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Big Brother Is Coming: China’s Dystopian Future?

Published: March 27, 2018
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China has announced it will bar people with poor social credit from planes and trains. People who have committed so-called misdeeds could be prevented from these modes of transport for up to one year. These things include spreading false information about terrorism, causing a nuisance on planes, smoking in trains or traveling on expired tickets.

Furthermore, those found to have been involved with financial wrongdoing, such as evading social insurance or not paying penalty fines, will also face these travel restrictions. This will come into effect on May 1.

The social credit system is the latest of surveillance programs rolled out by President Xi Jinping and is based on the notion “once untrustworthy, always restricted.” But what does it mean for the future?

How Big Brother Grew so Big

China previously had the overbearing and astonishingly controlling hukou residency registration system. However, since privatization and mass migration rendered it archaic, the nation is upgrading its methods of surveillance — beginning with the Golden Shield Project over 18 years ago. The Great Firewall of China has been building a countrywide digital monitoring network that can identify and locate individuals, as well as gain access to personal documents, within an instant.

Last year, we learned of the Chinese government’s multimillion-dollar project to create a fortress city with technologies. Geared toward strengthening authorities’ control in the event of unforeseen social unrest, the project harvests big data from railway systems, visitor information in multifamily buildings and other sources.

The government’s intention with this enormous amount of revealing data about its citizens is to identify people and vehicles that post heightened risks to the overall security of society. While this alone is an arresting prospect, what added further dread is that nationwide, local authorities have been investing billions of dollars in the latest mass surveillance technologies and equipment.

The government’s obsession with security cameras about 100 million of them, in fact is playing its part nicely. Recent revelations suggest that authorities have been upgrading cameras to perform facial recognition. Surveillance cameras in public spaces are being programmed to calculate social credit scores and also to create a national DNA database of everyone, not just criminals.

What Does This Mean for Chinese Citizens?

There is still so much we don’t know about China’s surveillance reach, including the authorities’ use of voice and speech recognition and if there are any hidden agendas harbored by the safe city projects. These initiatives were purportedly designed to promote public safety through technology.

What is apparent is that China has appalling privacy protections in place and even worse attitudes toward them, and where this is most worrying is around freedom of peaceful speech. The term denoting people of interest who are being flagged is “focus personnel,” which includes both criminals and peaceful critics, political activists, minorities and those with drug abuse records.

One man, Wu Bing, already had an insight into what this social credit system can mean for Chinese citizens. Already recovered from a drug addiction over a decade prior, he remains on the national database Online Dynamic Control and Early Warning System for Drug Addicts. This means that whenever his ID is used, such as checking into a hotel, police are notified and routinely force a drug test.

The social credit system seems to be the culmination of a number of sinister initiatives undertaken by the Chinese government to further inhibit individual sovereignty and human rights. Big Brother has arrived, and China, it’s most definitely watching you.

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