The total control of all of life was the great fear of advanced societies in the twentieth century. World War II and the Cold War were fought to prevent movements bent on this objective. Since the end of the Cold War, it has remained in mainstream consciousness, punctuated by such events as the defection of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to Russia, his revelations of the NSA’s global surveillance of domestic targets, recent censorship of conservative sources by Twitter and Facebook, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s admission in Congressional testimony of Silicon Valley’s left wing bias.
But the ability of the United States government, other western governments, a leftist mass media, or the postulated “deep state” of leftist officials in Washington to actually put a totalitarian system in place is limited by still effective legal guarantees of free speech and privacy, and the vigilance of a public focused on the dangers of centrally controlled society, facilitated by rapid technological development.
Not so in China, where the Chinese communist government has no limit on its power. Powering the drive to achieve complete control of life possible to a government with unlimited authority is the traditional Chinese belief that state power and authoritarian social relations are necessary to avoid chaos, as discussed by this writer in the spring. Added to this is China’s rapid economic and technological development resulting from the post-Maoist reforms of the late twentieth century.
What has attracted much deserved attention in recent weeks is China’s developing Social Credit System, which the government hopes to be fully functional by 2020. It is a seeming outgrowth of anticorruption drives, which have been an important part of the state’s effort at an ordered society. Begun with blacklists of debtors by the Supreme People’s Court, and proposed as a joint public-private endeavor, it will use electronic surveillance and data analysis to collect information and assess the overall economic and social reputation of every person in China. This comprehensive assessment is then used to control the access a person has to most of what anyone receives from society: jobs, promotions, financial credit, access to better schools, permission to travel, ability to book lodging, ability to disseminate information and opinion electronically, and seemingly any other kind of public service.
ScienceAlert reports that China currently has 200 million closed-circuit TV cameras (with three times as many hoped for in the next 18 months) to monitor its populace, and that “the idea is these ever-watchful eyes will be hooked up to facial recognition systems, and cross-checked with financial, medical, and legal records – with the whole apparatus regulated and interpreted by advanced, big-data-crunching AI networks.”
In a widely disseminated video presentation from the Australian Broadcasting Company, the electronic monitoring of a young woman in China is shown, with all her daily activities on the street and in the market captured for analysis. But the Australian network and LifeSiteNews also note that anything recorded electronically, such as Internet browsing (such as what was viewed and the duration of video gaming), telephone conversations (perhaps cued by key words), and purchases on the Internet or at market will be part of each person’s “social credit.” As the network reports “those … with top ‘citizen scores’ get VIP treatment at hotels and airports, cheap loans and a fast track to the best universities and jobs … Those at the bottom can be locked out of society and banned from travel, or barred from getting credit or government jobs.” It is “probably the largest social engineering project ever attempted, a way to control and coerce more than a billion people … The system will be ‘live’ … [to people and] will update in real time.”
But it is not only one’s self who is affected by one’s behavior in day to day life, but family and friends as well. As the network notes, “social credit will be affected by more than just internet browsing and shopping decisions. Who your friends and family are will affect your score. If your best friend or your dad says something negative about the government, you’ll lose points too.”
Such a detailed analysis of a person’s life gives those who set standards enormous power to craft a society according to their own values. An important researcher into the social credit project is Roger Creemers of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who focuses on Chinese law. Creemers maintains that the goal of the social credit system “is ‘cybernetic’ behavioral control, allowing individuals to be monitored and immediately confronted with the consequences of their actions.”
Creemers is careful to point out there is not now a single social credit system. It is still being developed and implemented and consists of many different monitoring systems in various parts of the country which record behavior. He says that “blacklists—and ‘redlists’—form the backbone of the Social Credit System, not a much-debated ‘social credit score.’ Blacklists punish negative behavior while redlists reward positive. According to the planning outline released by the State Council — China’s cabinet — in mid-2014, the system’s objective is to encourage individuals to be trustworthy under the law and dissuade against breaking trust, in order to promote a ‘sincerity culture.’”
