Chinese City Launches, Then Cancels App to Rank Citizens’ Level of Civility Amid Backlash

September 13, 2020 Updated: September 13, 2020

China’s social credit system has often been criticized for utilizing artificial intelligence to conduct mass surveillance and assign points on citizens’ behavior—creating a dystopian world similar to what George Orwell described in the novel “1984.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a “health code” app was launched by social media giant WeChat for authorities to keep track of people’s movements and ostensibly, to contain the spread of the CCP virus. But some cyber experts worried that Beijing could weaponize the platform to further its monitoring and suppression of dissenters.

On Sept. 3, the government in Suzhou city, Jiangsu Province introduced a “civilization code,” which would rank citizens on their level of civility and punish them if they scored low.

But after much public uproar, three days later authorities announced that plans would be shelved, saying they would wait for the “right time” to implement it.

The Suzhou city police bureau said in a post on WeChat that all residents 18 and older would be required to install the city government’s app, which would have a newly added “civilization code” function.

This app was jointly issued by the Suzhou police and the municipal Political and Legal Commission, and mainly used to aggregate different citizen health codes in Suzhou, authorities said.

According to a report by state-run newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily, the civilization code would work thusly: each person starts off with 1,000 points. Then, they will be deducted points if they violate rules and regulations. If an individual reaches a “lower limit,” they will be punished, though authorities did not elaborate on what kind of punishment.

Those with a high “civilized” score will enjoy priority and convenience in work, life, employment, study, and entertainment, according to Suzhou authorities, though it did not explain exactly how that would happen.

The city said that the app would become integrated with the social credit system, whereby the Chinese regime scores all citizens on a wide range of metrics, including their online purchases, their daily behavior, and the people they associate with. The Chinese economist He Qinglian previously commented about the social credit system: “It is controlled by the government, has political standards, and any comments criticizing the government will be included in the rating of poor credit.”

Many WeChat users were outraged at the news of Suzhou city’s plans. Some said it was akin to living in the world of British sci-fi series “Black Mirror.” One of its episodes imagined people being able to rate each other for every interaction they have, with the score impacting one’s socioeconomic status. Netizens said it was disturbing that the “civilized” points would impact all aspects of life.

Others said that the “civilization code” was an escalation of the Chinese regime’s AI-enhanced surveillance of citizens, which has violated people’s privacy rights.

Current affairs commentator Tian Yun viewed the “civilization code” as a tool of terror. In an interview, he said that anyone who would publicly challenge authorities’ policies would likely be punished with low scores.