The Game of Life: Visualizing China’s Social Credit System
In an attempt to imbue trust, China has announced a plan to implement a national ranking system for its citizens and companies. Currently in pilot mode, the new system will be rolled out in 2020, and go through numerous iterations before becoming official.
While the system may be a useful tool for China to manage its growing 1.4 billion population, it has triggered global concerns around the ethics of big data, and whether the system is a breach of fundamental human rights.
Today’s infographic looks at how China’s proposed social credit system could work, and what the implications might be.
The Government is Always Watching
Currently, the pilot system varies from place to place, whereas the new system is envisioned as a unified system. Although the pilot program may be more of an experiment than a precursor, it gives a good indication of what to expect.
In the pilot system, each citizen is assigned 1,000 points and is consistently monitored and rated on how they behave. Points are earned through good deeds, and lost for bad behavior. Users increase points by donating blood or money, praising the government on social media, and helping the poor. Rewards for such behavior can range from getting a promotion at work fast-tracked, to receiving priority status for children’s school admissions.
In contrast, not visiting one’s aging parents regularly, spreading rumors on the internet, and cheating in online games are considered antisocial behaviors. Punishments include public shaming, exclusion from booking flights or train tickets, and restricted access to public services.
Big Data Goes Right to the Source
The perpetual surveillance that comes with the new system is expected to draw on huge amounts of data from a variety of traditional and digital sources.
Police officers have used AI-powered smart glasses and drones to effectively monitor citizens. Footage from these devices showing antisocial behavior can be broadcast to the public to shame the offenders, and deter others from behaving similarly.
For more serious offenders, some cities in China force people to repay debts by switching the person’s ringtone without their permission. The ringtone begins with the sound of a police siren, followed by a message such as:
“The person you are calling has been listed as a discredited person by the local court. Please urge this person to fulfill his or her legal obligations.”
Two of the largest companies in China, Tencent and Alibaba, were enlisted by the People’s Bank of China to play an important role in the credit system, raising the issue of third-party data security. WeChat—China’s largest social media platform, owned by Tencent—tracked behavior and ranked users accordingly, while displaying their location in real-time.
Following data concerns, these tech companies—and six others—were not awarded any licenses by the government. However, social media giants are still involved in orchestrating the public shaming of citizens who misbehave.
The Digital Dang’an
The social credit system may not be an entirely new initiative in China. The dang’an (English: record) is a paper file containing an individual’s school reports, information on physical characteristics, employment records, and photographs.
These dossiers, which were first used in the Maoist years, helped the government in maintaining control of its citizens. This gathering of citizen’s data for China’s social credit system may in fact be seen as a revival of the principle of dang’an in the digital era, with the system providing a powerful tool to monitor citizens whose data is more difficult to capture.
Is the System Working?
In 2018, people with a low score were prohibited from buying plane tickets almost 18 million times, while high-speed train ticket transactions were blocked 5.5 million times. A further 128 people were prohibited from leaving China, due to unpaid taxes.
The system could have major implications for foreign business practices—as preference could be given to companies already ranked in the system. Companies with higher scores will be rewarded with incentives which include lower tax rates and better credit conditions, with their behavior being judged in areas such as:
- Paid taxes
- Customs regulation
- Environmental protection
Despite the complexities of gathering vast amounts of data, the system is certainly making an impact. While there are benefits to having a standardized scoring system, and encouraging positive behavior—will it be worth the social cost of gamifying human life?
Meet China’s 113 Cities With More Than One Million People
China has the same amount of 1 million+ population cities as both North America and the EU combined. Here they all are, from biggest to smallest.
In 2010, China’s urban-dwelling population surpassed its rural population, marking a monumental demographic milestone in the country’s history.
Just three decades prior, China looked markedly different. Only 20% of Chinese citizens lived in urban areas, and many of today’s metropolises were still small villages.
Since then, huge swaths of the population have moved from farmland into cities, a shift that is still causing many urban areas to swell in size. Case in point is the growth of Guangzhou, which lays just north of Hong Kong. From 1980 to today, more than 18 million people moved into the city. A 40-year-old born in Guangzhou will have seen their small, regional city mushroom into one of the largest urban amalgamations on Earth.
Of course, this is just one example of a process that has been altering the landscape of cities from the coast of the South China Sea out to the Eurasian Steppe.
The One Million+ Club
According to Demographia’s World Urban Areas report, there are now 113 urban areas in China that surpass the one million population threshold. In comparison, North America and the EU combined have 114 urban areas that surpass one million people.
Below is a full breakdown of China’s one million+ club:
The massive scale of rural-to-urban migration isn’t just a major development within China, it has no parallel in modern history.
Since 1980, over half a billion people have moved from the countryside to an urban center. The construction of these new cities took a staggering amount of raw materials. Few data points highlight the scale of construction better than China’s cement production in recent years.
