From time to time, social media in North America attract harsh disapproval. Many seem to believe that off-the-cuff tweets on Twitter debase the language and concentrate on unfair denunciation. A recent issue of the New Yorker carries an accusatory headline, "Can Mark Zuckerberg fix Facebook before it breaks democracy?" But in China the government has invented a version of social media that makes Twitter, Facebook and all the rest seem both marginal and harmless. China's Social Credit System, an Orwellian version of Facebook, has a gigantic ambition: it sets out to shape 1.3 billion Chinese into a predictable, reliable and obedient mass, the sort of people the Communist Party wants to lead.
A government memo, high-mindedly looking forward to the results of this policy, says: "It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility." Typical civil-service hogwash, but just what politicians want to hear.
To accomplish this, China collects copious data on individuals and rates them on their quality as citizens.
In the interest of control and stability, the government tries to learn everything possible. Do they pay their bills on time? Do they buy a dangerous amount of liquor? Who are their friends? Do they commit petty crimes? Do they express political views without a permit? With these questions answered, they will give each person a "citizen score." That may change from day to day, but it will be consulted when they want a job, a loan or a visa.
Why is the government interested in collecting the names of friends? If dissidents get mentioned too often, they may become pariahs, separated from family and everyone else -- a political goal any despotic government would envy.
Many thousands of people are now profiled in Chinese government computers, but in theory everyone will be there in 2020, when (according to plan) the program will be considered complete. Like most things in China, participation is compulsory. You cannot tell the government you refuse to be digitized.
This is clearly a huge, costly project. Hundreds of staff must be involved in data mining alone. Facial recognition algorithms do not run themselves. Surveillance cameras, widely distributed, monitor so many places that citizens can rarely be sure they are not being watched. If Chinese citizens jaywalk, a camera may catch them, a machine will identify them, and their scores will suffer. All this is troublesome, but the Social Credit System is probably more efficient than the tradition of waiting for neighbours or relatives to turn people in.
But it's clear that China's system amounts to a chilling new threat to civil liberty in a country that was already among the most oppressive in the world. This is a dream system of a Hitler or a Stalin -- or a Xi Jinping.
In its belief that the Chinese can govern themselves according to their leaders, this project recalls the idea in Russia that the selfless collectivism of communism would lead to the creation of a New Soviet Man, described by Leon Trotsky as a "a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman." The New Soviet Man was often pictured with a New Soviet Woman at his side. In the 1930s the Communists tried hard to create these paragons but they didn't have computers.
In truth, however, China's leaders have something more than computers. They have a new idea. Given their dislike for individual rights, we should expect them to enforce conformity with threats and prison cells. Instead, they're giving out citizen scores. It's said that a good many now brag about their high scores. For some, the Social Credit System is making obedience feel desirable. A dictator's lust for social control has on this case become a reward system.