What do you think of Chinese

China's scoring systems are considered to be the one technology dystopia that has come true. Many in the West believe that every Chinese person is already assigned a point value that can rise or fall depending on their behavior. A huge big data and surveillance experiment conducted on more than a billion people.

Experts contradict the image that the international public and the international media have of the program. It is vague and in parts loaded with prejudice. At least that was the consensus among a group of China experts at the Republica digital conference, which took place in Berlin this week. The metaphors "Black Mirror" or "Orwell" were often used in connection with the system, said the Dutch sinologist Manya Koetse. One idea persists: "Every Chinese gets a score, and it goes down if, for example, he buys beer."

Jeremy Daum, China expert from Yale Law School and well-known blogger, pointed out that many of the notorious sanctions do not stand for themselves but are in addition to legal penalties: "If you steal a television and get caught, you don't think: ' Oh, my credit score will go down! 'You think:' Oh, I'm going to jail! '"The fact that the score goes down is only a result of the prison sentence. Possible sanctions could then be, for example, no longer receiving a discount for public transport. However, some of those affected are also no longer allowed to book flights. In trains, fare dodgers are threatened with the social credit system.

Daum said the national system is not an evaluation program. "There is not a word in the crucial government document about a point system." However, such a system is being tested locally in dozens of cities. In 2020, the government wants to commit to a system and make participation compulsory.

The tech companies operate their own systems

According to Daum, the Chinese state has extensive opportunities to spy on its citizens even without the "credit". The algorithms on which it is based are by no means overpowering and obscure. "It's just addition and subtraction." However, the participants agreed that the state is persecuting the Uyghurs in Xinjiang with ever more brutal violence.

Some of the current credit systems are operated by major Chinese tech firms that assess the creditworthiness of consumers. This includes Alibaba's Sesame Credit, which most closely resembles the German Schufa. The creditworthiness is calculated on the basis of the accounts that the user has with services of the Alibaba group, for example the online retailer Taobao. The higher the score, the more discounts and offers the user can take advantage of. For example, in some hotels he no longer has to pay a deposit.

It is the future national system, in whatever form it will come across the country, that is currently fueling the greatest fears. It is supposed to determine the creditworthiness of the millions and millions of Chinese without a bank account, using new data that goes beyond the classic credit history. At the moment, however, only one sub-area would really work, says Daum: a network of more than three dozen black lists from various supervisory authorities. On them are citizens and companies who are not considered trustworthy and are subject to restrictions.

Many Chinese believe that such a system could curb the rampant fraud and distrust in society that has been shaken like no other by the transformation to capitalism over the past 40 years. Another component of the system that Daum mentions is supposed to help: A propaganda offensive that calls on people to be more honest with others: The campaign for more trust and creditworthiness has produced its own song and even its own magazine on the subject. However, many Chinese know that they cannot expect legal security from the state either.

Warning of "digital orientalism"

The campaign seems to be working: Many Chinese do not mind that the surveillance network is being expanded. According to the professor of Chinese politics at the Free University of Berlin, Genia Kostka, there are high approval rates among citizens for the social credit offensive. However, some citizens expressed concerns about data protection, and many worried that the system might be opaque and unfair to some.

Emperor Kuo was the head of communications for the Chinese search engine Baidu. Today he is the host of a podcast about China. For him, the debate has been reversed: For decades, undemocratic states were considered uninspired and incapable of innovation in the West. Today, however, the prevailing view is that China is technologically overtaking the West in all areas. "Now we believe technology is the servant of authoritarianism." Both are unrealistic. "We should be careful not to indulge in 'digital orientalism'." A comparison with Edward Said's theory, according to which the West long imagined a Middle East as a wild country full of lustful warriors and harem ladies.

China is not in the Black Mirror phase, but in the Star Trek phase, said Kuo: The country is techno-optimistic. Moderator Melissa Chan replied: "But only because the government has not yet allowed the dark mirror phase to occur."

"In China, the nerd gets the girl"

The positive relationship with technology is also reflected in the rise of nerds in society, said Kuo. They enjoyed high social status. "It's not like in the USA, where the football player rolls by in a Camaro and insults the next best nerd from the open window. In China, the nerd gets the girl."

Jeremy Daum sees it in terms of depth psychology: people in the West projected their fears of digital technologies onto China, similar to climate protection. Refuse to take a resolute fight against warming, but say to yourself: "After all, we are not China - just look at how bad the air is there!"

Another lecture at the Republica showed that in Europe, too, state algorithms can evaluate citizens and have a far-reaching influence on their lives. In Denmark and the Netherlands, systems are designed to identify which children may be at risk of neglect. There are negative points for unemployment, mental illness or missed dental appointments. This can have a massive impact on families. In Poland, too, the unemployed were occasionally given "scores" to assess how "employable" they were. The system was only withdrawn after protests.