China's Brave New World China is piloting a so-called social credit system, which allots every citizen a certain number of points. If you do the "right thing" you can extra points. If you do the wrong thing, you can lose points and life can get very difficult.
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China's Brave New World

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China's Brave New World

China's Brave New World

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CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Xu Ranjan (ph) is an IT engineer. He's 32 years old.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

And he lives in Rongcheng, China. It is a city of around 700,000 people on the east coast of China. And he says it is a really nice community. But like any city, it has its issues. The traffic, for instance, has always been totally crazy.

XU RANJAN: (Through interpreter) Because the cars would not give way to pedestrians. And sometimes, when they saw people crossing, then they would brake all of a sudden and cause a lot of...

VANEK SMITH: Fender benders.

XU: (Through interpreter) ...Accidents.

ECHO WANG, BYLINE: Exactly. For example, the car behind would bump onto the car in front of them.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, the fender bender.

GARCIA: Yeah. We spoke with Ranjan through our producer, Echo Wang.

VANEK SMITH: Ranjan says being a pedestrian was just terrifying. You basically just had to hurl yourself across the street when you saw a break in traffic and, you know, hope for the best.

XU: (Through interpreter) But now, after the changes have happened, the cars - they will wait for you.

GARCIA: The changes that have happened have to do with the implementation of a new policy in China called the social credit score. We've been looking at China's social credit system all week. And if you haven't listened, you should go back and check out those earlier episodes.

VANEK SMITH: China plans to have its social credit score system in place across the country in 2020. So it's not up and running quite yet. But it is up and running in several pilot cities across China.

GARCIA: These pilot cities like Rongcheng give us a powerful window into what the social credit system might look like when it's rolled out nationally in a couple of years. And China's social credit score will in some ways be similar to the credit score system we use in the United States. It'll include things like whether or not you've paid back loans. But the Chinese social credit system will also include behavior, things like how you act at work or whether you obey traffic laws. Xu Ranjan, our IT engineer, is living this system right now.

XU: (Through interpreter) If you're not giving way to people who are crossing the traffic light, probably your points would get deducted.

GARCIA: Forget the annoyance of a fender bender. If you don't yield to pedestrians in Rongcheng these days, you might not be able to take out a home loan or get a good seat on the train. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, China's social credit system. We look at what life is like in one of the cities piloting this program, and we try to imagine how this whole system might play out when it's scaled up in a couple years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: Rachel Botsman teaches trust and technology and is the author of "Who Can You Trust?" As she was researching China's social credit system and trying to consider the broader implications, her mind kept going back to this one place.

RACHEL BOTSMAN: I don't know if you've ever seen that episode of "Black Mirror" that everyone talks about called "Nosedive" which is just an amazing piece of television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRROR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey, Lacie.

BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD: (As Lacie Pound) Keith (ph).

VANEK SMITH: "Black Mirror" is a show on Netflix, kind of a dystopian sci-fi show. In this episode called "Nosedive," everyone has a smartphone with them all the time. And they're rating everyone around them constantly. Every interaction, people are being evaluated on how they act.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRROR")

HOWARD: (As Lacie Pound) I'm five-starring you - five stars.

GARCIA: Five stars, Stacey, for you all the time.

VANEK SMITH: Five stars for you all the time, too, Cardiff.

GARCIA: Every one of these interactions contributes to your overall score. And people can see your score on their phones as you walk around in the world. And that score determines all kinds of things.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRROR")

MICHAELA COEL: (As airport stewardess) That's reserved for members of our prime flight program. You got to be a 4.2 or over to qualify.

ALICE EVE: (As Naomi Jayne Blestow) Don't come. I don't want you here. I don't know what is up with you, but I cannot have a 2.6 at my wedding.

VANEK SMITH: Can't have a 2.6 at your wedding - wedding's over (laughter).

GARCIA: Brutal.

VANEK SMITH: Of course Rachel emphasizes that this is fiction. But she says the show makes some really smart points about a system where people have a kind of centralized rating system and kind of live and die by it.

GARCIA: In this pilot city, Rongcheng, everyone has a score. You start with a thousand. And here's the score that Ranjan, our IT engineer, has.

WANG: (Through interpreter) My score is full score. So it's 1,000.

GARCIA: So he's still got a thousand. By the way, you can get more than a thousand points...

