Think you have what it takes to be a 5-star citizen?

Although courtesy and kindness are the ideals which we strive for as individuals in a single society, such is not always the case in practice. Even the kindest and altruistic among us probably has had an off-day, where he/she made more self-serving decisions than generous ones. In the case of China, the government seeks to do something about the behaviors that we, in the US, have now simply ignored or accepted as a challenge of life. The city of Rongcheng has recently started experimenting with a social credit system that rewards and penalizes citizens for societally-beneficial and detrimental behavior, respectively. Cars no longer ignore pedestrians trying to use crosswalks, and people no longer casually jaywalk at random points in the street.

At first glance, this system has the potential to be a boon for a country that strives to improve its international reputation in the wake of numerous incidents of its tourists behaving poorly both domestically and abroad. Earlier measures to publicly name those who are poor examples of Chinese tourism seem to have failed to deter those who simply don’t care, and continue to act poorly when visiting travel destinations. With the initial results of this new experiment, the government seems to finally be achieving some positive results. Drivers are more courteous to pedestrians, companies are financially rewarded for behaving more ethically, and people in general are encouraged to perform above-and-beyond their duties as a citizen to earn fame and good reputation marks – boasting points in a country where “face-saving” (the act of avoiding shame and protecting dignity) behavior is a very common social construct. If you score too poorly in society, you are barred from certain social events, loan rates, and even from traveling abroad entirely. For those who have long sought a more respectable country image, what could the downsides even be?

Despite these well-intentioned additions to the existing credit system in China, there exists the incredibly crippling potential for system abuse. If you manage to anger the wrong person in government, you may find yourself no longer able to pay off the mortgage on your house or apartment or even leave the country in search of political asylum. This creates an extremely Orwellian atmosphere where only the most well-behaved in society are bestowed the benefits that society has to offer. The rest are either left with nothing, or worse, penalized in multiple facets of every life. Erroneous point deductions are also a potential problem, improperly punishing those who never did anything wrong, or simply made an honest mistake. The process to reverse mistaken deductions apparently takes a while too – time that could have been more productively spent if that person was never punished in the first place.

 

My personal belief on this system of changes is that, although there are definitely some kinks to address before a full, nationwide implementation, this concept is a great idea for a country that, in recent history, hasn’t been known for its courteous and respectful behavior towards either foreign tourists or even its own citizens. I have frequently visited a number of cities in China during my summer vacations throughout my childhood and into my early college years. Too many times have I encountered rudeness or poor behavior from store clerks, drivers on the road, or even everyday people walking in the streets. Part of this problem is the population density brought about by rapid industrialization; imagine being crowded in Times Square in NYC or Los Angeles traffic conditions for the better part of your waking hours. Sooner or later, you’re probably going to need to release some frustration on the next person who appears to wrong you.

While I acknowledge the potential for rampant censorship and suppression to exist, I don’t believe such goals will be feasible long-term objectives. The Chinese government understands that reigning using fear and restrictions doesn’t encourage the flow of productivity and advancement – characteristics of an advanced society that the government strives for. There is a careful balance to that I’m sure is still being reached in terms of how responsive the system is to good/bad behavior and how rewarding or punitive some behaviors are on a person’s record. For those who are still skeptical, I only pose this question: don’t we have a similar system here in the States? Take, for example, the auto license points system: a DUI/DWI nets you a large number of points on your license as does certain other moving violations. People are incentivized to drive safely not only for their own sake and for others’, but also for the fact that they could potentially lose their driving privileges after enough infractions.

What do you think about this social rating system? And what would be your honest assessment of yourself today? I can say I would probably land close to 4/5 since I always try to behave politely in-person to those who act the same towards me. But I would definitely lose half a star or so for my driving! However, as anyone who has driven in downtown Boston or NYC may wonder: who could keep a 5/5 these days while still retaining their sanity?

10 comments

  1. Wow what an incredible find. All the more reason for character strengths and what we talked about the other day. I will look into this more, but I am all about a more connected society, and not feeling like someone wants to run me off the road on my bike.

  2. And yes I see the drawback, like so many interventions, and murphys law should be taken into account.

  3. Nice post. You make a great point at the end there. I don’t think it is possible to be nice all of the time when your surroundings are so aggravating. While I have never been to China and thus cannot benefit from your perspective, this system does seem incredibly Orwellian to me.

    In life, the social penalties from poor behavior are harmful enough. Once this system is fully developed and implemented, I feel the deleterious punishments associated with poor behavior could be way too much one could morally align themselves with.

    Lastly, one must ask, if everyone is bound by this system and are more or less forced to behave, is the good behavior one receives and exhibits truly genuine? At some point, when people are nice to one another in society, its intrinsic value comes not solely from the face-value of those interactions, but also from the fact that nobody has to be nice. People are choosing with their own free will to be nice. I think this system could erase that.

