China’s dystopian present: could “social scoring” surveillance increase pressure on Christians?

27 November 2018

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Under the slogan, “once untrustworthy, always restricted” China’s planned AI (artificial intelligence) controlled “social credit” system will bring a new depth of intervention into the lives of Chinese citizens , including Christians.

The Chinese government pilot schemes, in cities including Beijing and Shanghai, are underpinned by a vast network of advanced surveillance technology which uses face recognition to monitor location and track movement. Individuals’ social “scores” are updated in live CCTV streams as they are going about their daily lives.

Those who break government rules or do not conform will be subject to a variety of punishments that range from the inconvenient – internet throttling and slower hotel checkouts – to the life changing, including flight bans and restrictions on loans and rent. Chinese Christians, who have seen a government crackdown on unofficial “house churches” and online Bible sales in the past year, could be facing an increasingly Orwellian future.

A CCTV camera on the Great Wall of China, one of a network of more than 175 million extending across the country

Based around a structure of reward and punishment, this system of “algorithmic governance” is a new, experimental means that a government can use to “regulate” its society. It is planned that all Chinese citizens will be scored on the system by 2020.

A points system grades citizens through AI algorithms which monitor their purchases, internet activity and social media interactions. A swiftly expanding network of 300 million AI powered CCTV cameras observes movements, minor misdemeanours such as jaywalking or smoking in public and even facial expressions and body language.

Those found wanting are awarded lower scores alongside their family and known associates. With one line of code, an individual could face the risk of being cut off from all their friends, colleagues and family.

In 2017 eleven million citizens were already placed on no fly lists with four million blocked from buying train tickets. Other punishments proposed as the scheme rolls out include bars on getting loans, renting a home and access to certain schools or jobs. Meanwhile high scorers will enjoy discounts on energy bills, fast-track checkouts and visa applications and enhanced matches on dating sites.

A vast network of AI-powered CCTV monitors Chinese citizens' every move and even records facial expressions and body language

The expanding Social Credit system has the potential to severely affect the day-to-day existence of Christians and other minorities, especially if they are deemed to demonstrate “dissent”. In September 2018 the largest “house church” (unregistered church group) in Beijing was shut down by authorities as they refused the government’s requirement of security cameras inside their meeting place.

The Chinese authorities’ heightened crackdown on Christians led 344 Chinese pastors to release a declaration on 12 September calling on the authorities to allow full religious freedom. Their statement closed saying, “For the sake of the gospel, we are prepared to bear all losses – even the loss of our freedom and of our lives.”

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