Imagine this: your digital footprint suddenly becomes monitored and measured against a system that rewards good social behaviours. Each person gets a score based on this, which determines your future – including whether you can get into your dream university.
While this might sound like a juicy Black Mirror episode, this might soon be the reality of millions of youths on the mainland.
State-linked company China Youth Credit Management (CY Credit) is currently developing a social credit system designed to rewards its nation’s teenagers for good social behaviour, according to the South China Morning Post’s interview with its president, Shi Yanying.
The company launched a social credit rating app called Unictown, which gives its users a credit score between 350 and 800 based on their personal information, volunteer work, social connections, financial credit history, consumption history, and their track record of honouring contracts.
Social contributions, such as publishing a research paper and volunteering in nursing homes, could potentially improve an individual’s score, whereas cheating or plagiarism would lower their score.
Those with high scores would be entitled to benefits such as discounts for online courses, or even direct invitations to the second round of job interviews.
It is hoped that the credit system could be used to encourage teens to perform more positive or socially beneficial actions. Young Post spoke to Eva Chen, the assistant professor of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Division of Social Science, about the potential drawbacks of such a system.
“I think the intent of the social credit system is potentially useful … But the fear is that if it attaches a lot of external rewards to good behaviour, which children are already naturally inclined to do, what usually happens overtime is that their motivations become increasingly external, and decrease when the reward is taken away,” says Chen.
In other words, assigning explicit values to activities like social interactions and community services might encourage students to socialise or volunteer merely for the sake of getting a higher credit score, rather than doing things out of the goodness of their heart.
“We see this with learning. The more time that children spend in school, the more their learning becomes motivated by external rewards like good grades and job prospects,” she explained. When you take away these rewards, she added, the children may no longer be as interested in learning.
While it is true that we have a natural tendency to be nice and helpful, rule-breaking and defying authority figures – such as parents or teachers – are “a normal part of growing up”.
She added: “It takes time for children and teenagers to learn how to evaluate complicated moral dilemmas,” so her worry is that if we start assigning social credit scores to young people, they will be punished for misbehaviour which is natural for their age. Chen also said her worries stem from the fact that the cost of each instance of misbehaviour is unspecified, and also that it is unclear how teens can make up for the mistakes they’ve made.
Some acts that could increase an individual’s score are questionable too, said Chen.
“If you can get a better score for publishing a research paper, does it mean that the system favours people who are academically gifted? In that case, is the score a truly accurate reflection of how good a person is?”
Shi told the Post that the data model that determines a person’s score was drawn from the five key qualities encouraged by Confucian ethics – righteousness, compassion, manners, wisdom, and trust.
Building the credit system around traditional Confucius virtues might, however, hinder the development of a youth’s thinking skills, Chen said.
“When you implement an external reward system based on certain values, there is little incentive for teens to think critically or creatively about various situations … if they are worried about their place in the system.” She added that this is especially true for teenagers, as adolescence is a time when they tend to care about what others think of them.
When asked about how the social credit system, if implemented in Hong Kong, could impact students in the city, Chen said it would definitely give teens more stress.
“We’re already very concerned with academic achievement and going to good universities, and there have been growing concerns about the mental health of Hong Kong youth,” she said.
She added that their score would be another burden for them since it would affect their future prospects.
If they were to implement the system in Hong Kong, Chen hopes that there would be sufficient resources and support for students, teachers and parents.
“If there are values that the society decides to put emphasis on, we should make sure that the social credit system does not favour certain groups, and that … it truly boosts the goodness of people across society.”