
The credit agencies say that they are responding to a demand by their customers – the banks, which are looking for new sources of revenue and hoping to find it in people who previously had no credit score.
Building a better citizen
So while we’re not subjected to a government effort to “build a better citizen,” as the Chinese are, we’re not doing much to prevent the private sector from conducting not-entirely-dissimilar data-mining investigations into millions of people too young, too poor or too new to the country to have traditional credit scores.
Ever since Target started using data-mining to predict whether female customers were pregnant (which explains why I received a can of formula, seemingly out of the blue, right before I had my first child), scholars have warned us about the many ways the private sector can use predictive analytics to figure out who we are and what they can sell us.
But even if it’s good business, there’s something odd about collecting all these disparate pieces of information – traffic violations, bills paid and unpaid, staying friends with your ne’er-do-well elementary school classmate, having children, playing Call of Duty: Black Ops III – and assigning the whole mess a single numerical score.
Reducing all aspects of social and consumer life to a single unit of value seems to fundamentally misunderstand the complexity of human experience. Maybe remaining friends with a childhood buddy with a poor loan history does reflect on your own financial creditworthiness. But that friendship might also point to other things about you – your past, your loyalty or your willingness to help those in need – that cannot be assigned a numeric value along the same spectrum as whether you paid your gas bill.
Maybe an authoritarian single-party state can’t be that concerned with the dignity and autonomy (let alone the privacy) of its citizens. But at least the Chinese plan has been publicly circulated. Its “you will be trustworthy – or else” message might be a little alarming, but it’s not like it keeps you guessing.
We can’t really say the same for our own shadowy system of credit ratings. And if the market requires it, how long will it be before we all get evaluated based on whether our purchases are of the “responsible adult” or “idle slacker” kind?
Better start stocking up on the Huggies.