Since the late 1990s, China has been spending a lot of money and effort on regaining control of the media. Any effective police state must have tight control over what information people have access to. In China that control was seriously threatened in the 1990s with the appearance of cell phones and foreign videos (movies and TV shows) via digital media (first CD discs, followed by DVD and files transmitted via the Internet). China found that trying to deal with this loss of media control it was always one step behind rapidly evolving communications technology.
Chinese governments tend to take the long view and by the late 1990s, the government had prepared itself for a long (several decades or more) struggle to regain control. The Chinese media control effort eventually evolved into a huge data monitoring and data collection system. In the last few years, as their facial recognition via a growing network of high-resolution video cameras became a proven technology, it led quickly to the creation of a SCR (Social Credit Rating) system in which all the accumulated data on an individual can be analyzed to determine which patterns of behavior lead to criminal or anti-government behavior. China needed someplace to test all these new technologies together and over the last few years, China has used Xinjiang province, which has a large Moslem minority, as the test site. In Xinjiang, China is discovering how well this cell phone, Internet and public (captured via vidcams) behavior and other forms of population monitoring can be used to exercise more control over large populations. It turns out that the degree of control (or at least personal information) is substantial.
Because of the Xinjiang experience, the imagined police state described in the 1949 novel “1984” has quietly become a reality in China. While the SCR is near-total in Xinjiang province portions of it are already used nationwide. Over the last decade, China has built the words’ largest and most effective monitoring and censorship network. First, it was applied to text messages on the new cell phone networks and then, when the Internet became widely available in China during the late 1990s, to the more powerful Internet-based communications. China soon developed methods for influencing as well as controlling what people learned on the Internet. Russia had tried to do this before the Internet and had developed some new techniques for quietly influencing mass media it did not control. The Chinese had inherited these techniques from the Russians and perfected them using the Internet and other new technologies. In the West, the same techniques came to be used the major Internet communications companies (Facebook and Google) who were under public pressure to censor objectionable material and discussions. Unlike in China, where the government gets to decide what is politically correct, in the West conflicting opinions are supposed to coexist (“free speech”) and evolve. But because of the centralized control over communications made possible by the media major information providers like Facebook and Google could and did take sides effectively. While China appreciated that development, many in the West did not and now there are fears that the fictional “1984” type information control has become a reality everywhere, not just in dictatorships like China and police states like Russia.
The progress of all this is not a secret. By late 2018 the Chinese government boasted that nationwide fifteen million people have been banned from flying or riding the high-speed trains because of their low SCR. Chinese are beginning to understand that Low SCR has major consequences. Low SCR makes it more difficult to get a good job, a bank loan or a passport. SCR scores depend on what the government sees, hears or reads via that growing network of sensors and informants.
The government expects to have the Big Brother type monitoring and SCR systems operating nationwide by 2020. Already local officials are finding SCR a useful tool in many different ways. Xinjiang province was the laboratory in which it was discovered what works and what does not. For example, Xinjiang factory workers who refuse to accept harsh working conditions and no pay increases can be assigned a low SCR and then told they must either improve their attitude towards bad working conditions or go to a reeducation camp for a while, perhaps a long while if they refuse to behave as ordered. Many Chinese have no problem with SCR and see it as an opportunity. One reason for that, which the government does not like to talk about, or even acknowledge, is that SCR has already been corrupted. Local officials and police have a lot of discretion in deciding which behavior is likely to lower an SCR. In other words, some well-placed or well-timed bribes can keep your SCR healthy. The government is aware of this but knows that despite the vulnerability to bribery the SCR is still a powerful tool for controlling the population. For example, one way of boosting your SCR, and making some legal money (although usually less than $50 a month) is to agree to work for the secret police as a local informer. In some parts of the country, like the capital, there are a lot of these paid informants. In central Beijing, where nearly four million people live and even more work or pass through, about three percent of the population are paid informants. That is in addition to the extensive network of security cameras and extensive surveillance carried out on the Internet. Exactly how the population will react to extensive and sustained use of SCR is an unknown. But at this point, we are beginning to find out, especially in Xinjiang province and some of the major cities. The cost of building and operating the SCR system is one reason why China spends more on internal security (secret police, riot police, coast guard and so on) than they do on the defense budget.
The Internet has also changed how news is reported and consumed. The original concepts described in “1984” have evolved into something similar but different. Predictions of the future tend to work out like that and now we have the example of how the fictional “1984” eventually showed up as the very real “2024.”