There’s an important fact most of us tend to forget about Oceania. Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s masterpiece is the exception among his people, not the rule; the only difference between utopia and dystopia is perspective. Now, while 1984 has past 1984 is upon us and like with so many other things in the Asian century, China is leading the way.
Amid the headlines made by Xi Jinping’s ascendance to the Chinese constitution — the first living Communist Party leader to manage the feat since Mao Zedong — and the clamour around OBOR, another significant development has escaped attention. The Chinese government is developing a Social Credit System (SCS) to determine the “trustworthiness” of its citizens.
By 2020, the SCS will be in place for 1.3 billion people. According to Wired, the policy states: “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity…” Everything from what you read, how you spend your time (watching Netflix for eight hours a day will let the state know you’re a bum) and money, to what you post on social media will affect your SCS score, which in turn will allow you benefits like cheaper loans, housing and easier access to travel documents. Negative posts on social media about the government or party may well reduce your score, as will interacting with people who are “untrustworthy”.
Fundamentally speaking, the Orwellian nightmare is complete: The purported utopia of communism shall, in China, take according to your ability, judge all that you can and will give it, and then slot you according to its own needs. But before we begin preening with righteous indignation at the death of privacy in the Middle Kingdom, don’t forget that despite their grand differences — democracy vs one-party rule, diversity vs uniformity, freedom vs equality — India, like China, seems keen to record and rate its citizens. Unlike the SCS though, Aadhaar crept up on us.
It began with a simple premise: As the welfare state expands, a unique verifiable identity is necessary for the poorest to receive their fair share. So far, so good. But then, gradually, the “voluntary” basis of Aadhaar goes out the window. First, it is mandatory to receive benefits. Then, to pay taxes (what’s the PAN for again?). Now, Mamata Banerjee’s threat to go back to landlines notwithstanding, we will require the unique number to keep our mobile phone connections and bank accounts. And while no plans to rate citizens have been announced, there are justified fears about what the state and private companies can access.
The race towards the surveillance state is, of course, made easier by the democratisation of technology: A smartphone is a two-way device — while the internet opens up the world to the user, she pours much of herself out. There are, however, other more important factors at play, that even Orwell didn’t anticipate.
First, unlike the West, there seems little concern about privacy and the over-arching state. While many academics and activists have railed against Aadhaar, it has not led to large-scale protests on the streets or, unlike GST, become an election issue. It appears that despite its faults, the empowerment that comes from having an identity overpowers the more distant prospect of having one’s privacy invaded. There have already been reports of leaks of Aadhaar details, prominently of over 13 crore people in May but no outrage to match the momentous lapse. In China, the pilot programme for the SCS, being run by eight private companies, including ones affiliated to Alibaba (basically, Amazon, Paytm and Google rolled into one) and Tencet (that owns WeChat, the country’s messaging service). While the scheme is currently voluntary, people are rushing to sign up to get a head start on ratcheting up their SCS scores. (Caveat: Protesting against the government is a lot more dangerous, gravely so, in China.)
1984, and other dire prophecies, also missed another important aspect of what makes contemporary dystopias so appealing to so many. Air Strip One (where Winston lives) was a drab place, marked by war and scarcity. But China — since Deng Xiaoping told his people that “to get rich is not a crime” — and India since economic liberalisation have embraced an idea of freedom that is both limited and liberating. The private sector is an integral part of both Aadhaar and the SCS. The SCS score does more than just let the government watch you, it lets the state and companies give you sops. And privacy is no price to pay to take a selfie while walking to a movie via a McDonald’s in the mall. There are those, like Winston Smith, who will be allergic to the new systems of the state. But in the end, it appears that like in 1984, for most of us, the dystopia will be a utopia. Consumerism may, after all, end up achieving what Orwell’s nightmare-version of communism could not.
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