Mon, Jun 24, 2019 - Page 7 News List

China’s most advanced Big Brother experiment is a bureaucratic mess

Suzhou is one of several Chinese cities running trial social-credit programs, and while its ‘Osmanthus’ program has won national awards, many of its residents have never heard of it

By Dandan Li and Sharon Chen  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

The city of Suzhou, known as “the Venice of the East” for its web of intricate waterways, captured the imagination of Marco Polo when he journeyed through China more than seven centuries ago.

Today it is drawing attention for another grand project: a sprawling network of databases designed to track the behavior of China’s population.

Sitting next to Shanghai with an economy larger than Finland’s, Suzhou was one of a dozen places chosen last year by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) government to run a social-credit trial, which can reward or punish citizens for their behavior.

The system, dubbed “Osmanthus” after the fragrant flower the city uses as an emblem, collects data on nearly two dozen metrics, including marital status, education level and social-security payments.

Authorities have given it national awards even as Western politicians like US Vice President Mike Pence lambaste social credit as ushering in an Orwellian dystopia that could serve as a model for authoritarian regimes around the globe.

However, dozens of interviews with the people most affected by the system paint a nuanced picture of the technology in its early stages.

Few of the entrepreneurs, volunteers, public servants and other Suzhou residents surveyed said they had even heard of Osmanthus, which is supposed to help shape laws, regulations and standards across China by next year.

Suzhou’s experience raises questions about the dozens of similar scoring projects that local cities are now rolling out.

If residents are unaware of a system designed to change their behavior for the better, then what is the point of having it?

And if it is struggling to take off in a city lauded by authorities, what are the chances it can be implemented effectively across the nation anytime soon?

“China has an interest in overstating its capacity to collect and analyze data, like they overstate their capacity to monitor with surveillance cameras and facial recognition,” said Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. “They want people to believe that misconduct will get caught.”

A three-story brown and white building near the city center is the public face of Suzhou’s social-credit system. Here individuals can ask questions about their scores.

On a recent Monday afternoon, the building was largely empty. Two staff shuffled papers and typed at computers, while six seats reserved for visitors were vacant. One woman who entered was lost and asked for directions.

The lone self-service machine, emblazoned with logos for Osmanthus and state-owned telecoms company China Unicom, was unplugged.

A female official in jeans and a t-shirt, who only gave her family name Xi, said about 10 people come in each day.

Most are small-business owners who want to verify that they have been removed from a financial credit blacklist after paying off a debt.

She said she has hardly ever seen anyone come in to check their social-credit score.

Proponents of the system says it hews closely to the financial scores, known as FICO, pioneered by William Fair and Earl Isaac in the US in the mid-1950s.

Today, FICO scores form the basis of the vast majority of loans made to individuals in the US — with occasional debates over how they are formulated and whether consumers have enough access to them.

However, China’s social-credit scores arguably go a step further by using the country’s vast surveillance network — public closed-circuit television cameras, payment systems and more — to monitor citizens.

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