  4. I saw an article on this. And of course, there is an episode of Black Mirror Season 3 “Nosedive” that covers this very topic. It really brings into questions some of the morals behind tech. The group B readings last week touched a little on the idea that code and tech and algorithms, are coming from human data – so how much more accurate can it be than an actual human?

    @markdimeglio brings up a great point as well that would you ever be able to tell if a person is being genuine? Would we become a society that feels very unreal and fake and forced? I think we might. But its interesting to think about if there could be any societal benefits. I think often many in society do not break rules because we have them and there are assumed consequences. But when you put that power in everyone’s hands, how does that change those consequences?

  5. @murphycobc and @markdimeglio I think as a nation that separates church and state, it isn’t really the government’s place to determine or even care if individuals following the law are doing so out of “genuine” intent. The book of Matthew says, ““You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” If the government were to adopt the same philosophy, we’d all be in a lot of trouble.

    @mqzhang I really enjoyed this article and actually recently had a conversation about this same topic with a friend from China. He was not aware of this experiment, but he did mention the way drivers licenses work there (12 points allotted for the year; 3 points subtracted for running a red light and presumably different values for other types of offenses). If you lose all your points you cannot drive until the next year. He also mentioned thankfully points don’t roll over every year (so you can’t legally justify road rage after saving up 10 years of points). However, I imagine the same is not true for the social points system. Does that mean someone with a spotless record will not receive the same punishment as someone making the occasional error? One could argue the case such a system is unfair.

    Finally, would this incentivize neighbors to rat on other people? Presumably these points are based upon comparing people. Such a zero-sum game might sow seeds of distrust or even motivate people to slander others.

  6. Molly Pighini · ·

    What an interesting article, @mqzhang! I had never heard of this experiment, which is surprising considering its scale and implications. Governments throughout the world use legislation to motivate certain behaviors. Laws/policy inform behavior so officials can use them to achieve societal goals. The city of Rongcheng, known for its innovations and future focus, has taken credit systems to another level. The idea of promoting “trustworthiness” is notable. This goal, however, is only possible if the information in the system is trustworthy from the start and if it retains its integrity.
    In recent years, hacking and data manipulation have become incredibly prevalent, which could be a big threat to a system like this. The article says “It includes everything from rankings calculated by online payment providers to scores doled out by neighborhoods or companies. High-flyers receive perks such as discounts on heating bills and favorable bank loans, while bad debtors cannot buy high-speed train or plane tickets.” The system’s far reach means that an incredible amount of personal data must be collected and stored somewhere by some people. If this information is input incorrectly, altered accidentally/intentionally, or stolen, people could lose everything (even their reputation as the system takes interpersonal factors into consideration as well). I think one of the other issues is the fact that “many of the city’s residents don’t even know it exists yet.” Citizens should not discover this system is in place when they go to buy a home, apply for a job, or try to take ownership of a title. It will definitely be interesting to see if it is ready for national rollout in 2020.

  7. Interesting post! I would love to know more about how the government is tracking the citizens’ actions and behaviors in order to quantify them and translate them into a “score.” One potential issue I see with this is having different behavioral standards. For example—what is acceptable behavior to myself or my family varies drastically from family to family, person to person. Setting a standard that applies to all people across China could be very difficult.

    On a separate note, I’ll echo what everyone else has said about having one bad decision bleed into all bad areas of your life. Maybe I haven’t thought about this enough but it seems odd to punish someone who cuts off pedestrians when driving by not awarding them a credit card, mortgage, etc. As long as they can pay the bills in a timely manner, that’s what I see as being most important.

  8. This was an interesting post, but is the exact type of thing that I find troubling with today’s society in that we feel the desire to attach quantitative metrics to every part of our lives. In some ways, I think that each person has some type of system like this in their head already, so is there really a need for the government to step in and serve as the hall monitor for this? I’d like to think that our society as a collective unit does a pretty good job right now of weeding out the bad apples and disingenuous people in our society. Our access to vast amounts of data is and should be used for advancements in everyday living, but in this case I find this system to not be worth the headache that it would cause.

  9. I wrote a blog post about the same Black Mirror episode that @murphycobc referenced that had a quick paragraph about this same topic. I think it’s super interesting and moderately terrifying. While most episodes of Black Mirror take things as far as possible and leave you filled with dread, this one really hit home for me because it felt so possible and real. Clearly, things like this are already happening. It’s a difficult thing to address though, because obviously we should encourage and reward good behavior, but often enough people have very reasonable reasons for being unpleasant or distracted or whatever could cause them demerit. A system like this would discourage us from being human and, as was mentioned earlier, might make for a much faker, more robotic society. As much as I understand the good that can come from a credit system, personally, I don’t think it’s worth silencing an entire population just so people will feel the need to smile more.

  10. If you haven’t read Daemon or Freedom ™ by Suarez, it’s a nice fiction account of what this might look like. Nice post that would have been made better with some images.

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