Orwellian may be the most misused adjective in the language. Just about anything qualifies, from security cameras to law-and-order legislation to the bonus scheme for the Pan Am Games (really, see Letters to the Editor, Toronto Star).
But nothing has come close to George Orwell’s dystopian technologically-based totalitarianism – until now. The Communist Party of China’s new “credit rating” system is a global breakthrough in justifying the use of “Orwellian” in the real world.
We’ve had plenty of nasty totalitarian regimes – Mao’s China under an earlier version of the same Communist Party, Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Saddam’s Iraq, Communist Cambodia, and, of course, today’s star, Communist North Korea. But these regimes mostly used old-fashioned brute force, terror and secret police.
Technology helped such regimes here and there, but none of them had the hi-tech moxy of Orwell’s 1984 state. Instead, they relied on large-scale violence. Stalin and Mao killed millions, Saddam gassed his own people, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un happily murders friends and family (in one instance by an anti-aircraft gun at 100 feet).
Not so, for George Orwell’s regime. He envisioned a largely complacent and compliant population – no need for mass killings. The regime cowed the population through 24-7 hi-tech monitoring, fooled it by rewriting history, and pushed it to loyalty by perverted nationalism and fear of other powers.
Free of large-scale dissent, the state could concentrate absurd resources on crushing a low-level dissident like Winston Smith, the quasi-hero of 1984.
Now enter the Chinese Communist Party’s candidate for perhaps the first bona fide Orwellian breakthrough of the 21st century – its “social credit rating” system, a fine Orwellian use of language.
Your “credit” score declines if you criticize the government online, if your friends criticize the government, if you post any comment about the government without prior permission. And, yes, it measures other things, too, such as some version of a real credit ranking and whether you buy video games (a negative). The last hints at Chinese Communist Orwellian ambitions to extend “social credit ratings” to a suite of behaviours they either like or dislike.
The index, with scores between 350 and 950, will cast a pall over an individual’s entire life. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Citizens with higher scores are rewarded; a score of 600, for example, qualifies for an ‘instant loan’ of about $800. At 650, renting a car no longer requires a deposit. At 700, a citizen is fast-tracked for a Singapore travel permit; higher travel visas such as to Europe will be granted for even higher scores. A specific high score may be required to get specific high-status and influential jobs.”
By 2020, this system will be mandatory for all 1.3 billion Chinese internet users. It uses sophisticated algorithms to track citizens and their friends on the net and through other sources of information. It’s like Orwell’s television set, which watches you.
This is a direct attack not just on the civil freedom of the Chinese people, but also on their economic freedom. As Leon Trotsky put it, “The old principle, who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.” An individual’s ability to feed and clothe his or her family, to get a job, a promotion, a loan, or to start a business, to travel, and so on will all be affected by the “credit rating.”
This quashes political dissent at the root since any act of defiance, no matter how modest, affects day-to-day life. This reflects Orwell’s vision of a cowed society where mass violence is unnecessary to maintain control, even as life gets more dismal and suppressed. China also employs Orwell’s other tools – rewriting history and nasty nationalism.
Democratic nations have arguably gone too far in hi-tech monitoring of civilians. So far, security concerns – not an attempt to suppress political discussion – have motivated these efforts. Nonetheless, even for liberal democracies, China’s Orwellian breakthrough is a warning of the danger of “big data” in our everyday lives.
Fred McMahon is a Fraser Institute resident fellow and holder of the Dr. Michael A. Walker Research Chair in Economic Freedom.