Külli Taro: Freedom and China's social credit system

Külli Taro.
Külli Taro. Source: ERR

It is fitting to ask during the independence day weekend what makes a republic free. And in order to populate the concept of freedom with meaning, it is sometimes good to look elsewhere – to China, for example, Külli Taro says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

There is talk of China everywhere today. The country's global economic influence is common knowledge. However, we are increasingly forced to talk about Chinese influence in other walks of life. The coronavirus, the foreign intelligence service's annual report and Huawei are but a few of the hottest keywords.

Political science cannot get by without China any more than other fields. Scientific journals dedicated to public administration are publishing more articles on China. True, their authors are Chinese more often than not. I do not know whether the Chinese have become more active writing international scientific papers or whether general interest in Chinese state administration has exploded.

Even this year's Oscar-winning documentary "American Factory" talks about attempts to introduce Chinese work culture in the U.S. But the Americans' different way of life, understanding of individual rights and freedoms appear to the Chinese as obstacles on the road to uncompromising efficiency and profit.

The documentary made me think whether it would be possible to import Chinese administrative culture to the West. What about importing their controversial social credit system to Estonia?

The creation of such a system in China has been made possible by a different system of values and making the most of new technology, such as CCTV cameras, face recognition software, big data analysis and monitoring of internet traffic. The social credit system applies, in addition to individuals, to companies and state agencies.

Similarly to how a credit rating works, citizens get points for behavior deemed appropriate and lose them for actions to the opposite effect. If a citizen's score falls below a certain level, they end up as if in the government's debt and lose certain rights. While the system is still in the test phase in different regions today, the aim is to go nationwide.

Information on the finer points of the system is patchy and at times even controversial.

A citizen allegedly loses points for listening to loud music, eating on public transport, failing to recycle, violating traffic rules smoking in non-smoking areas failing to show up for a doctor's appointment, playing video games too much or posting on social media. In other words, you also lose points for unbecoming behavior, not just breaking the law.

Points are earned for volunteer work, donating, giving blood or being a good parent.

Citizens sporting a low rating cannot buy domestic airline tickets or first-class train tickets, buy real estate or take out a loan. Their children do not have access to the best schools. They cannot stay in the best hotels. People stand to lose a good job or be put in the pillory so to speak.

There can be no doubt such a credit system violates human rights, including inviolability of private life, right to dignity and a good name. Not to mention the right to equal treatment.

Opacity and lack of oversight cannot be married to principles of rule of law. It is very difficult or even impossible for citizens to challenge their rating. And it is suspected that dissidents and journalists critical of the government are penalized.

Total surveillance is made possible in China by complete lack of a distinction between the public and private spheres. Because data for the points system largely comes from the databases of private enterprises, while punishments also manifest through private sector services. The triumph of technology has brought Chinese companies success, and the country is now trying to repeat this success in administration.

I believe that just like "American Factory," China's social credit system creates rather controversial opinions. Some perceive a galling practice of treating people like production units, while others see inspiring efficiency.

Technologically speaking, a social credit system would be largely possible in Estonia. However, the question in democratic state based on the rule of law has long since been about what society accepts over what is technologically possible.

Ideas similar to the credit points system aren't alien to Estonia. The line between effective state administration and abandoning the principles of rule of law, universal human rights and fundamental freedoms can be very thin indeed.

Therefore, sometimes freedom is not doing everything that's possible, not doing what others are doing. Freedom is taking responsibility. Freedom resides in being independent.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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