China wants to know: What's your "social credit score"?

“It’s the ultimate version of ‘Big Brother’s watching’,” Gayle King remarks at the end of this segment on CBS This Morning, but that’s not quite right. China’s effort to assign a “social credit score” to everyone in the nation is the outcome of Big Brother, and perhaps not even the ultimate outcome at that. Beijing’s massive state-run video surveillance system has enabled the government to track the behavior of its citizens right down to the most minute and mundane decisions:

By 2020, China plans to give all its 1.4 billion citizens a personal score based on how they behave. Some with low scores are already being punished if they want to travel. Nearly 11 million Chinese are not allowed to fly and 4 million are barred from trains. Next week, the program will start expanding nationwide.

The government says it is trying to “purify” society by rewarding people who are trustworthy and punishing those who are not, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy. So like the credit scores most Americans have based on how they handle their finances, Chinese citizens are getting a social credit score based on everything from whether they pay their taxes on time to how they cross the street to what they post online. …

The list is now getting longer as every Chinese citizen is being assigned a social credit score, a fluctuating rating based on a range of behaviors. It’s believed that community service and buying Chinese-made products can raise your score. Fraud, tax evasion and smoking in non-smoking areas can drop it. If a score gets too low, a person can be banned from buying plane and train tickets, real estate, cars and even high-speed internet.

“It’s a good thing,” one Chinese woman said. “There should be punishment for people who can’t behave.”

At some point, everyone loves Big Brother, right?

This reminds me of the warning that our parents used to lay on us to improve our own social credit “score” back in the day. We would get dire warnings about missteps going on our “permanent record,” from which we could never remove the demerits we accumulated. Of course, that’s antithetical to American life; we embrace the idea of new beginnings and fresh starts, even after committing serious offenses against our social fabric.

Or perhaps not. Our culture has gotten more attuned to utter nihilism against those who transgress the cultural norm du jour, especially when it comes to social media and public life. No offense is too small, no apology ever sufficient to allow anyone room to grow or develop nuance — or in cases like Kevin Williamson’s, to recognize that a great deal of nuance existed in the first place. Ban the speaker! Fire the dissenter! Barricade the universities and batten down the safe spaces! After all, law schools are no place to expose people to debate!

There will be a great deal of tongue-clucking at the communist regime in China over this totalitarian realization of the “permanent record,” and there should be. However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s not just among communists where the impulse to surveil everyone for transgressions real and imagined take flight. In the UK,  a man got eight months in jail in part for flipping off his social-credit monitors who were busy watching him and everyone else as part of their massive state-owned surveillance system. Don’t think for a moment that a similar system operated here in the US by those who currently control the campus climate would result in different outcomes, if our political system allowed for it. It’s a lot easier to implement in already-totalitarian systems, but as the UK demonstrates, it’s not impossible without it either.

Why? For the same reason we demand the destruction of our political opponents rather than just their defeat. People don’t just desire to be proven correct, but want justice against the very idea that they were mistaken in the first place. We see the fruits of that in our social media discourse and in the efforts of platform owners to moderate and curate speech on them. As we allow our natural rights to erode, especially by surrendering privacy rights in exchange for the opportunities for such justice, we’ll all start tracking our own social credit scores and forming ourselves to the process of indoctrination.

Ask not for whom the Big Brother bell tolls. It tolls for thee, and for we. And don’t think that there won’t be some who will love Big Brother then, too.

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