An investigation of compatibility between China's surveillance-operated Social Credit System as a method of societal control and individual citizen liberty

An investigation of compatibility between China's surveillance-operated Social Credit System as a method of societal control and individual citizen liberty

by Jessie Pitsillides

This is the first in a series of articles examining China’s Social Credit System.

Michel Foucault, in his work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, presented the idea of Disciplinary Societies, concluding that the nature of societal control has shifted from Sovereign Power (control through the threat of force) to Disciplinary Power (control through the surveillance  and monitoring of societies resulting in the internalization of authority in citizens). (Thompson, 2016). What was once a critique of a hypothetical scenario for Foucault could now become a reality for countries seeking to internalise state authority within their citizens.  

In June 2014, The People's Republic of China released a document entitled, "Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System", which was a proposal for a nationwide tracking system to rank its 1.3 billion citizens based on their "trustworthiness" (Botsman, 2017). The Social Credit System (SCS) is a set of databases keeping updated information on the behaviour of individuals and businesses in China, and has existed on a regional level since 2009. The aim was to provide a fully-functioning system ranking all Chinese citizens and businesses by December 2020. China's SCS is run by the state, however its operation and expansion depends on cooperation with large Chinese internet corporations like Alibaba (e-commerce) and Baidu (artificial intelligence). These provide technological infrastructures and process large amounts of data harvested from individuals' regular activity, including location, online payments and other behaviours observed through surveillance (Craig, 2020). These mass-surveillance systems facilitate the assignment of numerical Citizen Scores, which deem citizens worthy or unworthy of certain privileges. Jaywalking, playing loud music and sorting waste incorrectly can reduce one's score, whereas purchasing diapers or having friends with high scores - activities implying trustworthiness - will boost scores. High scores lead to rewards like the ability to take out bigger loans, access to VIP lounges at airports, and a high social status, however, low scores lead to the removal of privileges, including local and international travel bans and slower internet speeds (Botsman, 2017). As stated in the system's initial document, the  SCS would "allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step" (China Copyright and Media, 2014). The state employs  gamification techniques, or the use of game elements such as points, rewards, and  leaderboards to convert a non-game context, like governing society, into a game-like activity (Sanchez et al., 2019). Gamification amplifies the effectiveness of their influence. China's surveillance strategies and SCS for control could serve as an example of the Disciplinary Societies hypothesised by Foucault, and it is this relationship between the surveillance state and the individual which raises the question of whether China's surveillance-operated SCS could be compatible with citizen liberty.    

These mass-surveillance systems facilitate the assignment of numerical Citizen Scores, which deem citizens worthy or unworthy of certain privileges.

This article series  will explore China's use of surveillance as a concrete example to argue that while surveillance is a central mechanism in maintaining security within societies, it is a coercive method of governance that is incompatible with moral growth and individual liberty. This series  will look at  the theories of political philosophers to investigate the incompatibility between state surveillance and individual liberty. 

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First, we will discuss Foucault's Panopticon Theory, analysing how surveillance internalises the authority of the state within its subjects, and Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty" to investigate how China's SCS limits both negative and positive liberty. We will then consider the risks of positive liberty highlighted by Berlin, and explore the importance of autonomy and potential for moral growth as a criterion for individual liberty. This will pose a question of whether surveilled citizens could be considered to be free, decision-making agents at all. 

It is imperative to consider the implications of this, as the consequences of mass surveillance and gamification techniques are not only ones that apply to citizen-state relationships, but ones that could be enacted in any situation in which a form of surveillance is present, whether that be social media, worker-employee dynamics or even discipline within educational environments. 

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Jessie Pitsillides
Jessie Pitsillides

Jessie Pitsillides is an 18-year-old prospective Harvard student, and the founder of MentorJr, an organisation focused on fixing inequality within the education system. Here, she talks about the origins of the organisation, and where she sees it going next.

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