VANEK SMITH: That's true.

GARCIA: ...Too. Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Thousand-plus.

GARCIA: And there's a whole letter grade system behind the points. So from 960 to 1,000-plus points is an A. Eight hundred and fifty to 959 points is a B.

VANEK SMITH: Eight forty-nine to 600 is a C. And this is considered a warning level. Below that, you are a D. You're labeled an untrustworthy citizen. And life gets really hard. You can gain or lose points for all kinds of reasons. Get a DUI - that is an automatic downgrade to a B.

GARCIA: Get into a spat with your neighbors - minus 10 points.

VANEK SMITH: Give to charity - ding-ding-ding-ding (ph), plus five points.

GARCIA: And if you spread rumors online, minus 50 points.

VANEK SMITH: Forget to clean up after your pet - minus 10 points. If you have a really high score, you get discounts at a bunch of local businesses. Your heating bill can go down. You can get some cable channels for free, including a soap opera channel and a kung fu channel. You also get special invitations to community events.

GARCIA: If your score is low, life gets pretty hard - no invites, no free kung fu channel. Also, you might not be able to get a promotion at work even if you've been doing a great job. You just won't be eligible. To keep track of all this, the government works with designated watchers. These are people who keep track of goings-on in their neighborhoods. And they keep track of neighbors' behavior and update people's scores.

BOTSMAN: You can look at it - a very extreme form of neighborhood watch.

VANEK SMITH: We reached out to the Chinese government about this, but they didn't respond to our requests for comment. But Rachel Botsman says she has two main concerns about a system like this. First, she worries it will exacerbate inequality in China.

BOTSMAN: You know, this divide between - I don't like these labels, but the haves and the have-nots and how the have-nots will want to sort of friend the haves because they need to boost their reputation to participate in society. I don't think we're far off from that world. And so you won't just have financial advisers in your life. I think you will have a reputation adviser. You will become obsessed with how - what people think of you. That's my worry.

VANEK SMITH: Rachel says it seems like these scores will have a big effect on people's jobs and incomes and personal lives. And people who have money and connections will most certainly be able to game this points system.

GARCIA: And so many people, Rachel says, rich and poor, could end up feeling kind of terrorized into behaving in a certain way, which might make for safer street crossing but could basically kill individual expression.

VANEK SMITH: We talked about this with Xu Ranjan, the 32-year-old IT engineer in Rongcheng. But he says the monitoring doesn't feel creepy to him. He says it's made his city better.

XU: (Through interpreter) Take traffic again, for example. In the past, if you're a driver and you're not giving way to the pedestrian, probably you won't feel that you are doing something wrong.

VANEK SMITH: But now that there are rules and consequences in traffic, says Ranjan, it's clear what the right behavior is. And people are behaving. Ranjan told us he thinks this is kind of a step in the evolution of society and people living together where the needs of the community are put ahead of the needs of the individual.

XU: (Through interpreter) There's one thing. I feel people have become more friendly. I think in the history of human being developing towards, like, communities, if everybody can follow the rule, I'm sure it's very good for, you know, every individual living in the city.

GARCIA: On the other hand, one of the reasons that this system gives so many people a lot of pause - the Chinese government will almost certainly be using it to try and control its population even more than it already does to bolster its own power. Remember; one way to lose a lot of points in your social credit score is to, quote, "spread rumors online."

VANEK SMITH: Most definitely. And, you know, the whole time that we've been working on this series, I kept thinking about this one little scene from the "Black Mirror" episode. And I know that it's fiction. But it really stuck with me, and I haven't been able to shake it. And it's the scene where the main character is practicing her laugh in the bathroom mirror. And she's trying really, really hard to seem happy and joyful so that people will like her and give her a high rating when they interact with her. And I think the part of all this that I find the most troubling is that it makes emotions like anger, frustration or even sadness into a liability. And it starts to kind of suck the authenticity out of human interactions and kind of punishes people for being human, for their own humanity.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRROR")

HOWARD: (As Lacie Pound, laughter).

GARCIA: This three-part series was produced by Constanza Gallardo and edited by Paddy Hirsch. We'd also like to say a special thank you to producer Echo Wang for her exceptional reporting and translating. She was instrumental in putting this series together. And also, special thanks to Alex Goldmark and Rob Schmitz.

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