Much of the social credit idea might seem appealing to social conservatives, because its principle focus appears to be character as exemplified by behavior. The desirability of a high degree of social control and personal responsibility were the touchstone of Confucian ethics, and are key to the idea of social credit. The article from LifeSiteNews cited above identifies this as the value of “xinyong, a ‘core tenet of Confucian ethics.’ Originally meaning ‘honesty’ and ‘trustworthiness,’ xinyong now denotes ‘financial creditworthiness’ as well.” But the impulse to evaluate people seems to have expanded since the time the “social credit” idea was first advanced in 2007 to include such things as “personal habits, opinions and friendships.” The article goes on the quote Asian expert Steve Mosher that “a lot of people in China don’t use money anymore … they use their phones. The Chinese government monitors all phones, everything electronic.” Because the Chinese have now grown fond of online activity, Lifesite says that people are “’self-reporting’ on where they go, what they buy, and–on social media–who they know and what they think.” In particular, according to Mosher “your social [credit] score goes up if you say good things about the regime … Your social score goes down if you say bad things about the regime.”
While the Chinese system seems focused on personal character, with family and social connections and political loyalty seemingly (although ominously) added on, North Korea has had, for several decades, a somewhat similar system focusing largely on political loyalty. The “Songbun” system categorizes the North Korean population into three classes: “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile.” This system originated in the 1950s and 1960s, according to Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, by identifying “landowners, businessmen, intellectuals, and Koreans who worked for the [Japanese] colonial administrators … those who had opposed [North Korean dictator] Kim[-il Sung’s] ascent to power or collaborated with South Korea” during the Korean War, and also “North Koreans who had enjoyed high status under Japanese rule, from landowners and intellectuals to religious leaders and aristocrats.” These people became the “hostile” underclass, forced to assume the position of the “peasants, laborers, and workers” who now joined the “core” upper class, together with “people closest to Kim, their relatives, and anti-Japanese resistance fighters.”
As with China’s nascent system, North Korea’s system taints relatives of people with bad classifications with lower status. Indeed, any single act interpreted by a government functionary as hostile to the state can taint one’s children and grandchildren. In a Brookings Institution report of the early 2000s, Asian expert Kongdan Oh report that “an individual’s political loyalty is likely to be re-examined anytime he or she comes to the attention of the authorities, for example when being considered for a job, housing, or travel permit. One’s political classification is not a matter of public knowledge, nor is it known to the individual, but it is recorded in the personal record that follows every North Korean throughout life, and of course becomes part of the record of that person’s children and relatives as well.”
Thus the focus of the Chinese and North Korean systems are somewhat different, with China’s still developing system based on many generally desirable character traits such as honesty and financial responsibility, with political loyalty added on, while North Korea’s is based on largely or entirely on perceived loyalty to the state. But both seek to reward and penalize with goods and services that one needs or desires, and both taint relatives and associates of a person with low rating with (at least some) of that person’s low rating.
Western societies are far removed from the personal, status-based, ideological allocation of resources practiced or planned in China and North Korea. The availability of resources is instead based on highly impersonal money, which can be used by anyone who has money to spend. But the logic of leftist ideology in our society is indeed to reward and penalize people according to their political, ideological and moral commitments. We need only think of Christian educational institutions threatened with loss of state aid, tax exemption, or accreditation (and thus ability to continue to function) due to the sexual standards they maintain over a strictly voluntary clientele, or the economic warfare threatened or practiced against Indiana in 2015 after the passage of a religious freedom law allowing businesses to conduct their activities in line with their religious commitments, which ultimately pressured that state’s Republican governor and legislature to gut the law to prohibit conscientious objection from homosexual behavior. Indeed the very idea of socialism or communism is to minimize or eliminate money or property in favor of ideology.
Any realistic attempt to put in place something like the ultimately ideological systems of social control found in China or North Korea in the West must be put in place piecemeal. This is indeed being done, above all with the increasing number of antidiscrimination categories restricting the personal decisions that people can make in public, human rights commissions staffed by leftists responsive to the complaints of feminist, LGBT, or Islamist activists, and the regulations and policies of private organizations such as corporations, colleges and universities, professional associations, and broadcasting and social media organizations staffed by leftist leadership trained by the nation’s overwhelmingly leftist academy.
There is no magic formula to resist totalitarianism. But crucial to resisting it is courage, and what the Social Credit System professes to advance, character, whenever the state endeavors to require people to violate their consciences or restrict their activities based on its own ideology. Victories (and defeats) may seem small, but together, they are quite important. They add up to a free system, or a totalitarian system.Google+