The winter cold has descended over Beijing and it’s matched by a feeling of claustrophobia and irritation. The place seems more short-tempered and dull: grey skies, grey faces, the feeling that even small daily processes take on a greater and more challenging aspect. We’re now busy with papers as our first semester ends: some fascinating, some draining. The adrenalin from the previous months has worn off and what’s left is the grind.
I caught the first glimpse of it early last week. One morning last week, as I was quietly typing, someone began pounding on my door. Not a knock, mind you, but a fast open-palmed slap against the cold panel that echoed down the corridor with a strange metallic wobble. It was so vigorous that you could imagine the visitor’s palm would have been red raw and stinging, but it continued for a good two minutes until they gave in and left. I’m told the tradition here is not to open the door unless you’re expecting someone, and I wasn’t. Strange, I thought, but let it go and continued at my paper.
The pounding at the door woke me up again at 7 AM the following morning. I lay in bed and left it to my Chinese housemates, both mostly incommunicado, whose rooms are closest to the front door. My Chinese is hopeless, and I would have been no use. But they ignored it pointedly and the pounding continued past two minutes. This was urgent.
I pulled on my slippers and opened the door with an irritated ‘what?’, finding a unsmiling and heavy-set man flanked by two spindly assistants. They were in what seems to be the international dress of the middle-aged: zip up tracksuits and sensible athletic shoes. The large stranger flashed a badge before clearing his throat and starting an official-sounding paragraph or two. His assistants, half-shielded by his bulk, nodded along.
After a minute or two of mutual incomprehension, I realised that he wanted to see my papers – my residence permit, pasted inside my passport, and my residence certificate: a flimsy piece of carbon paper from the local police station spelling out my name, purpose and address. Barely casting a glance at my documents, the vast man yelled some numbers at an assistant and stepped into the corridor. ‘How many people?’ he asked. ‘Three’. One sly assistant began tapping at the plaster while the other tried to rouse my housemates by slapping the door. Again, there was no answer, so he increased the tempo. One eventually peeked out sleepily and was met by a barrage of questions. He answered a slow and mumbling kind of way, glancing sidelong at me with a face that read: ‘mate, why did you open the bloody door?’
Luckily he spoke a little English and translated for me while the questions kept coming. ‘They’re saying you can’t live in your room’. News to me! I found my rental contract in my desk and handed it to the fat one, who held his nose to the page, slowly unpicking its contents. He shouted a few sentences and a note was made on the clipboard. The other assistant continued to tap the walls like a Chinese Howard Carter on the verge of a big break. After a period of staring blankly at me, the lead tracksuit gave the signal by hiking up his pants and the trio stomped out, not forgetting to slam the door. ‘They don’t like foreigners in the building’ my housemate told me matter-of-factly. ‘Too many parties. You better [he paused for emphasis] lie low’. I couldn’t help but laugh. I haven’t the faintest idea of who they were, but in a twisted way I admired their dull officiousness. Heavied by middle-aged men in polar fleece. Guess I’ll lie even lower, then.
‘Order creates harmony’ is a key organising principle on the Peking campus. Comforting to remember when someone ankle taps you with an electric scooter.
Allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under the heavens while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.
In June 2014, the State Council of China released an outline of a proposed ‘social credit system’, where the government monitors and collects social and financial information on citizens in order to rank them by trustworthiness. The system is supposed to be introduced nation-wide by 2020. At present, a pilot program is underway in Hangzhou. Think of it as a demerit system of the kind you might remember from high school, except it’s driven by the apparatus of the state and covers most aspects of daily life. On an individual level, things like traffic offences, cheating subway fares, making unhelpful comments on social media, missing repayments and a host of other said and unsaid infractions risk driving your credit rating down on a centrally maintained database. Of these, one fascinating aspect of social order in China is ‘filial piety’. Chinese law requires an individual to visit their parents. Better return those calls.
If your social credit drops too low, there are penalties: you may not be able to access basic services, take out a loan, take a flight or fast train, or stay in a certain class of hotel. The system works in parallel with the existing ‘blacklisting’ processes enforced by the Chinese judiciary, and in characteristic Chinese style, promotes itself as fostering a ‘sincerity consciousness’ in the population. The reasons for its adoption are spelled out in the policy outline:
‘a social atmosphere in which agreements are honoured and trust are honestly kept has not yet been shaped, especially grave production safety accidents, food and drug security incidents happen from time to time, commercial swindles, production and sales of counterfeit products, tax evasion, fraudulent financial claims, academic impropriety and other such phenomena’
The justification for the system reflects a series of scandals in China that many are familiar with: melamine in infant formula, corruption, fraud – a host of criminal incidents. But what’s interesting with social credit is how much further it delves into the daily lives of citizens. The system tries to square two issues: first, the leading idea that a socialist market economy is a ‘credit economy’ and applying this precept to the individuals and groups that work within it is an important step in ‘rectifying and standardising’ it. Second, following its overarching motivation to construct ‘a sincerity consciousness’, the system believes that a ‘scientific’ state-enforced database of individual debits and credits is enough of an incentive to foster this virtue in its population. We might think it’s funny that the virtue in question is usually defined as speaking and acting truly about one’s own feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and desires. But that’s semantic, and tangling with translations here often leads to difficulty. It’s unhelpful to talk here in terms of Western individualism in China as well: not to put a pun on it, but it’s a foreign concept in a nation and culture founded on the collective ideal of harmony and social stability. Privacy simply doesn’t exist in the way we understand it. Even if the social credit system is tolerated as a policy that expresses deep-set Chinese values, you have to question whether they it works off correct incentives. Superimposed over day to day life, could it be a framework that builds trustworthiness amongst the population? Or, in the context of increasingly nationalistic and ‘strong man’ rhetoric by the Chinese Communist Party, is it a marker of a return to the type of feral social control characteristic of the Cultural Revolution, which was responsible for the fragmentation of so much of the nation’s institutions and social bonds?
The common line about China is that it is not the rule of law, but rather ‘rule by law’. The almost hysterical emphasis on maintaining a ‘harmonious society’ takes on many forms, and you can wryly admire the innovative meshing of traditional forms of social control with the precepts of our digital age. In this case, the first thing that comes to mind with this proposal is a demented national Uber rating, albeit one many times more complex, important and multi-layered than that one idiot who has forgotten the way to Woolloomooloo. One might worry about the administrative costs of such an undertaking, but they need to be reminded that this is China, and no matter how monolithically bureaucratic something may seem, it will eventually be done. One might also worry that the system is liable to be gamed, and on that count, I can’t offer any useful response.