Is there value in surveillance? Ask the Chinese

Hands up if you viewed the pervasive social rating in the "Nosedive" episode of Black Mirror and thought, 'That’s not so bad'?

A scene from the Black Mirror episode 'Nosedive'
A scene from the Black Mirror episode 'Nosedive'

Global commentary would suggest that surveillance (whether offline or online) casts a shadow on personal freedoms, and any conversation that involves such spy games quite quickly descends into a 1984-esque discussion about dystopian futures.

However, is government scrutiny always bad? Is there no context in which the government can act as big brother and still make its citizens feel they are better off? Would no one view the "Nosedive" episode of Black Mirror and think, 'That’s not so bad'?

China seems to be crafting a cunning plan that will honour those with a good ‘social credit’ and punish those with ‘bad credit’. With this system, the government aims to become more systematic and scientific towards creating a comprehensive appraisal system that would manage people as well as enterprises. Chinese behemoths Tencent and Alibaba have also jumped on the bandwagon to create their own credit scores built on complex algorithms that mine social-network data to assign measurable ranking and numbers. It remains unclear whether the government will go as far as assigning numbers to each citizen, but they might not be too far away.

While the private credit system is not mandatory, the government’s system will come into full effect by 2020, without the option to opt out. Western media coverage on this phenomena has been biting and alludes to “entering a nightmarish territory”. 

Surprisingly, some argue that Chinese citizens might actually find value in such a platform. The simplicity and usefulness of the system might actually trump cynicism in mainland China for a few reasons:

  1. Because it is utilitarian
  2. Because it is acceptable
  3. Because it is ranked
  4. Because it is moral.

Needless to say, these are neither exhaustive nor judgements but may explain why citizens would buy in.

The utilitarian argument

Unlike countries with developed public credit rating systems (such as the US), China does not really have a sophisticated mechanism to measure an applicant’s capacity to borrow. In the absence of such a system, simple processes such as applying for a credit card or a small loan can become a hassle, as each application has to recount existing assets. For a country that is on the mature side of the urbanisation hill, and one that is overflowing with expectant entrepreneurs, getting easy access to credit is very important.

In the absence of a scientific, measurable public system, state sponsored programs (or Alibaba / Tencent for that matter) act as a good stand-in. The utility of such a program frames this exercise as useful, urgent and practical.

The acceptability argument

In China's communist past, everyone was rumoured to have a ‘Dang’an’, which recounted when someone had been naughty or played nice. The findings of these files supposedly followed you throughout your life and impacted your success or failure. Now, these files may or may not exist presently, but their knowledge has been normalised within the Chinese cultural subconscious. And while the government may have used this against you in the past, the present is looked upon with optimism and a healthy sense of agency, which will not wane even if a notional file might say something bad about your activities when you were 16 and stupid.

So, if scrutiny has always been a part of collective history, why not accept it for what it is and make it useful in the modern world.

The ranking argument

We don't have to waste our breath talking about the value of competitiveness in China, a country where a concept such as Gao Kao is so deeply ingrained that time seems to stand still in June, when tens of millions of high schoolers are ranked against each other to gain entrance to coveted national universities. Participating in what is better and what is worse is a way to measure status and standing. In such a context, having a better rating than your frenemy might actually be worth bragging about. And at a cultural level it would also indicate levels of trustworthiness and reputation. Can you imagine a neighbourhood ranking of who the most responsible families are? I can and why not—although ranking 1.4 billion people is not an easy feat.

The moral argument

Confucian values were the order of the day when Su Zhi was the hallmark of a gentleman or a lady who presented good manners or etiquette. However, post-revolution, China promoted a survivalist culture where the focus was on ‘me’ and morality lost ground. This perhaps, is one of the reasons for the rise of corruption, which the government is eagerly clamping down. In the globalised Chinese imagination, exhibiting civilised behaviour seems to be a prerequisite to belong in the modern world. The reformation of the Chinese dream and the creation of a people who are moral, honest and altruistic seems not too much to ask.

In such a scenario, the government credit system does not really sound so bad, does it?

While an outsider might look at these developments in China and scream bloody murder, the Chinese might actually see it as a means to make their lives better. And from the government’s standpoint, its investments in technology and big data are bearing fruit as a means to change behaviour.

So is it really that bad?

Akshay Mathur (right) is partner and Xintian Zhang is associate at Quantum Consumer Solutions.

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