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?