Translation: A “Civility Code” Will Only Make Us Fearful [Updated]

Update (Tuesday, September 15, 2020, 18:38 ET): The Suzhou city government announced that it had ended the trial of its “civility code” app on September 6. The app is not currently available. Read more about the public outcry from Global Voices, and another translated response to civility metrics at China Digital Space.

In the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, mobile apps have simultaneously been a boon to public health and a threat to privacy. “Health codes” have quickly become ubiquitous throughout China, as individuals scan to board buses and enter restaurants—or have the door shut in their face if their rating is poor or if they have trouble using a smartphone. Now the southeastern city of Suzhou is trying to build on the trend with a “civility code” app that tracks denizens’ good and bad deeds, from running red lights to doing volunteer work, and then allow privileges accordingly. Both the health codes and civility score echo some aspects of the frequently misunderstood social credit pilot schemes seen from Chinese companies and local governments in recent years. A recent trial-run of the “Suzhou City Civility Code” was met with outrage and comparisons to dystopian fantasies

In the following translated article, WeChat user @鱼眼观察 (“Fisheye Observer”) distills the backlash against the “civility code,” and argues that true civility cannot be quantified.

On September 3, Suzhou unveiled a major upgrade to the “SuChengMa” app, making it the first city in China to roll out a “civility code”—the idea is that by issuing a unique code to every resident, “civility” will function as a passport to the city. Those who have high civility scores will enjoy priority and convenience in daily life, employment, study, and recreation. 

In addition, the “civility code of Suzhou” can serve as documentation to warn or discipline those whose general civility score is below the baseline, or as proof of volunteer work completed by those who wish to become Suzhou residents.

I found out that Suzhou actually didn’t invent the “civility code” concept. As early as July, Shengzhou, a city in central Zhejiang Province, unveiled the “civility code of Shengzhou,” adding civility score to individuals’ credit scores.

But Shengzhou is just a county-level city. And the Shengzhou “civility code” doesn’t cover nearly as many features as its Suzhou counterpart.

There is no doubt that we need civility to function as a society. In our daily lives, there are all types of uncivilized behaviors. Many people do need to enhance their literacy when it comes to civility. But the question is: Can civility really be quantified using a scoring system?

Under the “Suzhou civility code,” things like volunteerism and traffic violations will earn or lose you points. They are defined in an extremely narrow way. Many other civil or uncivil behaviors cannot even be documented, let alone quantified.

So, this “civility score” system is obviously flawed.

It would have been less concerning if this “civility code” were nothing more than an entertaining trick. However, judging from the official rules, it seems that the “Suzhou civility code” is designed to separate people into different classes, strictly based on their level of “civility.”

That means a person’s “level of civility” will determine their eligibility for social resources.

The official position is clear: citizens who have high civility scores will enjoy priority and convenience in daily life, employment, study, and recreation. 

If we look at this statement closely, does it mean a citizen whose civility score is low will be barred from certain privileges? 

For example, will you lose a job opportunity because you’re not civilized enough?

Will your kid be barred from going to certain schools because you’re not civilized enough?

Will you be stopped from entering certain entertainment venues because you’re not civilized enough?…

Also, this sentence from the official explanation sends a chill down my spine: “…to warn and discipline those whose general civility score is below the baseline.” What is this so-called “baseline?” How are they planning to “warn and discipline” us?

If your score falls below a certain threshold, does that mean you’ll be looked down on, treated as a “low quality human being,” discriminated against, or become unable to survive in the city? 

I can’t help but be reminded of one episode of “Black Mirror,” where the world uses a scoring system to label people. Those with high scores have access to more than those without.

If you are below a certain point [in the show], then you will have trouble buying a plane ticket, renting a car, or renting an affordable apartment. You won’t be eligible for certain services. And you will even be barred from entering certain places.

If you dip below a certain threshold [in the show], even if you are healthy and able-bodied, you will lose your job and housing, and become a social outcast. Who would have thought scenes from a sci-fi series might now become reality?

The health code is here to stay, and the civility code has followed suit. With more and more “codes” in our society, like the controversial sliding-scale health code that Hangzhou launched earlier this year, we are in a daze.

And yet, are these so-called high-tech “codes” really scientifically sound? Because of the health code, how many senior citizens have been unable to get on public transportation? Or go to the hospital without trembling in fear? They have become refugees of this digital era.

And I’ve seen all kinds of ranting about the health code. For example, someone says their health code turned yellow after they visited the Hulunbuir Grasslands in Inner Mongolia because the system thought they were in Russia. As a result, they can’t travel for work or go to a restaurant, gym or bank.

YanXiaoHua: @ChinaUnicom @JiangsuUnicom Your big data says I visited Russia simply because I went to Hulunbuir. Now my health code has turned yellow. I can’t travel for work. I can’t even go to a restaurant, gym or bank. My work and my life have been severely impacted. How do you plan to resolve this? I called your customer service and was told there was nothing they could do.

Now that the “civility code” is here, will we see more scenes like this?

All these “codes” and big-data apps are creating a social credit system similar to the one in “Black Mirror.” When a society runs on such a flawed scoring system, will it add to our happiness?

When a society is managed in such a “detailed” way, when our privacy is put under a magnifying glass, when each and everyone of us is treated like a piece coming down an assembly line, what life will be left to speak of?

Obviously, if everyone strives to be the healthiest, the most hardworking, most civilized person only to chase a score, this won’t make us happier within society—it will only make us more fearful.

When a city divides people into civilized, superior human beings, and uncivilized, inferior human beings, this is actually a mockery of civility. [Chinese]


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