In 2018, Chinese construction used about 8x the amount of second place India, which has a similar population size.
Megacities on Megacities
Cities with over 10 million inhabitants are defined as megacities. China is already home to six megacities, with another three urban areas well on the way to achieving that status.
In fact, some megacities within close proximity have grown so large that they are merging into contiguous urban areas. The most prominent example of this phenomenon is in the Pearl River Delta region of China.
The Pearl River Delta region is not only home to the megacities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, but also a number of other sizable cities that are quickly merging into a unified continuous entity containing up to 50 million people. Demographia still considers most of these cities to be separate labor markets — but as more connections form across the region, the Pearl River Delta could be poised to become the largest unified urban area in human history.
As megacities like Shanghai and Shenzhen have grown and developed, they’ve also become more expensive places to live and do business. The economic evolution of these cities has created opportunity for smaller, less developed cities to woo both residents and businesses.
This natural reshuffling has led to impressive growth in cities further inland like Zhengzhou, which sits 350 miles (630 kms) east of the coastline where many of the country’s largest cities reside.
Using the “build it and they will come” approach, the city converted a 160 square mile (410 sq km) patch of empty land into the Zhengzhou Airport Economy Zone (ZAEZ). The project has proven wildly successful, and the city even has the nickname “Apple City” thanks to the presence of Foxconn (which produces the iPhone) and a cluster of other smartphone manufacturers.
This airport-centered zone was developed with the full political and economic backing of Beijing as part of a broader effort to increase economic activity in China’s interior cities. Zhengzhou has nearly tripled in size over the last decade, a powerful testament to the shift in economic momentum.
China’s Inland All-Stars:
|Urban Area||Population 2010||Population 2019||Change (2010-19)|
Compare the numbers above to fast-growing cities in the U.S., such as Las Vegas or Phoenix, which managed 33% and 12% growth respectively over the last decade.
If this trend continues, China’s one million+ club will most likely expand once fresh census data is released in 2021.
How China Overtook the U.S. as the World’s Major Trading Partner
China has become the world’s major trading partner – and now, 128 of 190 countries trade more with China than they do with the United States.
How China Overtook the U.S. As the World’s Trade Partner
In 2018, trade accounted for 59% of global GDP, up nearly 1.5 times since 1980.
Over this timeframe, international trade has transformed significantly—not just in terms of volume and composition, but also in terms of the countries that the rest of the world leans on for their most important trade relationships.
Now, a critical shift is occurring in the landscape, and it may surprise you to learn that China has already usurped the U.S. as the world’s most dominant trading partner.
Trading Places: A Global Shift
Today’s animation comes from the Lowy Institute, and it pulls data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) database on bilateral trade flows, to determine whether the U.S. or China is a bigger trading partner for each country from 1980 to 2018.
The results are stark: before 2000, the U.S. was at the helm of global trade, as over 80% of countries traded with the U.S. more than they did with China. By 2018, that number had dropped sharply to just 30%, as China swiftly took top position in 128 of 190 countries.
The researchers pinpoint China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization as a major turning point in China’s international trade relationships. The dramatic shift that followed is clearly demonstrated in the visualization above—between 2005 and 2010, a number of countries tipped towards Chinese influence, especially in Africa and Asia.
Over time, China’s dominance has grown dramatically. It’s no wonder then, that China and the U.S. have a contentious trade relationship themselves, as both nations battle it out for first place.
A Tale of Two Economies
The United States and China are competitors in many ways, but to be successful they must rely on each other for mutually beneficial trade. However, it’s also the major issue on which they are struggling to reach a common ground.
The U.S. has been vocal about negotiating more balanced trade agreements with China. In fact, a mid-2018 poll shows that 62% of Americans consider their trade relationship with China to be unfair.
Since 2018, both parties have faced a fraught relationship, imposing major tariffs on consumer and industrial goods—and retaliations are reaching greater and greater heights:
While a delicate truce has been reached at the moment, the trade war has caused a significant drag on global growth, and the World Bank estimates it will continue to have an effect into 2021.
At the same time, China’s sphere of influence continues to grow.
One Belt, One Road, One Trade Direction?
China seems to have a finger in every pie. The nation is financing a flurry of megaprojects across Asia and Africa—but one broader initiative stands above the rest.
China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) Initiative, planned for a 2049 completion, is advancing at a furious pace. In 2019 alone, Chinese companies signed contracts worth up to $128 billion to start Chinese large-scale infrastructure projects in various countries.
While building new highways and ports abroad is beneficial for Chinese financiers, OBOR is also about creating new markets and trade routes for Chinese goods in Asia. Recent research found that the OBOR program’s infrastructure expansion and logistics performance improvements led to positive effects on China’s exports.
Nevertheless, it’s clear the new infrastructure network is already transforming global trade, possibly cementing China’s position as the world’s major trading partner for years to come.
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