How China’s Surveillance State Reflects ‘Black Mirror’

Date: March 27, 2019
By: Clay Chandler

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.