China's 'social credit' system: 'Hunger Games,' Big Brother or the book of Revelation?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a piece on Vice.com about China’s social credit system, a mix of “Brave New World,” “The Hunger Games” and Revelation 13:16-17.

Do you think the Chinese government would use this system to punish religious believers? We will come back to that angle.

For those of you not familiar with end-of-the-New Testament prophecy, the latter concerns a “mark” (barcode?) one must have to do any financial transactions worldwide. It all sounded like something out of the 22nd century until I began reading about China’s creepy citizen tracking system.

A short piece at Vice started thus:

RONGCHENG, China — Here and in other cities across China, monitors have been tracking people's behaviors — good and bad — for the country's new Social Credit System. It’s kind of like the American credit score system, except it tracks far more than financial transactions.

And the consequences can be pretty serious.

Part of the system is a neighbor watch program that's being piloted across the country where designated watchers are paid to record people's behaviors that factor into their social credit score. Zhou Aini, for one, gets paid $50 USD a month to watch her neighbors as an "information collector." She records observations in a notebook and then shares it with a local government office that determines the results.

A high score could bring you lower interest loans and discounted rent and utility bills, but if your score is low, you can be subjected to public shaming or even banned from certain kinds of travel. Basically, your life gets harder.

While the score is not exactly the biochip everyone must have embedded in their hand or forehead mentioned in the apocalyptic “Left Behind” novels, it is unsettling.

China’s persecution of its Muslim, Falun Gong and Christian minorities is getting worse by the day, so you can guess which groups would immediately suffer losses of their social credit. Today they might not be able to buy tickets for a plane flight. Tomorrow they may not be able to buy food.

Various media have been covering this trend for the past year. However, when it comes to religion, I haven’t seen much connecting of the dots. But I’ve found a few. As The Atlantic wrote:

Known by the anodyne name “social credit,” this system is designed to reach into every corner of existence both online and off. It monitors each individual’s consumer behavior, conduct on social networks, and real-world infractions like speeding tickets or quarrels with neighbors…

This end-to-end grid of social control is still in its prototype stages, but three things are already becoming clear: First, where it has actually been deployed, it has teeth. Second, it has profound implications for the texture of urban life. And finally, there’s nothing so distinctly Chinese about it that it couldn’t be rolled out anywhere else the right conditions obtain. The advent of social credit portends changes both dramatic and consequential for life in cities everywhere—including the one you might call home.

The piece then lists two political activists who’ve been barred from buying an airplane ticket, real estate or get a loan.

Attend a “subversive” political meeting or religious service, for example, or frequent known haunts of vice, or do under-the-table business with an unregistered, informal enterprise, and the idea is that the network will know about it and respond by curtailing one’s privileges… It’s not hard to see how such restrictions, applied broadly enough, would put an effective brake on nonconforming behaviors—or even the expression of nonconforming opinions.

Foreign Policy Review, which has done a lot of reporting on this system, veers back and forth as to whether such Big Brother behavior is a good thing. This piece, also set in Rongcheng, says that some method needs to be found to govern 1.4 billion people and that the system has curbed bad public behavior dramatically. Then:

One such microsystem has been built by residents of First Morning Light, a neighborhood of 5,100 families a stone’s throw from Rongcheng city hall. The spacious, modern-looking community has been divided into grids of 300 families, each grid overseen by a management team. Residents have even taken the official Rongcheng credit system a few steps further by adding penalties for illegally spreading religion — echoing recent countrywide crackdowns on religious practice — abusing or abandoning family members, and defaming others online.

So, there you have it.

As we’ve seen from the new concentration camp system imprisoning Muslims in Xinjiang, China doesn’t do stuff halfway. Here’s a story from The Guardian about Muslims in Xian, 1,000 miles east of Xinjiang, who are quite nervous about the same police state apparatus being used to track them. Never say never.

Think it can’t happen elsewhere? Reuters ran a piece this summer about China exporting its citizen tracking system to Venezuela, which is in an economic meltdown. Its new “fatherland card” monitors citizens.

The database, according to employees of the card system and screenshots of user data reviewed by Reuters, stores such details as birthdays, family information, employment and income, property owned, medical history, state benefits received, presence on social media, membership of a political party and whether a person voted… Cardholders and local human rights groups told Reuters that administrators ask questions about income, political activities and social media profiles before issuing the card.

Years ago, in the 1984 book “The Great Evangelical Disaster,” the late Francis Schaeffer said that social chaos would lead to people willing to give up their freedoms and accept authoritarianism by an elite. This is already happening in Venezuela.

As this helpful YouTube video points out, a lot of things don’t work in China, so the surveillance system has lots of cracks in it. And that Chinese society would be completely lawless without it, as many people have no social etiquette. Doubtless there are some good points.

But this diplomatic communique reminds us that China has exported monitoring technology to Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Ecuador and other small countries. And the possibilities are endless: Tracking what Chinese citizens do abroad or monitoring international companies that do business in China.

As for China’s endgame, abacusnews.com wondered:

As the Chinese government rapidly expands its surveillance network, some citizens wonder what more the future may hold beyond all-seeing cameras and online blacklists.

Reacting to reports of the car tracking system, one person asked on Weibo: “Will they start implanting chips on newborns one day?”

Definitely keep a lookout on this trend and whether it’s being used against followers of banned religions in China. When an authoritarian government wants to clamp down on dissent, religious groups are at the top of the list. In previous decades, the technology was not in place to shut down one’s ability to purchase food, gas and shelter.

Now it is. That’s a story affecting millions of people. Will we see it covered by more elite newsrooms?

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