Most news about China concerns its responsibility for the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as its vehement propaganda efforts to evade said responsibility. However, a recent story on CNN suggests an even more ominous development inside Mainland China that should cause chills throughout the civilized world. It concerns the placement of surveillance cameras, outside people’s front doors and, in some cases, inside homes. The excuse is the pandemic, but the real reason is an apparent expansion of what China calls its social credit system.
“Although there is no official announcement stating that cameras must be fixed outside the homes of people under quarantine, it has been happening in some cities across China since at least February, according to three people who recounted their experience with the cameras to CNN, as well as social media posts and government statements. China currently has no specific national law to regulate the use of surveillance cameras, but the devices are already a regular part of public life: they’re often there watching when people cross the street, enter a shopping mall, dine in a restaurant, board a bus or even sit in a school classroom.”
The thing that comes to mind when reading about this development is that George Orwell’s “1984” was meant to be a warning and not meant to be an instruction manual. For those who have not read the classic book, first published in 1948, it depicts a world divided into three super-states where people are controlled by a communist-style government with devices called “telescreens” deployed in private homes to monitor their behavior. People who misbehave find themselves being paid a visit by the Thought Police and a session of torture and attitude adjustment as a guest of the Ministry of Love.
The deployment of cameras at people’s front doors and some time inside people’s homes are designed, according to Beijing, to ensure people are obeying the shelter in place edicts in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Official Chinese government propaganda has stated that China has things under control. Western intelligence has expressed some doubts and has suggested that things are far worst inside China than Beijing is willing to admit.
Surveillance cameras are part of a system of monitoring the behavior of China’s 1.4 billion people with the goal of controlling it, rewarding what the government considers good behavior, and punishing what it considers bad behavior. The Internet is another powerful way to monitor people.
The system of rewards and punishments is subtler than that depicted in “1984.” The Chinese state will drag away a modern version of Winston Smith for reeducation if it thinks it is warranted. However, the social credit system prefers a relatively gentler system to keep its population in line. Business Insider explains.
“Like private credit scores, a person’s social score can move up and down depending on their behavior. The exact methodology is a secret — but examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games, and posting fake news online.”
Punishment for bad behavior can include things like being banned from plane and train travel. Misbehaving people can also find their Internet speeds being throttled back, be barred from the best schools and good jobs, not allowed to stay at the best hotels, and even having one’s pets taken away. One can be named and shamed on an official blacklist. Such punishments are less severe than a session in Room 101 but are humiliating, nevertheless.
Good behavior is rewarded. Model citizens can expect privileges such as prime spots on Chinese dating sites and discounts for credit cards and utilities. One can also rent things such as cars and bicycles without having to put down a deposit.
China is not just trying to prevent people from speaking out against government policy or viewing forbidden web sites. The Chinese state is trying to control peoples’ behavior down to their shopping habits. The social credit system is something beyond which Orwell imagined, using technology unknown when he penned his last and most famous novel.
The social credit system has its defenders inside China. People tout that it is resulting in better behavior. The chilling possibility exists that some governments outside China might want to adopt the system, the better to control a restive populace.