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Is debt something to be ashamed of? China thinks so

By Helena Kate Whittingham

Mar 13, 2019

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Mar 13, 2019

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WeChat, one of China’s most-used apps, has launched a new feature that will show users who has debt in their immediate surroundings. In an age when practically everyone is encouraged to live outside of their means and consume beyond their abilities through the capitalist agenda (China is communist but embraces capitalism), I wondered what are the aims of a feature like this? Why do we need to know who’s in debt and what is this for? As I scratched the surface of the issue, I discovered this is but the tip of a much more complex societal shift lying underneath.

With WeChat’s new feature shame-riddenly named ‘A map of deadbeat debtors’, people in debt in China will find it a lot more difficult to keep their debt a secret. The app will find and flag people within the radius of 500 meters of any user who are in debt, making it easier for people to whistle-blow on debtors. But why?

Described as one of the most ‘powerful apps’ by Forbes, WeChat was first rolled-out in 2011 and became one of the world’s largest downloadable apps last year, with over 1 billion users. WeChat is more than a messaging and social media app, it has been described as a ‘Super App’—which means it has numerous services integrated within it. You can, for example, chat and make calls, read the news, play games and enjoy mobile payment features with WeChat Pay, all without leaving the app. It’s important to note that WeChat has also been accused of censoring content on the app, such as politically important topics like human rights abuses.

The new ‘debt shaming’ feature provides users with indebted users’ details such as names, national ID numbers and details of the debt owed. Yet, this is only just the beginning of China’s impending social credit system, a digital dictatorship to exert control over its 1.4 billion citizens. Implemented by the Communist Party and reportedly fully operational by 2020, the system will have citizens and users of the app Sesame receive ‘social credit’ according to their consumer behaviour, work and marital status and even friends, which for some will bring privileges and for others, restriction in accessing day-to-day services.

Within two years, the official Party outlines that the new debt shaming feature will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

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Social Credit has already been tested in small villages across China, which initially started with ‘Information Collectors’ hired to watch and record information from the local area. Intricate social interactions are noted in order to evaluate a person’s credibility of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ citizenship, such as someone helping an elderly person through to littering. The Information Collectors then pass this data to a government worker who scores each individual, with this information becoming publically accessible. From this initially manual procedure, the social credit system was then taken over by big data technology and CCTV.

So how does social credit work, logistically? Initially, every citizen gets 1,000 points. Specific actions will then result in the individual’s score being reduced by a set number of points. Reportedly, examples of social credit behaviours which gain points include volunteering, money and blood donations; negative social credit and punishments come for actions such as violating traffic laws, missing taxes and buying certain things like video games. Any action you do will affect your access to transport and medicine, while accumulating good social credit gets you rewards such as lower rent and discounts of utilities. However, if your social credit is reduced to less than 1,000 points, you are unable to buy luxury items, attend private schools, get flights or high-speed trains, apply for loans, your internet services can be reduced, and even your dog may be taken away as you will be publically named as a bad citizen and ‘untrustworthy’. Even what you put into your weekly shopping trolley could impact your social score. For example, buying too much alcohol might suggest dependence and you’ll lose a couple of points.

And with the current (and still counting) 200 million CCTV cameras in China, there is no corner to hide. as it now stands, 4 million people have been blocked from access to high-speed trains and a further 11 million barred from flights as a result of their social credit being too low.

Western media has largely discredited the social credit system and despite the creepiness of the system, some Chinese citizens are already saying that it’s making them better citizens (is this a case of self-censorship because they know Big Brother is watching?).

If your social credit gets too low and you are publicly blacklisted, there is little you can do to redeem this. If I was a Chinese citizen and writing this article about censorship and government corruption, I would be blacklisted, with no file, no police warrant, and no official advance notification. I would just be cut off from the things I was once entitled to and there is nothing I could do about it.

There are many parts of the system which are unclear and because of this, it’s hard to imagine or even write about as evidently the system is truly unique and far removed from the communist regime or capitalist structure we currently know. I speculate life under the state’s panopticon-like, all-seeing surveillance network would be similar to Nudge Theory, a concept in behavioural science, and a political theory which Wikipedia defines as “positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behavior and decision making of groups or individuals.”

Make no mistake, in the U.K. we also have similar social-style scores, from your eBay rating to your Uber rating, if your score falls too far—you’re out of luck. The debt shaming feature of WeChat seems to be a natural step from the seemingly bizarre Sesame social credit score, yet reminiscent of medieval shaming parades, you are essentially being digitally pilloried by your peers for having debt that for most, is not a choice.

The Chinese government states that social credit is based on ‘trust and consequence’, but as trust is a subjective concept, once you lose trust, how do you become trustworthy again? And can this truly be numerically equated? The risk of humans becoming little more than their social numeric value, subjected to public naming and shaming, is imminent. As a young adult, I don’t really know anyone who isn’t in debt, whether it’s credit cards, school fees and loans, or simply owing your mates. In that light, there is something to say about removing the shame from debt, but for now, WeChat is certainly on the wrong path to doing this.