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Digital surveillance

No one can opt out

by Felix Lee

In depth

Cameras monitor what goes on in public places. Here in Shanghai.

Cameras monitor what goes on in public places. Here in Shanghai.

The Chinese leadership is serious about its plan to launch a nationwide social credit system that assesses people’s behaviour in all areas of life and rewards or penalises them accordingly. In Beijing, the system will go into operation next year.

Haifeng casts a vexed glance at her smartphone. She is sitting in a café sipping a latte, her phone lying at her elbow on the table. Reluctantly, she picks up the device and taps on a bright red icon. The app gives her access to video messages and reams of texts. Haifeng has no interest in reading the texts. But she has to open the app several times a day, she says, because she is a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Like most Chinese of her generation, 25-year-old Haifeng actually likes using her smartphone. She watches Korean operas on it and has downloaded e-books as well as a lot of games. Mostly, she uses her phone to chat with friends and exchange images and videos.

Now, however, her phone has become a source of annoyance. The leadership of the CCP has instructed all members to download a specific app. It is called “Xue Xi Qiang Guo”, which roughly translates as “Study to make China strong”, and is officially said to be an educational tool. But there is a pun in the Chinese name. The first two syllables can also mean “Learn from Xi”, a reference to Xi Jinping, China’s president and top leader of the CCP. The app contains Xi quotes as well as references to the national constitution, the party charter, new party directives and even old black-and-white propaganda movies such as “The long march”.

For CCP members like Haifeng, it is not enough to install the app. They also have to use it. The time they spend engaged with the app earns them “learning points”. A bonus point is awarded, for example, for a four-minute read of an article. Points are also awarded for sharing an article or a video with friends or family. At certain times of the day, points accumulate faster. They count double when the app is used before 8.30 in the morning, during a lunch-break or after eight in the evening. After all, it is not supposed to interfere with people’s work.

Users who acquire enough points can redeem them for gifts or discounts. Those with low scores face censure in the CCP cell. “If your number of points is small, that shows that you are not an enthusiastic member,” Haifeng says. For a while, Xue Xi Qiang Guo was the most downloaded app in China, outstripping even Tictoc, the latest trending social media app among young people. Haifeng is not surprised. The CCP has more than 90 million members and they have all been told to install the app on their phones.


Social scoring

The app is piloting a kind of comprehensive social scoring that will one day cover the behaviour of every member of Chinese society. Debt defaulters will lose points. Those who dodge public-transport fares will be marked down. Anyone found dumping garbage, parking illegally or letting a child urinate in the street will face similar penalties.

The world was stunned by the Chinese leadership’s proposal to launch the social credit system. So far, it has not yet been rolled out nationwide, but only tested in some regions. Now, Beijing’s municipal government has announced the intention to implement the personal rating system by the end of 2020. It has published the respective assessment catalogue at the beginning of this year. Beijing’s entire population of 22 million people will be registered for the system.

The catalogue lists traffic violations, tax offences, loutish behaviour and even smoking in public places among the actions that will lead to penalties. The internet plays a big role in Chinese life, so people’s social-media behaviour, online-shopping history and even messaging-service use will be monitored. Information sources may include reviews on shopping portals, comments on social-networking sites as well as health and court records. If critical comments about the government are shared in a chat group, that could leave a trace in the social credit system and earn the author a black mark. Denunciation is explicitly encouraged.

The aim is to create model citizens – or what qualifies as such in the Communist leadership’s eyes. Everyone starts with 1,000 points. Anyone who boosts the figure to 1,300 points through good behaviour gets an AAA rating. An AAA rating means free vouchers for rail or air travel, access to cheaper loans and preferential treatment when applying for places in nursery schools or universities. Anyone whose points total falls below 600, however, lands in the worst category, with a D rating, and will find life harder.

Everyone will be able to check their own rating. But government agencies, banks, shopping platforms, tour operators and even airlines will also have access to the information. No one can opt out of the system. Everyone will get an account and will be required to register themselves using their social-insurance number.

The Chinese have already had a foretaste of what impacts massive data collection can have on their lives. China’s Ministry of Tourism recently revealed that more than 20 million people were denied air and rail tickets last year because their social record was not considered good enough. So far, however, the relevant data was only collected and compiled by private businesses. Now the government is taking over.

China’s big internet companies – like Alibaba and Tencent – have diligently prepared the ground. Internet giant Alibaba, which sells more than Amazon through its online retail platforms Taobao and Tmall, has amassed data of nearly 800 million users. Some time ago, it launched its Sesame Credit service, offering a comprehensive credit scoring system that users can opt into. Alibaba does not disclose precisely how Sesame Credit scores individual customers. However, observers have found out that certain product purchases count for more than others. Moreover, it helps to have friends with high credit scores. The management admits that data is made available on request to public authorities and banks. Obviously, the government is planning to make use of this wealth of data for its own social credit system.

The authorities want to get the fullest possible picture of every citizen’s behaviour and do not want to rely on random sampling. Accordingly, they are currently flooding the country with surveillance cameras. There are already around 170 million cameras trained on China’s streets and roads, and 350 million more are to be deployed in the next few years. That will add up to one surveillance camera for every three Chinese. Many installations will be equipped with facial recognition software.

A visit to Megvii in the northwest of Beijing shows what the future holds in store for citizens of the People’s Republic. Megvii is a company specialising in camera software. A camera registers visitors at the entrance. The software recognises a man but is not yet sure of his age. The indicator on the screen oscillates between 35 and 42. Then it settles on 38, which is absolutely accurate. The software scans the face, creates a movement profile and notes special features such as moles, ear shape and eye colour. If the same person appears before the camera again, all the recorded data is immediately retrieved and presented by the software. “If you stand in front of one of our cameras, we know in an instant who you are,” says Megvii worker Ai Jiandan. “Every face has its own unique set of features.”

On social-media sites, images are starting to emerge from pilot cities showing what future surveillance operations might look like. In a local police-control room, hundreds of images captured by surveillance cameras on a Beijing intersection appear on a digital wall. Conspicuous behaviour automatically triggers a zoom. The facial recognition software checks the persons’ features against the database and identifies them within seconds.

There is little resistance to this kind of social surveillance. It is difficult to start protests in China. And most Chinese have only a limited awareness of data privacy anyway – many mistrust fellow Chinese more than they mistrust the state. The programme for “civilising” the Chinese populace by heavy-handed government action is roundly applauded.

But Haifeng is critical of the way things are going: “They have set up too many cameras in recent years,” she says, looking around the café. Only at the end of the interview does she tell us that Haifeng is not her real name. She declines to reveal her identity. What she has told us may cost her points.


Felix Lee was the China correspondent of Die Tageszeitung (taz) until this year and now works in the headquarters in Berlin.
[email protected]

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