Networked Confucianism

Masonic Eye of Providence

John Robb describes China’s now-infamous social credit system as the world’s first “networked tyranny.” Allow me to coin the term “networked Confucianism” to describe the same system.

Combine Confucian ethics with modern surveillance technology and social networking, and this is what you get:

China’s plan to judge each of its 1.3 billion people based on their social behavior is moving a step closer to reality, with Beijing set to adopt a lifelong points program by 2021 that assigns personalized ratings for each resident.

The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get “green channel” benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.

The Beijing project will improve blacklist systems so that those deemed untrustworthy will be “unable to move even a single step,” according to the government’s plan. Xinhua reported on the proposal Tuesday, while the report posted on the municipal government’s website is dated July 18.

According to the Party, the overall social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

China’s greatest philosopher might have approved:

When Confucius was asked 2,500 years ago what a ruler needed to govern a country, he said 信credit, faith, or sincerity; food 食; and an army 兵. But if he could only have one, it would be the first 信. The Chinese character we translate as “credit” has thus long been a core concept of Chinese governance. […]

At first glance, the official goal of the SCS appears to have little to do with financial credit. It is “construction of sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity, and judicial credibility” (State Council 2014), which is more a call to embrace traditional Confucian moral virtues than a vision for high-tech governance. The plan document cites a laundry list of social ills that stem from the lack of trust and trustworthiness at all levels of a fragmented Chinese society. These include tax evasion, factory accidents, food and drug safety scares, fraud, academic dishonesty, and rampant counterfeiting of goods.

No travel for you

North by Northwest smoking on trainIn the latest evolution of China’s social credit system, people who have committed offenses like smoking on trains or defaulting on fines will now be effectively banned from traveling:

China said it will begin applying its so-called social credit system to flights and trains and stop people who have committed misdeeds from taking such transport for up to a year.

People who would be put on the restricted lists included those found to have committed acts like spreading false information about terrorism and causing trouble on flights, as well as those who used expired tickets or smoked on trains, according to two statements issued on the National Development and Reform Commission’s website on Friday. […]

However, there are signs that the use of social credit scoring on domestic transport could have started years ago. In early 2017, the country’s Supreme People’s Court said during a press conference that 6.15 million Chinese citizens had been banned from taking flights for social misdeeds.

That’s an extraordinary number of people. A case could be made that people who, for example, open the emergency exit of a moving plane should be put on some kind of no-fly list, but only a small fraction of 6.15 million citizens can possibly be guilty of those types of offenses.

Sakdina: a prototype social credit system

Reading about the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, which reigned from 1351 to 1767, I was struck by a description of the feudal ranking system called “sakdina” that was put in place by King Trailok in the early 15th century. Here’s the Wiki summary:

Sakdina (Thai: ศักดินา) was a system of social hierarchy in use from the Ayutthaya to early Rattanakosin periods of Thai history. It assigned a numerical rank to each person depending on their status, and served to determine their precedence in society, and especially among the nobility. The numbers represented the number of rai of land a person was entitled to own—sakdina literally translates as “field prestige”—although there is no evidence that it was employed literally. The Three Seals Law, for example, specifies a sakdina of 100,000 for the Maha Uparat, 10,000 for the Chao Phraya Chakri, 600 for learned Buddhist monks, 20 for commoners and 5 for slaves.

China’s rulers may have learned something from Thai history, because they are now rolling out a dynamic, interactive, socially networked sakdina system for their own people. It is called the social credit system.

Whether it can successfully keep 1.4 billion people in line, in an advanced, high-tech and globally connected society, remains to be seen.