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How China’s Surveillance State Reflects ‘Black Mirror’

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Tuesday’s South China Morning Post features a harrowing profile of David Kong, one of the more than 13 million Chinese citizens officially designated a “discredited individual.” In 2015 after his publishing venture collapsed and he failed to repay debts of about $240,000, Kong was branded a deadbeat and his name entered onto a public blacklist maintained by the Supreme Court. That “discredited” status deters prospective employers and makes it impossible for Kong to borrow money. It also bars him from air travel and forces him to buy the cheapest class of seat when he travels by train.

China created the discredited list in 2013. As of the end of last year, Chinese courts had prevented “untrustworthy” citizens from taking more than 17 million flights and 5 million high-speed train trips, according to a recent report by China’s National Public Credit Information Centre. It’s a bit too close to the dystopian vision in the 2016 episode of the British tech satire series Black Mirror where a character played by Bryce Dallas Howard is shunned from society when her personal rating score nosedives.

All societies impose legal and social punishments on those who shirk their debts. But what troubles many Western observers is that China’s “discredited list” is a part of a much broader “social credit system” that aims to monitor and control behavior of all sorts—and relies increasingly on surveillance capabilities of the nation’s private tech companies.

Over the past decade, Beijing has experimented with pilot social credit score programs in dozens of cities. Early results weren’t promising. But as I’ve noted in CEO Daily and Fortune, thanks to advances by private tech firms—including Alibaba Group (BABA) affiliates Ant Financial and Megvii; Beijing-based A.I. startup SenseTime Group; and Shenzhen-listed iFlyTech—the state’s ability to collect and analyze data about individual behavior is catching up to its ambitions.

A surprising (to me anyway) number of Western correspondents have sought to make the case that outside concerns about China’s social credit scoring system are “overblown.” TechNode’s John Artman, in an essay entitled “How I learned to stop worrying and love surveillance capitalism,” argues that, while China’s government may be far more explicit about its support for surveillance capitalism than the United States, Chinese tech firms—at least so far—are far less sophisticated than Google (GOOGL) or Facebook (FB) in using the data they collect to predict and manipulate user behavior. Beijing-based Simina Mistreanu argued recently in the Washington Post that most Chinese like the idea of a social credit scoring system because they think it mean new conveniences, and anyway in China as a whole such a system is unlikely to “morph into something akin to the surveillance state currently in place in the country’s western Xinjiang province.”

That feels like pretty faint praise.