China is launching a dystopian program to monitor citizens in Beijing

You’re being watched.
You’re being watched.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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China is taking a big step toward expanding a controversial program that judges and punishes individuals based on their social behavior.

The government describes (in Chinese) the program, which has been piloted in Hangzhou, a 9.5 million-person city in eastern China, as a “personal integrity” project. Authorities said it will be rolled out next in Beijing, allowing the Chinese Communist Party to more closely monitor the 22 million citizens in the capital based on their actions and reputations, according to Bloomberg.

The way it works is relatively straightforward. People who follow the government’s rules and exhibit pro-social behaviors, such as donating blood, will earn a good social credit and be rewarded with so-called “green channel” benefits, such as easier access to job applications and gyms. Those who violate laws—including traffic laws—will “pay a heavy price,” according to the government announcement. That can include being blocked from things that include ordering plane and train tickets.

The program will work by pooling information from several different government agencies and transit authorities, using tracking technology linked to citizens who are increasingly part of a technological network comprised of cell phones and social apps such as WeChat and Alipay. It will also incorporate the use of facial recognition technology via the government’s 200 million cameras set up to monitor jaywalkers and activity in open spaces.

The Chinese government has closely watched the pilot program in Hangzhou, which launched in late 2017. When it was started, the government told people it was intended to “guide the citizens to be honest and promote the socialist core values.”

The new system has drawn criticism from around the world, from policymakers to comedians. An American late-night television show host, Stephen Colbert, derided the program as a creepy step toward Big Brother-style governing. ”If you thought the way Facebook tracks you is scary, it’s got nothing on the Chinese government,” Colbert said.

China has said it hopes to incorporate Beijing into the monitoring program by 2021.